Quad shows promise but heavy lifting needed to meet China and Covid-19 challenges
17 Mar 2021|

Prime Minister Scott Morrison may be forecasting ‘a new dawn in the Indo-Pacific’ with the arrival of the Quad meeting of Australian, Japanese, Indian and US leaders, but we would do well to remember the village folklore that ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn’.

The Quad has a strategic mountain to climb to bolster faltering democracies in our region, to stop Covid-19 scything through countries that are ill-equipped to respond and, above all, to push back against the predatory wolf warriors of Beijing.

While Morrison was rightly putting a positive cast on the meeting, his Quad opening comments compared our current situation to a century ago when, after the last global pandemic, the world ‘soon found a Great Depression and another global conflict’.

The risk of a slide into conflict is clearly playing on the prime minister’s mind. Releasing a defence strategic update in July last year, Morrison said: ‘That period of the 1930s has been something I have been revisiting on a very regular basis, and when you connect both the economic challenges and the global uncertainty, it can be very haunting.’

The Quad is a grouping of countries each of which, for different reasons, is reluctantly pressed to the Indo-Pacific strategic frontline. President Joe Biden’s emphasis on working with the allies means that the US, the world’s security provider of choice, is tired of the burden and wants others to take some of the load.

Of the other Quad countries, India is only just emerging from its non-aligned mindset and beginning to craft a world view that looks beyond its immediate borders. Japan’s ‘peace constitution’, and an assumed deep public aversion to military conflict, limits Tokyo’s capacity for forthright strategic leadership.

And Australia? We have long talked a big game of ‘punching above our weight’ but baulk at the cost of real strategic leadership, even with the Pacific islands, let alone the 650 million people of Southeast Asia. Morrison promised his Quad colleagues that ‘we’ll do our share of the heavy lifting to lighten the burden for us all’. Only so much heavy lifting can be done with defence spending at 2.19% of GDP, overseas development assistance at $4 billion and falling (prior to Covid-19) and one of the smallest diplomatic corps among G20 countries.

The Quad’s arrival as a vehicle for the heads of government to meet regularly, including face to face before the end of 2021, is a substantial development, but the context is that the region has singularly failed to provide driving strategic leadership in recent years. The most important thing the new grouping can do is for the leaders to spur each other on to bigger, more imaginative policy efforts and not be slowed by bureaucratic process.

The leaders established three groups to work on urgent tasks. The Quad vaccine partnership seeks to expand vaccine manufacturing and deliver inoculations through the region, crucially to the ‘last mile’ for ‘hard-to-reach communities in need’.

Australia signed up to be a ‘last-mile’ deliverer in Southeast Asia, having already agreed to play that role in Timor-Leste and nine Pacific island states. This is vital work, but we should have no illusions about the scale of the task involved.

If Canberra is seriously going to tackle last-mile vaccine delivery through Southeast Asia, this could absorb every Australian Defence Force aircraft, ship and unit, along with much of Virgin Australia and Qantas. Recall how stretched Defence was in the early 2000s to maintain a ‘brigade-plus’ formation of several thousand personnel in Timor-Leste to stabilise a country of (then) less than a million people.

There will be many ways to deliver vaccines including using private contractors and volunteer non-government organisations, but when it comes to hard-to-reach communities—consider the Papua New Guinea Highlands and Bougainville—it’s hard to see how Defence won’t be deeply involved.

Australia limited its involvement on paper to an offer of $100 million (US$77 million) for provision of vaccines, yet another example of the low-cost leadership of which we are so nationally fond. Does this in any way meet the scale of the problem?

Even before vaccines are distributed, we may face an immediate Covid-19 crisis in PNG, where Port Moresby’s tiny hospital resources have been swamped. It might not have been possible to know when the pandemic would hit PNG, but it was surely predictable that it would arrive sometime.

The government has now announced assistance in the form of vaccine doses, medical teams and protective equipment, though more help may be needed to bring the situation in PNG under control.

Throughout the developing world during the pandemic Beijing continued to send its political leaders, diplomats, aid workers and others at a time when our travel was constrained. This was clearly a tactic to build Chinese Communist Party influence at our expense. The Quad vaccine strategy demands that we urgently get back into the region.

A Quad climate working group and a critical and emerging technology working group were also established. The former was clearly the price of America admitting the others to the call and well worth paying if it keeps Biden committed to the harder end of security engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

The critical and emerging technology group will bring the Quad most openly into competition with China because of the urgent need to develop technology options that don’t involve building dependence on Beijing or being vulnerable to yet more intellectual property cyber theft from China.

The importance of the Quad is that it holds open the possibility that Washington will include the allies as part of critical supply chains. Australia’s interest in domestic production of air- and ship-launched missiles is much more achievable if we make it part of an international effort of key democracies.

The arrival of the Quad leaders’ meeting shows not just that a consensus has emerged about our dire strategic situation but also that we desperately need to do something about it quickly, not in defence acquisition timeframes measured in decades.

Covid was the lead topic of this meeting, but the four leaders would probably not have met if the pandemic had been the only driving factor. This meeting happened for one reason only: the aggressive and destabilising behaviour of Xi Jinping. Beijing might contemplate that as it tweets out its dismissive contempt for the gathering.