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7 October 2020

With Greg Earl

Can we bank on the Quad?

Foreign ministers from Australia, the United States, Japan and India met in Tokyo on Tuesday for what was only the second formal ministerial meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

The Quad started in 2007 as a low-profile gathering of officials from the Indo-Pacific’s four largest democracies, but was moribund in less than a year due to the different priorities of its members. It was revived in 2017, as the four countries cast around for ways to respond to China’s increased assertiveness.

The issues on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting included international supply-chain resilience, quality infrastructure investments and the spread of disinformation in domestic politics. Evidently, the group is tackling challenges that may be more difficult for the region’s older and larger diplomatic institutions to address.

In the latest issue of the AFA journal, Rory Medcalf explores how smaller “minilateral” coalitions, like the Quad, have been emerging in recent years to help balance China’s power in the region. Medcalf describes the Quad as the most prominent example of this trend, noting that its role has been growing and is now “almost certainly here to stay”.

“In the unlikely event that Beijing rediscovers the art of diplomatic adaptation and pulls back on its assertiveness sooner rather than later, the Quad could matter less,” Medcalf writes. “But the strategic anxieties and activist diplomacy of Quad members in 2020 point a different way: to a strengthening of the Quad and an ambitious agenda.”

There are some risks involved in placing too much confidence in the Quad, given the way its members’ interests have deviated in the past.

For example, the United States has pushed for it to become an Indo-Pacific version of NATO, which would likely compete with some existing institutions and probably require a strategic shift from its members towards a more formal containment of China.

In another essay in the latest issue of AFA, Hugh White argues that Australia should not rely on such a development to help secure it against China. Countries in the region, he writes, “want America to stay in Asia to balance China, not to dominate it, and they will calibrate their support accordingly”.

The Quad is a significant part of the region’s emerging diplomatic architecture of minilaterals, both formal and ad hoc, and that’s how it should be seen. It should not be the region’s pre-eminent response to geopolitical uncertainty. 

Climate pressure

Last week, China announced its commitment to become carbon neutral before 2060, in a significant policy shift for the world’s largest polluter. China’s pledge adds to pressure on Australia to change its own approach to climate change. Canberra’s current stance on the issue already puts it at odds with the European Union and, potentially, the next president of the United States.

Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for the US presidency, has backed an ambitious climate plan that aims to decarbonise the country’s electricity system by 2035 and achieve zero net emissions for the entire economy by 2050.

And last month, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, reaffirmed the European Union’s plans for a “carbon border adjustment mechanism”, which would put a carbon price on imports from countries with inadequate emission-reduction policies.

The Australian government says it will meet its commitment under the 2016 Paris Agreement to reduce its carbon emissions by 26–28 per cent, based on 2005 levels, by 2030, although others question whether it can meet this target.

Many uncertainties surround the promises made by China, the European Union and the Biden campaign, but international attitudes towards emissions appear to be changing significantly.

It will take time for Australia’s commodity exports to feel the effects of China’s new targets. But, together with the European Union’s tax and the prospect of Biden’s climate plan, they will likely pressure Australia to make additional commitments, both in the trade negotiations with the European Union now underway and at the UN Climate Change Conference in November 2021.

Aid checks

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has quietly downgraded its mechanism for reviewing development aid by closing the Office of Development Effectiveness.

The functions of this independent office now seem set to be conducted by lower-level departmental officials and normal government auditing procedures.

ODE was established in 2006 and announced in an Aid White Paper, which foreshadowed increased aid spending and the delivery of more innovative forms of assistance, including closer cooperation with recipient countries.

Aid funding was wound back following the global financial crisis and calls from some politicians for more spending at home and less abroad. The closure of ODE was confirmed at a parliamentary hearing last month.

The end of ODE is unfortunate, because it played a key role in reassuring taxpayers that Australian aid was well spent and contributed to improved security in Australia’s neighbourhood.

Budget pressures – which will only increase after COVID-19 – and the more uncertain geopolitical environment caused by China’s rise mean that the provision of Australian aid should be nimble, not locked into inflexible long-term projects.

But some form of rigorous and transparent auditing is still essential, especially as the government tries to do more with less.


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The Uninhabitable Earth, book review by Astrid Edwards

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