Quad Demonstrates American Resolve to Prioritize the Indo-Pacific

By Brian Babcock-Lumish

The revitalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States has the potential to be a lodestone of coalition and alliance structures in the Indo-Pacific region. This month’s virtual summit — joining President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — lays the long-term strategic groundwork to deter Chinese revisionism in Asia. As President Biden described it, the “Quad is going to be a vital arena for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” The coordination on vaccine production and distribution to Southeast Asian countries is a laudable starting point.

While the Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement makes no mention of China explicitly, there is an emerging consensus in the Biden-Harris administration about the centrality of China to American foreign policy going forward. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance singles out China as “the only competitor potentially capable of…mount[ing] a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

According to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent message to the force, China is the “number one pacing challenge,” and part of the solution is to “join forces with our allies and partners.” Finally, in his testimony to Congress this week, the commander of Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, emphasized that “Absent a convincing deterrent…China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules-based international order,” and its “willingness to intimidate its neighbors…undermines peace, security, and prosperity in the region.”

Countries in the region — to include the Quad — are reticent to choose sides in a tug-of-war between the United States and China for influence in the Indo-Pacific. While the United States is the security partner of choice for many countries, economic realities necessitate positive relations with Beijing. China is Australia and Japan’s largest export market, and America and India’s third largest export market, but this reliance is reciprocal, with all four being in the top 15 for China’s exports.

There is a seemingly inescapable economic interdependence between all four democracies and China. However, when combined, the economies of the four democracies as measured by 2019 GDP are more than double that of China. When measured in terms of defense spending, the four democracies outpace China four to one. When working in concert, China would be compelled to take into account the united interests of the four leading Indo-Pacific democracies. From the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to human rights in Myanmar and Tibet, the Quad will be a valuable venue to coordinate multilateral solutions to challenges China presents.

The quad has the potential to be the Asian core of President Biden’s proposed Summit for Democracy. The four countries’ national interests will, of course, not align on every policy issue, but their unifying commitment to a rules-based international order has the potential to facilitate cooperation. As a historical leader of the non-aligned movement, India is likely to be the most cautious about a partnership with the other three, but recent bloody skirmishes on the Chinese border might change New Delhi’s calculus. The United States must be ready and willing to support the Indians as they warm to the idea of closer collaboration with the other three members of the Quad.

The 2020 expansion of the Malabar naval exercises to include all four countries suggests room for increased military-to-military partnerships and exercises. Full funding of thePacific Defense Initiative, $4.6 billion for fiscal year 2022 and $27 billion between 2022 and 2027, will allow Indo-Pacific Command to deepen partnerships and interoperability with allies and partners, the Quad first and foremost among them. Resuming war games with the South Koreans will be another indicator of the United States’ willingness to prioritize allies’ security interests.

A third area of potential cooperation is intelligence sharing. The United States should consider expanding the “five eyes” partnership beyond Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand to include Japan and India for Pacific-related intelligence, similar to standing policies with select European NATO members.

Global power shifts mean that America will no longer be able to balance against its most pressing threats alone — we would not want to face China over Taiwan without our allies and partners in Asia. Together With America should replace America First as our organizing principle. Solidifying the Quad is a potential quick win for the Biden-Harris administration to send a signal of resolve, both to our allies and partners, and to China. As Blinken and Austin wrote in the Washington Post, the Quad will be a “force multiplier,” enabling regional powers to challenge China’s efforts to “use coercion to get its way.”

Dr. Brian Babcock-Lumish is a retired U.S. Army officer and security fellow of the Truman National Security Project, who researches civil-military relations and foreign policy.

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We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

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