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The Quad Summit: An Opportunity Wasted

Stephen Bryen

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad, brings together the United States, India, Japan, and Australia to deal with issues in the Indo-Pacific region. The previous meeting was done by Zoom conference, but this time, they came to town to meet with President Joe Biden in Washington.

The meeting was a disappointment because it failed to address the most significant and pressing regional issue: the looming danger that China might invade Taiwan.  It adopted a joint statement with language that is likely to be celebrated in Beijing, as it seems to give China a free pass to do what it wants to the island.

At first blush, it appears to be excellent, declaring: “We stand for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states.”  Had the term “of states” not been included, this would have been a fine declaration of principles.  But by confining the declaration to states, Taiwan is removed from the equation since no member of the Quad – not the United States, not India, not Australia and not Japan – recognizes Taiwan as a state.  Thus, the statement signals China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province of China, to do what it wants to the small island country.

It is far from clear why the Quad did it.

It is already well known that Japan considers any attack on Taiwan to be an “existential threat” to its security.  Yet language like that is entirely missing from the Quad declarations.

Much of the Quad’s attention is focused on a grab bag of issues including the availability of COVID vaccines, clean energy, space cooperation (focused on fisheries) and some security issues, primarily terrorism.

India most definitely has a terrorism problem, heightened by the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan (the U.S. did not in any way coordinate with India on that), and there seems to be satisfaction in India that the U.S. has somehow recognized India’s concern about terrorism either from Afghanistan or Pakistan or both (neither is mentioned in the Quad statement), the United States is not much of a counter-terrorism partner these days.

Stick with China.

It is worth noting that the same day as the Quad meeting, the United States allowed Meng Wanzhou, an official of Huawei, the Chinese technology company regarded by the United States as a national security threat, to be freed from house arrest in Canada.  She has returned to China and two Canadians, arrested and jailed by the Chinese in retaliation, have been released in exchange.  While the U.S. claims it will still prosecute Huawei, the chance for success is now almost zero, since Madam Meng has returned home.

Huawei is perhaps the world leader in 5G technology –5G being currently the fastest wireless technology.  The Quad has taken up the 5G issue saying that it favored 5G deployment and diversification.  Unfortunately for the Quad, most 5G technology leadership is in China and favoring “diversification” is meaningless without mega-billions of investment.  Today most critical 5G enabling semiconductors for smartphones and other 5G implementations, are made in Taiwan (which, until the U.S. intervened, was also supplying Huawei and other Chinese companies). China’s answer to the Huawei ban is an investment of $8.7 billion dollars to build a new chip making facility in Shanghai to fill the gap.

It is worth noting that neither India nor Australia has significant semiconductor manufacturing capability.  Japan does have a semiconductor industry, but it is in decline and badly needs billions in new investment (which is unlikely to be forthcoming).  American semiconductor companies often outsource manufacturing abroad, and U.S. companies are well behind in investing in new domestic fabrication factories.

The Quad talk about clean energy also missed the main point: the world’s biggest polluter is China.  Most of the pollution is from coal-burning power plants and coal conversion factories in China.  Last year China’s coal-powered capacity rose by 38 gigawatts, while the rest of the world cut capacity by 17 gigawatts.  Given China is energy hungry, one can expect even more use of coal in future.  Its coal power plants are far from clean, and their output not only pollutes the air in China but impacts nearby countries.  None of the Quad members have any influence on China.

India also has major problems with pollution.  In 2019, 21 of the world’s 30 cities with the worst air pollution were in India.  According to the WHO, air pollution in India knocks about 9 years off the life of the average Indian.  The pollution comes from a variety of sources –coal power plants for one, 2-stroke auto-rickshaws (called Tuk Tuks) and a plethora of 2-stroke motorbikes, which spew out black soot and hydrocarbons that strip off the facing of buildings and burn the eyes and lungs of people and animals alike.

But the big failure of the Quad is that it does not really address the Indo-Pacific security situation or even refer to or complain about China’s military buildup.  There is no criticism of China’s expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, and no suggestion that China needs to enter into arms limitations agreements or reduce the regional and global threat of nuclear weapons. If the Quad is supposed to be about real regional security, it seems to have failed the test.

By next month Japan will have a new Prime Minister, as Yoshihide Suga resigned last month.  It is hard to see, in any case, how Japan gained anything from the Quad.

Australia’s security may or may not have been improved by the deal it has cut with the United States and the United Kingdom for nuclear powered submarines, and abandoning the submarine deal with France. But beyond that, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has serious troubles at home.  There are riots in the streets and reports in Melbourne that the police fired on anti-COVID-lockdown protestors, while Mr. Morrison was in Washington.  The lockdown in Australia is coercive, and Mr. Morrison has responsibility for the mess. On top of that, the nuclear deal has run into significant home opposition, and could get worse.  France and the EU may retaliate by scuttling the Australian-EU trade deal. If that happens, particularly if the Australians decide not to compensate France for the cancellation of their 2016 submarine deal, Australia could lose much trade in Europe. Fifty percent of Australian wine production is sold in the EU, not to mention Australian beef, mutton, and lamb.  But even more significantly, many Australians do not want to be thrust into a confrontation with China that they think can be avoided.

It is unlikely, thus, that Australia will play any major role in Indo-Pacific security.

It is also unlikely that India will do much more than give lip service to security outside of its own immediate border threats and its ongoing on and off struggle with Pakistan. India, while a member of the Quad, is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Group, controlled by China.  Members include such notables as Russia and Pakistan.  Iran has applied for membership and will soon join.  India is playing both sides of the fence, which makes them a questionable ally for the United States, when it comes to broader regional security.

The Quad could have done better, and one wonders whether the United States deliberately made it as meaningless as possible, making the Quad no more than political theater.

The Quad Summit: An Opportunity Wasted