(CNSNews.com) – In a phone call to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, President Joe Biden underscored an intent to advance the Indo-Pacific “Quad,” a regional security initiative that is one of the few Trump administration foreign policy projects the Biden administration seems willing to pursue.
A White House readout of the call said Biden and Modi “agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.”
Bringing together four of the world’s major democracies – the United States, India, Australia, and Japan – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is a strategic forum widely viewed as a response to China’s assertiveness across the region, including its military maneuvering in disputed parts of the South China Sea.
Launched during the Bush administration in 2007, the initiative quickly faltered after an Australian Labor government, worried about a negative impact on its ties with Beijing, backed away.
But almost a decade later the Trump administration revived the project, hosting its first meeting of foreign ministers in New York in 2019, with a second in Tokyo last fall, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged his colleagues to “collaborate to protect our people and partners from the [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation, corruption, and coercion.” Senior officials have also met, virtually and in person.
Late last year, warships from the four countries held joint exercises, with Australia invited to join the other three in their longstanding annual Malabar joint wargames in the Arabian Sea.
Biden administration officials have said their predecessors were right to be tough with Beijing, even if they disagreed with the way in which it was done.
“I think in fairness to President Trump he was right to take a tougher approach to China,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Monday night. “That was the right thing to do. The way he went about it, in my judgment, was wrong across the board, but the basic principle was the right one.”
Blinken added that the U.S. must engage China from a position of strength, which “means having strong alliances.”
During a recent panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his predecessor, Robert O’Brien both referred to the Quad in strongly positive terms.
O’Brien said it “may be the most important relationship we’ve established since NATO, at a high level,” while Sullivan said the Biden administration wants to “build on that format, that mechanism, which we see as fundamental a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported at the weekend that plans were underway to hold a Quad meeting soon, citing an unnamed government source as saying the U.S. was proposing an online summit of the four leaders.
The Quad’s future may largely depend on the state of bilateral relations between each of the four participants and China.
How the U.S.-China relationship develops under Biden remains to be seen. “There’s going to be extreme competition,” Biden told CBS News at the weekend.
Relations between neighboring giants China and India are complicated by territorial disputes along their common border, where a confrontation between soldiers last June turned deadly.
In a tweet after his call with Biden, Modi did not refer to the Quad per se, but said he and Biden “look forward to consolidating our strategic partnership to further peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
The Times of India commented that Biden’s “full-throated endorsement of the [Quad] concept is important for India which has invested in the Indo-Pacific for the past few years. It also signaled the India and U.S. are still on the same page on China.”
Ties between China and Australia soured significantly last year after Canberra pushed for an international investigation into the coronavirus outbreak, prompting Beijing to impose tariffs and import bans on Australian produce.
Japan’s relationship with China has long been a difficult one, given ongoing territorial disputes and the history of Imperial Japan’s aggression last century. But Japan is also China’s third-largest trading partner and ties between the neighbors have fluctuated with different governments in Tokyo.
Conservative former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the primary proponent of the Quad concept during his first term of office, and his resignation after a poor election result in 2007 to some degree contributed towards the Quad’s demise. But Abe was back in power when the Trump administration revived the initiative in 2017 and participated actively.
His successor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, spoke with Biden by phone late last month, and the two agreed to work with the Quad “to step up defense cooperation amid concerns over China's growing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific region,” Kyodo reported, citing Japan’s foreign ministry.
Ahead of last October’s Quad ministerial in Tokyo, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin offered Beijing’s view of the initiative.
“Instead of forming exclusive cliques, multilateral and plurilateral cooperation should be open, inclusive and transparent,” he said. “Instead of targeting third parties or undermining third parties’ interests, cooperation should be conducive to mutual understanding and trust between regional countries.”