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Hit by Afghan Crisis, Covid Surge, Biden’s Quad Summit Aim is to Bring Back Focus on China

It’s been a tough time for US President Joe Biden. The botched-up troop pull-out from Afghanistan has seen him be criticised not just by political rivals but has also led to a dip in his approval ratings. A move that was meant to cater to the domestic constituency didn’t yield desired results with visuals of desperate Afghans trying to flee finding their way across the world and in America too.

The Covid-19 numbers have been rising in America once again, leading to record hospitalisations. This, despite the fact the US has vaccinated a vast majority of its population. Many argue that the numbers are being driven by the anti-vaxxers. Nonetheless, it has put a question mark on the Biden administration’s ability to control the raging pandemic.

So, despite the Covid crisis, President Biden has pushed through an in-person Quad Summit. The summit which is to take place on September 24 was announced in March this year when the first-ever Quad summit took place virtually and the leaders came out with some concrete proposals – one in fact on countering China’s indigenous vaccine push as well. As the four important leaders of the Indo-Pacific region – President Biden, PM Narendra Modi, PM Yoshihide Suga and PM Scott Morrison meet in Washington DC, clearly the US effort would be to take the focus away from Afghanistan and back to China.

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In a briefing just ahead of PM Modi’s departure, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla summed up the Quad sentiment for the US. He said, “This is the first plurilateral engagement of President Biden. It signalled the priority that his administration accorded to the QUAD and it was also the first meeting of QUAD leaders and meet virtually. We see the QUAD is a partnership among four like-minded countries, in the pursuit of common interests in striving for a free open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”

The build-up to the Quad summit has been hectic and significant. Firstly, India and Australia, two countries in the Quad, held their first ever 2+2 dialogue just a couple of weeks ago. The focus was firmly on China with both sides reiterating the need for a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific. This, even as both countries have individually clarified that the Quad is not directed against China.

In his keynote address at the Shangri La dialogue in 2018, PM Modi had said, “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country.”

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This was after China’s sharp reaction to the rebirth of the idea of the quadrilateral security dialogue – better known as the Quad — a decade after it was first proposed. In its latest reaction to the Quad summit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “It should not target any third party.”

Australia, a hesitant participant to the Quad like India in 2017, has also clarified its position as recently as September 10 in New Delhi. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the Quad is not directed at China. However, she also said that no single power can dictate terms in the Indo-Pacific. This alluded clearly to China bullying smaller ASEAN countries and their rights on resources and movement in the water ways.

The second, the creation of a military alliance between two Quad countries and a third one, UK. The alliance is being called AUKUS, signifying Australia, UK and US’ participation. The announcement was made less than a week before the Quad summit. It was also decided that Australia will be getting a nuclear-powered submarine. The developments have riled up China, with President Xi Jinping saying “We oppose acts that undermine the international order, create confrontation and division”.

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America’s focus on Indo-Pacific has been made clearly with this critical development. Unlike the Quad, it is a military alliance. Moreover, it takes yet another country, UK, into its folds. UK has come out with a pronounced strategy on Indo-Pacific only late last year.

When UK’s former foreign secretary Dominic Raab travelled to India in December 2020, he had outlined Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt.

So, here’s what the Quad will focus on as per senior US administration officials – a gathering of like-minded, democratic partners to tackle the big challenges – Covid, climate, economic investment and technology.

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