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29 September 2021

With Greg Earl

The Quad rises

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has announced it will begin holding an annual leaders’ summit in a move that will swiftly elevate the group’s significance.

The four members of the Quad – Japan, Australia, India and the United States – only revived the partnership in 2017, after an earlier attempt to create such a group foundered in 2008.

The Indo-Pacific region already has two groups that hold annual leaders’ meetings – the twenty-one-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (which excludes India) and the eighteen-member East Asia Summit. The G20 summit, which all four members of the Quad attend, also meets in the Indo-Pacific roughly every three years.

Meeting in Washington last Friday, the Quad’s leaders – Joe Biden, Yoshihide Suga, Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison – outlined an expansive new agenda that will see their countries cooperate on a number of issues: COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, terrorism, emerging communications technologies and more.

The meeting also allowed Australia to offset perceptions that it has retreated to the company of its old Anglosphere allies following the announcement of its AUKUS pact with the United Kingdom and the United States.

While the Quad’s renaissance is largely due to its members’ shared interest in managing the rise of China, the group’s rapidly expanding agenda will make the partnership more palatable to other countries in the region.

The group has also shown that when it comes to dealing with new issues, it is more nimble than some of Asia’s more process- or consensus-driven organisations, such as APEC and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

However, the Quad has flagged its ambitions to play an even bigger role as a global faction, vowing in its post-meeting communiqué to “deepen our cooperation in multilateral institutions, including at the United Nations, where reinforcing our shared priorities enhances the resilience of the multilateral system itself”.

This is an interesting development because the group is creating big expectations for itself in an already crowded field.


Germany decides

Germany is facing a long period of political brinkmanship as it seeks to form a new government.

In Sunday’s election, the left-of-centre Social Democrats narrowly defeated outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union.

Both parties will now compete to form a coalition government with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats. Combined, these two smaller parties won more votes than either of the major parties, suggesting a further fragmentation of German politics that is likely to pose a challenge to the European Union’s ability to project a more unified voice internationally.

It may also complicate Australia’s efforts to repair diplomatic relations in Europe following its cancellation of a submarine deal with France in favour of a new deal with its AUKUS partners.

Maintaining some rage over the snub will likely suit President Emmanuel Macron’s push for a more independent and integrated Europe that is able to act in its own defence – and his hopes for re-election next April.

Macron is set to increase his influence in Europe when he assumes the European Union presidency in January and as Merkel retires after sixteen years as the de facto leader of Europe.

When Germany does form a new coalition government, it is doubtful it will prioritise an EU trade agreement with Australia, which could give Macron yet more scope to make life difficult for the Morrison government.

When the United Nations climate summit rolls around in November, Australia will also face more pressure to make a firmer commitment to reaching net zero by 2050. Germany may not have a new chancellor by that time, but firmer action on climate change was one of the few unifying policies in Sunday’s election.

With the two traditional leaders of the European Union distracted or disconnected, Australia will need to work harder on its diplomatic relations with smaller European countries.


Positive globalism

The Morrison government is upping its commitment to multilateral institutions, announcing it will contribute to a new program that supports young people to gain experience working for UN agencies.

Foreign minister Marise Payne last week committed A$26.4 million over four years to the UN Junior Professional Officer Program, which among other things, aims to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The government’s announcement comes just two years after Scott Morrison criticised an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy” and “negative globalism”, and then ordered a review of Australia’s involvement in various multilateral organisations.

Payne now says the government’s new investment “demonstrates Australia’s commitment to building a strong and resilient multilateral system”.

The funding is a welcome acknowledgement that Australia needs multilaterals to achieve its security and economic interests, something it seemed to forget when it was aligning itself with Donald Trump’s attacks on those same institutions.

The announcement of Australia’s UN funding coincides with the release of a review of the seven-year-old New Colombo Plan, which supports Australians to study or work in Indo-Pacific countries.

The review found that three quarters of the program’s participants go on to work in the region or with employers who engage with the more popular host countries – Japan, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, South Korea, India, Singapore and Malaysia.

The New Colombo Plan has also contributed to the growing number of Australians studying abroad, with almost half of those students basing themselves in the Indo-Pacific.

At a time when Australia may be seen as favouring its Anglophone allies, programs that increase young Australians’ access to other spheres of influence are even more valuable.


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More continuity than change in Biden’s Asia strategy

“Asia is the Biden administration’s theatre of strategic priority. [But] doubts linger about Washington’s ability to match its words with deeds. From the US defence budget to the number of Asia experts in the Washington administration, it remains a challenge to get the vast machinery of government to shift its focus away from the North Atlantic and Middle East.” Nick Bisley, East Asia Forum

Australia’s reluctant climate change diplomacy

“Australia stands increasingly isolated on the international stage on this matter ... The Morrison government would be wise to adopt the policy narrative that the Biden administration took with the appointment of John Kerry – one of national security.” Philip Citowicki, The Diplomat

Australia must adopt unorthodox options to disrupt China’s grey-zone threats

“Canberra needs a bolder voice to contest Beijing’s propaganda and counteract its chequebook influence ... Australia must borrow from Europe’s response to Russian info-wars while adopting a more decentralised approach that reflects the Indo-Pacific’s political and cultural diversity.” Ashley Townshend & Thomas Lonergan, The Guardian

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Digital authoritarianism not just a China problem

“Politically, surveillance technology trade is frequently packaged as win-win diplomacy or a means of effective control of public safety.” Ausma Bernot, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

Integrating AUKUS into the Indo-Pacific

“Australia, Japan and the United States were drawn to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ conceptual frame … to incorporate India in a strategic construct that integrates geography, the ‘free and open’ principle and democratic values.” Ramesh Thakur, The Strategist (ASPI)

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The outlier – Morrison’s world-defying climate stance

“Morrison’s determination to stick to Australia’s weak, increasingly implausible 2030 target came under serious pressure at President Biden’s climate summit in April. Morrison’s argument of ‘how’ not ‘when’ Australia gets to net zero missed the point. For Biden, it is a question of when as well as how. This is not just about the climate science. The United States sees itself in a race against China for clean energy supremacy in the net-zero emissions world.” Marian Wilkinson,HERE

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