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Quad Queries

Any effort to build an alternative to China's Belt & Road would rely heavily on the U.S. partners in the Quad. KIYOSHI OTA / POOL / AFP

I’ve wondered in the past whether ‘the Quad’ – the alliance among the United States, Japan, Australia and India dedicated as a counterweight to China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region – has taken on such prominence simply because the word is so fun to say. Quad quad quad – once you start you can’t stop.

The name seems to signal solidity – four letters, four partners, four robust economies, four democracies. But the last few weeks have raised some questions about this beast, not least whether all four legs are walking in the same direction.

The recent Biden-Suga summit reaffirmed the U.S.-Japan alliance and pushed Tokyo outside its comfort zone on Taiwan. But the relatively measured language of the summit stands in contrast to sentiments coming out of Australia. If Japan is the Quad’s People’s Daily (staid and boring, but playing its cards close to its chest) Australia is increasingly emerging as its strident and nationalistic Global Times.

Over the last few weeks China-Australia relations have spiraled, which is saying something if you’ve tracked their general souring over the last few years. Canberra announced that it plans to ramp up missile production in response to the expansion of the Chinese army, the state of Victoria canceled two Belt and Road contracts, sparking threats of retaliation, and Michael Pezzullo, the Home Affairs Department Secretary warned, regarding Taiwan, that ‘the drums of war beat – sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer.’

As someone from another southern country selling lots of wine and raw coal to China, my first thought was ‘slow your roll, Koala.’ It’s one thing to bang these drums, but it’ll be quite another once Beijing starts feeling the beat. Also, if you want a glimpse of Australia in full Top Gun mode, take a look at this picture of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a flight suit – I beg you.

Australia’s moves raise questions about how committed the Biden administration is to backing them up. The horror movie playing out in India only raises more questions. As Eric pointed out yesterday, the collapse of the Indian health care system due to massive COVID infections, and the resultant pausing of its vaccine exports, are sending shudders through the entire Global South. Singed by criticism of its initial apparent refusal to export any vaccines to its Quad partner, the Biden administration has now come back with promises to loosen some restrictions on exporting vaccine ingredients, and a commitment to export 60 million AstraZeneca doses.

Keep in mind these doses are meant for the whole unvaccinated world, not India’s 1.4 billion people specifically. A veteran from the AIDS crisis rightly compared it to ‘showing up to a four-alarm fire with an eyedropper full of water.’

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