Quad Summit’s Vaccine Deal Is Biden’s Bold First Move in Asia

It’s a smart step to counter China, but the next ones won’t be as easy.

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to the leaders of India, Japan, and Australia at the Quad summit.
U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison meet at the virtual Quad summit, photographed at Suga's official residence in Tokyo on March 12. KIYOSHI OTA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday morning, U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting the first-ever Quad summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The deliverables are set to be impressive: In addition to the maritime security cooperation usually associated with the Quad—short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—Biden and his counterparts will agree on a major initiative for the region on COVID-19, officials familiar with the discussions say. With U.S. biotechnology, Japanese funding, Indian production, and Australian logistics, the four leaders will commit to providing 1 billion doses of vaccine to Southeast Asia, the region most directly exposed to Chinese pressure and expansionism.

After months of Beijing’s self-congratulatory “wolf warrior” diplomacy leveraging its successes in handling the pandemic, the maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific will thereby deliver a stunning coup that is likely to permanently reverse the vaccine diplomacy wars. The four leaders will also agree to strengthen cooperation on securing supplies of rare-earth metals, driven by wariness of dependence on China for these critical inputs to technology and defense production at a time when Beijing is slapping boycotts on any country that displeases it.

The logic of this play is obvious when one thinks about it. What most U.S. allies want in Asia is for the United States to come back to a leadership role in regional trade and rule-making. But that avenue is closed off for now—it has become obvious that the Biden administration is not ready to use its scarce political capital to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP). Similarly, robust U.S. defense spending and redeployment would also blunt China’s growing pressure on India, Japan, and Southeast Asia, but Democrats in the U.S. Congress are still divided on that issue. Biden’s foreign-policy team is solidly Atlanticist and had hoped for an early win with Europe following Trump’s scorched-earth approach to Brussels, but the Europeans are still confused about China—as Biden found at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19, when he publicly proposed trans-Atlantic cooperation on China and both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron responded by talking about anything but China.

The Southeast Asians, on the other hand, were quietly telling all four Quad countries exactly what they really needed now: help on COVID-19. So the answer may have been obvious in retrospect, but the diplomatic hustle that led to this Quad summit was still impressive.

Friday’s Quad summit should also silence the many critics of this grouping of countries. Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first pushed for a Quad summit in 2006 following the four countries’ success at rapidly forming a task force to deliver humanitarian and disaster relief across South and Southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami. But after a halting first meeting of diplomats, all four governments quietly put the Quad summit idea to bed. The Bush administration was reeling from Iraq; Japan was now led by a more cautious government under Abe’s successor, Yasuo Fukuda; Australia had also transitioned to a skeptical Labor Party government; and India was angry at the new Australian government for cutting off uranium exports.

For years afterward, it became en vogue for so-called realists to pooh-pooh the Quad as ideologically driven and overly provocative toward China. But then Chinese President Xi Jinping began bullying everyone: militarizing artificial islands across the South China Sea, using force against Indian troops in the Himalayas, boycotting Australian exports to pressure Canberra to reduce criticism of China, and increasing the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. The Trump administration was keen to rebuild the Quad, as were the conservative governments in Japan and Australia. New Delhi was skeptical—until Chinese brinksmanship in the Himalayas pushed it over the line.

With Washington’s credibility waning and its options limited, the Biden team just played its one high-value card to the greatest possible effect.

The Quad is not an alliance. There are no collective security commitments—declaring that an attack on one member represents an attack on all four, for example. There are still gaps between India and the other three, particularly as questions mount about democratic backsliding under Modi. In military terms, the U.S.-Japanese-Australian trio is far more interoperable than the four are together, though the recent resumption of joint naval exercises will help. The Quad will be one part of a variable geometry of alliances and diplomacy in Asia. After this summit, it will now clearly be one of the most important parts.

The next act may not be quite as easy for Biden. U.S. allies still want to see the United States back in the region with economic statecraft since there are now two major trade agreements in Asia (CPTPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP) that have been signed without U.S. participation. China is already in the RCEP, and Xi says he now wants to join the CPTPP as well. Tokyo and Canberra will slow-roll that, but the Biden team has to make it clear that it is prepared to rejoin, or the region may buckle under direct Chinese pressure—or be sucked in by the sheer size of China’s economy. The Quad members will also have to figure out the best configuration for expanding membership—most likely a la carte participation in naval exercises by countries such as Britain, Canada, France, and South Korea. But with Washington’s credibility waning and its options limited, the Biden team just played its one high-value card to the greatest possible effect.

In the mid-1850s, U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry returned from Tokyo Bay to tell disbelieving audiences in public New York meeting halls that someday the Pacific would be safeguarded by the navies of the United States, Britain, and perhaps even Japan. “The time-honored cross of St. George” and the “more youthful emblem [of] the stars and stripes,” he said, would be welcome across the region. By the end of the 19th century, the great American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan was predicting a Pacific quad made up of the United States, Britain, Japan, and Germany. (Germany got knocked out of the region when it lost World War I.) If one considers the Australian and Indian navies the inheritors of European naval tradition, then Perry’s and Mahan’s predictions have come true. But if the two old salts are now smiling down from the heavens above, they might also be nervously counting the Chinese navy’s order of battle. For all of Friday’s success, providing coronavirus vaccines can only be the first move if Biden is serious about resetting the strategic stage in Asia.

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair