At a nondescript hotel conference room in Manila in November 2017, senior diplomats from Australia, the US, Japan and India gathered to talk shop.
While the East Asia Summit had been dominated by US President Donald Trump skipping out on the event, the officials were meeting quietly to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
In a sign of modest expectations, Australia’s foreign policy white paper, released just a week later, contained no mention of the Quad. But 3½ years later, the group’s importance has been elevated to the point that the four leaders are holding their first face-to-face meeting, albeit virtually.
It is the most consequential diplomatic shift in decades – deepening the divisions between China and the rest of the specifically democratic world and their economies.
The Quad is not an alliance, in the formal sense. It isn’t the Cold War remnant NATO – committing every member to respond if a member of the club is attacked. And it doesn’t require any of the four players to give up or commit to anything specific. Yet.
But the mere fact the meeting is happening and building up a significant agenda demonstrates how rapidly the geopolitical landscape is changing for China, suggests Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.
“The medium is the message,” McGregor tells AFR Weekend. “China once would have had a veto over a meeting like this because each of the countries would have been far too concerned with their own bilateral relationship with China to risk it.
“It shows how far things have deteriorated in relations with Beijing.”
In Washington, the 50-day-old Biden administration has seized on the informal grouping as a ready-made vehicle to demonstrate the new President’s resolve in confronting Beijing. It’s about engaging China, as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken put it earlier this month, “from a position of strength”.
Saturday’s Quad meeting comes ahead of a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region over coming days by Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who between them will fly to India, Japan and South Korea.
A meeting in Alaska is also planned for March 18 between Blinken, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts – the first face-to-face high-level contact between the two sides in more than a year.
One senior diplomat tells AFR Weekend: “Biden is putting his own prestige as President on the line to promote co-operation within the Quad framework to a new level.”
More systemic approach
How it all works in practice is still taking shape, but sources confirm there will be a heavy focus on cyber and maritime security, joint military exercises, further co-operation on the pandemic including a regional vaccine rollout, and opportunities on critical technologies. It has also been broadened to include the Biden administration’s priority of climate change.
“It’s all very serious,” the diplomat says.
Furthermore, by swinging his weight behind a robust structure that will challenge China’s ambition to be the sole power in the region, Biden is pursuing a philosophy that not everything that happened during the Trump era was wrong, even if the tactics were erratic and inconsistent.
In place of diplomacy-by-tweet and Trump’s ruthless transactional approach, the Quad offers up a more systematic approach. The danger for Australia – and the other Quad members – is that the newly elevated structure makes it easier for Washington to drop a big ask on Canberra.
Even though the US isn’t demanding trade-offs for ramping up the Quad, it wasn’t that long ago that American officials under Trump’s watch raised the prospect of deploying US missiles in the Northern Territory to deter China.
So far, China’s response has been relatively muted even as officials in Beijing and state-controlled media make clear they consider the grouping an effort to contain the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing’s tactical response will be to heap pressure on Japan and India – seen as the weaker links in efforts to stand up to China because they have more to lose – to back down.
There is an argument to suggest Australia is already in China’s bad books no matter what it does. This was obvious by the speedy decision to allow a prominent Hong Kong democracy politician and his family to move to Australia this week.
And while Indian and Chinese troops clashed in fatal border skirmishes last year, New Delhi is also hosting this year’s BRICS summit and will need China to attend. BRICS comprises five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
China likes to portray the Quad as shaky, with a membership that won’t look after each other when the crunch comes.
While Australia is closest to the US, Japan has an important position geographically but is cautious on regional security, Teng Jianqun, director of Arms Control at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Communist Party newspaper Jiefang Daily this week.
Furthermore, according to Teng, India is “indecisive” because it wants to be a big power but has a tradition of non-alliance.
“While the countries have a common target there are differences between the four and it will be hard to act effectively,” Teng said.
Such cynicism is being brushed aside by the principal players. Morrison has been pushing for the Quad take on a greater role, particularly with two newly minted leaders in Biden and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga. Even before Saturday’s event, there is talk among Canberra sources that an in-person meeting may be possible later this year between Morrison, Biden, Suga and India’s Narendra Modi.
Morrison has emphasised the informality of the Quad, that it will not be a “mini UN”. Part of that is to send a message of reassurance to south-east Asian nations that they don’t have to make a choice between a coercive China and the Quad – but in doing so it tells them they do have a choice.
Richard Maude, a former diplomat who attended the Manila meeting and is credited as the author of the 2017 white paper, says the decision to revive the Quad was driven by a “convergence of interests” and a desire to align policies.
“Everybody agreed we should start again because we were beginning to feel this assertive Chinese foreign policy,” he tells AFR Weekend. “There was a big debate about whether the Quad would be something useful or important. I used to get frustrated about that. It’s one of a number of mechanisms that are now part of this balance against Chinese power.”
Response to a tragedy
The Quad has its roots in the response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, when the US, Australian, Japanese and Indian navies co-operated to take humanitarian supplies to ravaged Asian nations.
It was Japan’s then prime minister Shinzo Abe who championed cementing the arrangement in 2007 as part of his “values-based diplomacy”. An officials-level meeting was held in May that year and the four navies conducted joint drills several months later.
But even then Chinese sensitivities were evident. In a visit to Beijing and New Delhi in July 2007, then defence minister Brendan Nelson said the “so-called quadrilateral dialogue with India is not something that we are pursuing”.