The Quad Alliance & the future landscape

The Quad Alliance &

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

This article is being written to examine what the Biden administration, as and when it becomes functional in the sense of receiving the briefings to be provided to a new administration  will take on this alliance of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, popularly known as the QUAD, that Secretary Pompeo has been pushing as the answer to what is alleged to be China’s bid to dominate the South China Sea.

All present indications as this article is being written suggest that whatever the hopes entertained there is little chance of President Trump conceding and congratulating President-elect Joe Biden on his victory. This means that the General Services Administration (GSA) administrator Emily Murphy will wait till the last date permitted (December 12) to certify the result and until then not only will the new administration be deprived of the funds and office space for the transition but will also miss the top-secret briefings that would normally be offered by the Director on National Intelligence.

The Director of National Intelligence has said, “We will not provide the top-level briefings until the GSA administrator has certified the result”. Some commentators are suggesting that this poses a security risk recalling that the Commission on 9/11 had said that when the results of the 2000 election had to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, the delay in the transfer of power and the consequent delay in the provision of intelligence and other briefings had left the U.S vulnerable to 9/11. At this time there is no plausible threat to the U.S. and Biden can afford to say that this is not a big problem.

Before returning to the international scene, one needs to look at what will be Biden’s principal preoccupation i.e., domestic issues in a highly divided country where an economic slowdown has been exacerbated by the impact of the Corona virus. He has talked of a “Dark Winter” and the need for Congress to immediately legislate a stimulus package akin to the $2 trillion package that was passed earlier, and which is now due to expire.

Given the polarization in the country, and the distinct possibility that even the January Senate elections in Georgia will not give the Democrats a Senate majority, the chances of success seem to be bleak not only while the Trump Presidency lasts but even thereafter. One ray of hope is that as a Senator the President-elect developed a good working relationship with Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and can perhaps work out a compromise with him even though for the moment it appears that McConnel will not buck President Trump and his fervent supporters.

On dealing with COVID-19, there is the fact that there are more than 11 million cases and a daily addition that has topped 100,000 for the last seven days or more. Hospitals are not able to cope even when postponing all other non-emergency treatment. Biden has said that he would be guided by science in deciding how to deal with the problem and has set up an eminent advisory body.

His problem is that while this body is likely to advise a total lockdown in addition to making mask wearing compulsory and a limited period of “complete shutdown”, the power to shutdown does not lie with him as President but with each individual state. In terms of the votes garnered it is noteworthy that Trump and Biden each won 25 states. Biden had 7 million votes more than Trump but that was because he won the more heavily populated states like California and New York.

Fears that Trump’s followers would ignite a civil war did not materialize even though some Republican leaders sought to provoke it. The recent Trump supporters’ rally in Washington DC, while not a damp squib did not ignite similar action elsewhere and the authorities were able to control it. This was a sign of the maturity of the American people. Biden has also to contend with the divisions within his own party.

The progressives, best exemplified by what is known on the social media as the SQUAD  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley  the 29-to-45-year-old women who won congressional seats in 2019 and who believe even more than Senator Bernie Sanders that the Democratic Party has to do more for universal healthcare, for a higher minimum wage, lower defense expenditure and a better tax structure.

Some maintain that it was these ideas that drove away many conservatives from voting for the Democrats and for the consequent loss of seats in the house. They are nevertheless a force to contend with and Biden will need all his political skills to curb dissent, particularly in a time of economic distress accentuated by the seemingly unstoppable growth in COVID-19 cases.

One promise he has made to resolve the job problem is that “no government contract will be given to companies that don’t build their products in the U.S.”. This is akin to Trump’s “America First” but will have to be propagated differently. What is important is that while it will sell well domestically, it will make it harder for America to become part of larger regional or global trading arrangements.

Turning to foreign policy issues from which will flow also the Biden approach to QUAD, Biden has chosen a strong foreign policy team, but there is no doubt that he also has his own experience as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his years as Obama’s Vice President. His experience of that particular period suggests that he is an Atlanticist. His first priority will be to repair the damage done to the Transatlantic relationship by “Trump’s America First”.

In this he will have the enthusiastic support of Germany and France with Angela Merkel saying that the alliance with USA was irreplaceable. An assessment can be made that Biden will want to agree with Putin on the extension of NEW START after it expires in February. This will probably happen after January 20th. His view as an Atlanitcist will, however, continue to be that the “true” adversary of America is Putin’s Russia and containing Russia, limiting its influence and punishing it for the Ukraine invasion should be pursued even while allowing some small concession in return for the extension of NEW START.

Biden will seek European cooperation to “contain China”. There is no doubt that he will castigate China and its leaders for the cancellation of Hong Kong’s independence. He will not disagree with the view of Trump’s National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, who accused China of having “flagrantly violated” its international commitments, called for further sanctions on “those responsible for extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom” and concluded “the ‘One country, two systems’ is now merely a fig leaf covering for the CCP’s Chinese Communist Party expanding one-party dictatorship in Hong Kong,”.

The question is whether he will adopt the policy advocated in the 70-page Policy Paper entitled “The Elements of the Chinese Challenge” which Pompeo’s State Department policy planning team has issued. This asserts that the CCP “wields its economic power to co-opt and coerce countries around the world; make the societies and politics of foreign nations more accommodating to CCP specifications; and reshape international organizations in line with China’s brand of socialism.” It goes on to say “At the same time, the CCP is developing a world-class military to rival and eventually surpass the U.S. Military.

These actions enable the CCP to credibly pursue the quest proceeding outward through the Indo-Pacific region and encompassing the globe  to achieve “national rejuvenation” culminating in the transformation of the international order.” While this paper does suggest that there could be cooperation with China in certain areas, the thrust is almost entirely hostile.

As against this is the advice offered by the EU foreign policy spokesperson Mr. Joseph Borrel who, in an interview to The Washington Post, has said that relations with China will have to be approached in a more “intelligent way” than what we have seen under Trump. “The trade war is a failure,”… “The deficit between the U.S. and China hasn’t been reduced, it’s increased. There has not been a reshoring of jobs from China to the U.S.”

He called upon the U.S. to rejoin international organizations like WHO and concluded that “We don’t want to live in a world where might makes right,” … “A rules-based international order  I know it’s less sexy than to say ‘America First.’ But it’s much better.” It is worth recalling that in the Obama era there were according to an article in Foreign Affairs as many as 105 government-sponsored bilateral dialogues on subjects including women’s leadership, early childhood education, space exploration, cyber crime, and climate change. The Trump administration condensed those channels to four during the first two years of the administration and subsequently discontinued them entirely.

Biden’s emphasis on tackling the challenge of climate change means that the U.S. and China as the main polluters must cooperate. This is not to say that Biden will not label China as a strategic competitor, but he will resume many of the dialogues that the Trump administration shut down. Most notably, there will be the dialogue on climate but also on trade, particularly to meet the continuing shortfall in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

In South Asia, President Trump’s newly appointed acting Secretary of Defence has ordered the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria so that there will be about 2500 left in both countries by the time Trump’s term ends. This is in keeping with Trump’s weariness with “endless wars” but many observers believe that this is what Biden’s team would also want. Despite its stated opposition to a withdrawal that is not “conditions based” the U.S. military command is ready to accept the present withdrawal plan. Biden may express his reservations about the precipitate withdrawal ordered by Trump, but he will not reverse it.

One must note that while U.S. troops are the most significant element of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, they are not the only ones. The CIA, starting even before 9/11, created Afghan militia forces backed by retired or serving U.S. military personnel. They continue to operate, and one does not see them disappearing in the near future nor will CIA funding of the NDS come to an end.

On South Asia, generally, there is no doubt that the Biden administration will build on BECA and other Indo-American agreements to buttress the relationship. Biden is aware, however, that stability in South Asia requires a reduction of Indo-Pakistan tensions and will make some moves in this direction. He will be as tough as the Trump administration on the question of so-called alleged terrorist groups in Pakistan. His administration will criticize Modi’s suppression of the Kashmiris and the danger Modi’s Hindu Rashtra poses for India’s Muslims, but the tone will be mild and Modi will not react strongly.

The Trump administration has now taken the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) off its list of designated terrorist organizations. It is probable that the ungoverned areas in Afghanistan will be used by this organization of dissenting Uighurs, along with the space it has in Kyrgyzstan, to seek to destabilise Xinjiang. China’s past reaction suggests that it will expect its friends to back whatever steps it takes to contend with what it would see as a threat to its territorial integrity.

Coming back against this backdrop to the question of the Quad, or the Quadrilateral coalition, one needs to look at the history of what was termed by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in his interaction at the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum in August 2020 as “a combination of democracies”. He suggested that responding to the threat of China was not enough of a driver and that the purpose could be “to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties… that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific”.

This is recent, but the Quad has a long history starting in 2004-2005 when these four countries met in the Tsunami Core Group and in 2007 had a maritime exercise which included Singapore. In deference to China’s concerns, the Australian Foreign Minister at a press conference with his Chinese counterpart in 2008 said Australia “would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature again”. Regular meetings of the Quad were not then resumed until 2017. India too before 2017 wanted to avoid an overt anti-Chinese coalition and even now avoids in its official documents labelling this as “Anti-China”.

Clearly, the Quad is a political coalition. Its principal manifestation is the joint naval exercise. The economic component of this “Free and Open Indo Pacific” is all based on getting U.S. private sector investment in the area and this is just not happening because American, Japanese or Australian investors don’t need the push from the U.S. State Department if they see a worthwhile opportunity.

Now the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the 4th Annual Summit of the RCEP and Biden’s promise to push for more production in the U.S.  “no government contract will be given to companies that don’t build their products in the U.S”  makes it virtually impossible for the U.S. to become a worthwhile economic partner with the ASEAN countries which have largely been the driving force behind the RCEP, albeit with a substantial assistance from China.

Today China is the largest trading partner of each of the ASEAN countries. ASEAN is now among China’s largest trading partner. Perhaps in the near future as Europe’s economy recovers from COVID it will overtake ASEAN and become China’s principal trading partner once again but that will not diminish ASEAN’s importance for China. What does the RCEP call for? It eliminates, by one estimate, about 90% of tariffs, but only over a period of 20 years after coming into effect (which will require all 15 countries to ratify it).

Its coverage of services according to the Economist is patchy and Japan particularly, and others too, will maintain high import duties on “politically sensitive” agricultural products. But it is a huge development which, according to the New Atlanticist, brings together about 30% of the world’s population and GDP and represents 27.4% share of global trade. Li Keqiang, China’s Prime Minister, revelled in the signing, calling RCEP “a victory of multilateralism and free trade” and, more lyrically, “a ray of light and hope amid the clouds.”

One might view this as overly optimistic since it will take time and a concerted effort before all the expected benefits will flow. It needs to be noted however that a paper from the Peterson Institute for International Economics cites modelling showing that it will raise global GDP in 2030 by an annual $186bn. The Brookings Institution estimates of the gains and losses are that China stands to gain the most income from RCEP ($100 billion) by 2030, followed by Japan ($46 billion), South Korea ($23 billion), and Southeast Asia ($19 billion).

It estimates that being excluded from RCEP (and having withdrawn from the TPP) the United States will forego about $131 billion of the expected income gain, while India’s decision to sit out this agreement will forego about $60 billion of income.

The New Atlanticist article referred to above raises the concern that China will use its dominant position to punish countries critical of China’s policies and quotes the use of trade and investment restrictions against Australia as an example. This appears to have some basis in fact, but the question is whether it will be more generally applied?

Speaking at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, a day after the signing of the RCEP, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan called for rising above exclusive blocs, rejecting the zero-sum mentality, working for building an open world economy and safeguarding the multilateral trading system under the WTO. This cannot be dismissed entirely given the steps China is taking to open its economy to the entry of foreign firms in its financial system allowing these firms to be entirely foreign owned.

Also, its implementation of lending practices by its development banks such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS bank and the Belt and Road Initiative seems to point towards a more global and more cooperative approach. It needs to be noted that ASEAN countries do not hesitate to call for revision of contracts that they believe are lopsided. Malaysia has done so and as has Myanmar.

In the South China Sea China maintains its 9-dash line claim but it has been negotiating with the ASEAN countries the exploitation of the natural resources jointly while setting aside the question of conflicting claims. It has also negotiated (but not finalized) an agreement on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

In conclusion, one can only repeat what has been said earlier, the Quad coalition will have only one concrete “security” manifestation, the MALABAR naval exercise one witnessed recently. There are no possible economic consequences, at this time, for the ASEAN countries or the region.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the U.S. and Iran. He is also the former Chancellor of the Institute of Business Management, a Karachi based University.

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