AFA Monthly logo

17 March 2021

With Greg Earl

The Quad rises

The leaders of the countries belonging to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – United States, Japan, India and Australia – met for the first time last Saturday.

The Quad failed to get off the ground ten years ago, due to differences among its members, but it has taken much firmer shape over the past four years. Last week’s online meeting has only cemented the importance of this new regional diplomatic institution.

The coalescing of these large market-oriented democracies has largely been driven by China’s growing assertiveness. But at Saturday’s summit, the Quad was careful to avoid the appearance that it was all about containing China, and embraced a broader economic and security agenda, including a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This approach is rooted in the way the navies of the Quad’s member countries teamed up to support the Aceh tsunami relief effort in 2004.

The leaders agreed to cooperate on the production of at least one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine for use across the Asia-Pacific by the end of 2022.

Australia will itself contribute A$100 million to the production and rollout of vaccines in South-East Asia, which comes on top of the approximately A$500 million it has already committed to vaccine distribution in this region and the Pacific.

Ensuring the Quad has a broader purpose should help it win support from smaller regional countries, and it may increase Australia’s prospects of restoring some stability to its relations with China.

But how the Quad approaches China will still depend greatly on ties between China and the United States – and, in the short term, it hinges on the outcome of the first meeting between top officials of the Biden administration and their Chinese counterparts, which will take place in Alaska on Thursday.

Cormann’s victory

Australia’s former finance minister Mathias Cormann has been selected as the next secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The OECD – to which thirty-seven countries belong – is typically headed by a European, but Cormann was selected for the top job after a long elimination process involving nine other candidates.

The Cormann campaign faced opposition due to the ex-minister’s record of climate-change scepticism, but he succeeded nonetheless – perhaps because climate change is not a core responsibility of the OECD, unlike tax reform and other issues that Cormann might claim as strengths.

When he assumes the role in June, it will make Belgian-born Cormann one of the few Australians to have headed a major international institution. The most recent example is the American-Australian James Wolfensohn, who became president of the World Bank in 1995 – after he took US citizenship.

Scott Morrison sees Cormann’s appointment as “recognition of Australia’s global agency and standing amongst fellow liberal democracies”. But if Cormann is to be an effective international bureaucrat, he cannot appear to be looking after the interests of his home country. Whether his success will benefit Australia remains to be seen.

DFAT’s hostage diplomacy

Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert has criticised the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for using behind-the scenes-diplomacy, rather than publicity, to secure her release from prison in Iran.

After the Iranian government accused her of spying, Moore-Gilbert was sentenced to ten years in jail; she was released in November 2020, after 804 days in captivity. In an interview last week – the first since her release – she suggested that more publicity would have improved her conditions.

The department is now confronting a similar challenge to the one presented by her case: two Chinese-Australians are currently in detention in China, without a clear explanation of the charges they face.

DFAT tends to prefer a quieter approach to these types of negotiations and is often criticised for not using public campaigns to exert pressure on countries in which Australians are imprisoned.

But the particulars of each case are different. Australian officials need time to carefully assess whether the relevant foreign government will respond best to behind-the-scenes negotiations or public campaigns. And the reasons for these assessments cannot usually be publicly discussed.

Whatever it does, DFAT is likely to be criticised by friends and family members of detained Australians who are desperate to secure their release.


Want more insightful discussion on our place in the world? Subscribe to the print journal to have Australia’s best voices on foreign affairs in your mailbox three times a year.

Explore subscription options.


“Just not going to happen” – United States warns China over Australian trade stoush

“The administration of President Joe Biden has told the Chinese government that ‘we are not going to leave Australia alone on the field’, according to the president’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell … ‘We’ve indicated both to Australia and China at the highest levels that we are fully aware of what’s going on.’” Peter Hartcher,The Sydney Morning Herald

China’s threat to the United States makes us a power player

“The key change is that Biden’s America needs us as much as we need America, the obverse of our traditional dependence on ‘great and powerful friends’. This is testimony to the relative decline of the United States and Australia’s rise as a significant middle power.” Alan Dupont, The Australian

South Asia deftly navigates China–India tensions

“Beijing is already experiencing the limits of trying to establish a commercial empire far from home.” Rohan Mukherjee, East Asia Forum

France’s burgeoning defence ties with Indonesia

“At first glance, given their geographic distance, there seems little pushing France and Indonesia closer together. But from Paris’s perspective … Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest maritime state, is a natural partner.” Natalie Sambhi,  The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

Endorsing “self-reliance”, Beijing raises the geopolitical stakes

“Beijing’s drive for self-sufficiency may have even larger geopolitical ambitions … If a more confident, ‘self-reliant’ China moves against Taiwan, Australia’s security and economic interests will not be immune.” Bates Gill,The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)
Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

Correspondence on “Goodbye, America” by Patrick Lawrence

“To Lawrence, governments that oppose China are recklessly courting disaster, and mortgaging their national interest to a misguided and disengaged United States. He directs this critique towards several countries. Canberra, Wellington and Tokyo all come in for reproach for displaying variations of America’s ‘frenzy of Sinophobia’.” Charles Edel, HERE

“By Lawrence’s account, neither Australia nor Japan wishes to farewell America. Instead, these two countries live in a state of nostalgic longing for an America that was and the pre-eminence it once had.” Thom Dixon, HERE

Read Patrick Lawrence’s response, HERE

Subscribe to Australian Foreign Affairs

Read past editions of AFA Monthly

Sign up to AFA Monthly to get each new edition in your inbox