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Sunday, March 28, 2021
Three Questions for the Quad's Indo-Pacific Security Commitments
Chee Leong Lee

For the first time since the Quad emerged in 2007, the four national leaders of the US, Japan, Australia and India met formally for a virtual summit that focused on a range of issues of common concern to the international community. This, in itself, is a significant development considering that such security dialogue group has gone through ups and downs with regards to the issue of China, the group's primary focus since its early birth. As for the East Asian region which is now re-branded into Indo-Pacific region by the Quad, the leaders' summit is not just a signal for the security grouping's commitment to achieve a "free and open Indo-Pacific", but also a show of its capacity to roll out measures that will fulfil the needs of regional countries in this post-pandemic age.

Altogether, the Quad's commitments fall into three main areas of security cooperation: COVID-19 vaccination, climate change as well as critical and emerging technologies. Among these, the Quad's list of commitments on the COVID-19 vaccination is the most concrete of all ⸺ featuring a special model of cooperation that utilizes American technology (vaccine) and funding (Development Finance Cooperation or DFC), Japanese additional financial assistance through Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Japan Bank Cooperation (JBC), Australian logistics support for vaccine delivery and Indian manufacturing of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Novavax vaccines. Should such commitments materialize, as much as 1 billion of vaccine is expected be disbursed to ten Southeast Asian nations, nine Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste by the end of 2022.

That said, these COVID-19 vaccine commitments do not come without any question for the regional countries. With most of these regional countries are starting their vaccine inoculation programmes as early as in January 2021, the question to be asked is: How helpful can these vaccines be to the regional countries if the Quad's plan is to have them delivered by the end of 2022? The best case for this is exemplified by the ASEAN countries. As of March 28, 2020, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Laos have started their vaccination drive, either for frontline workers or for the wider populace. Of these 9 ASEAN countries, 5 of them (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines) have begun using Chinese vaccines as part of their diversified vaccines' inoculation campaigns while Myanmar and Singapore putting them on hold despite batches of vaccines have arrived from Beijing. The same is for Brunei which saw a batch of Sinopharm vaccines arrived last month in spite of the country's slow roll-out of inoculation as compared to the rest of its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Given the Quad's unrealistically long period of anticipated disbursement of J&J and Novavax vaccines, it is questionable if they will reach the ASEAN countries at a time they are in need of them. Instead of sticking to the original timetable, the Quad should act with urgency and ensure that these vaccines are distributed to the regional countries within the next few months. This will be crucial for countries such as Vietnam ⸺ which is facing inadequate COVID-19 vaccines for inoculation ⸺ and potentially led other regional nations to accept J&J and Novavax as part of their vaccination strategies. Should such urgency be overlooked, the Quad's vaccine commitments would be questioned as a move too late for the region's COVID-19 response.

As opposed to the Quad's list of commitments for COVID-19 vaccination, its climate change commitments are surprisingly general for the four powers which have different stakes in this global agenda. From the figures released by Global Carbon Project (GCP) in 2017, the US is the second after China in terms of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. Other Quad member nations, India, Japan and Australia are also in the GCP list, with their shares of carbon dioxide emissions reported at 6.8%, 3.3% and 1.1% respectively. Given these realities, the Quad bears a huge responsibility not just in cutting down such emissions on their own, but also ensure regional countries are able to achieve their Paris Agreement's goals. That boils down to the essential question: What are the Quad's tangible measures in helping regional countries to reduce carbon emissions as part of their commitment to the Paris Agreement? For one, the Quad Climate Working Group could start looking for the urgently needed financial assistance and technologies as called by regional countries in their combat against climate change.

As for the third area of critical and emerging technologies, the Quad has also made it clear that there will be coordination and cooperation among its members to govern such technologies as well as utilizing them in the future. Again, the list of commitments from the Quad Summit has given rise to a bigger and menacing question for the region, especially the ASEAN countries. With many ASEAN nations are embracing Chinese technologies that are not limited to 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics, simply encouraging them to use the Quad's equivalents will not work if there is no exit strategy to reduce their overdependence of cheaper and easily accessible technologies from Beijing. Thus, the challenge for the Quad is: What is/are its solution(s) to ASEAN's over-reliance of cheaper and easily accessible Chinese technologies when they may work in the interests of some Southeast Asian nations to gain these cutting-edge assets at affordable prices? This will be the vital question for the Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group to tackle for the next few years.

Collectively speaking, the Quad's Indo-Pacific security commitments are at best, a working agenda that needs more fine-tuning in the next few years. The COVID-19 vaccination is the best area for which the four-member group can play its role in the region's security affairs effectively, just as how China has been trying to do so for the past few months. As for the other two areas of Quad's commitments, it remains to be seen if the security group will produce concrete efforts for the common good of the region.

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Chee Leong Lee is currently the Collaborative Research Fellow with ANBOUND Malaysia, an independent think tank based in Kuala Lumpur. Previously the Taiwan Fellow and Visiting Scholar for China, his research includes China's sub-national diplomacy in the ASEAN region, Taiwan's soft power in Southeast Asia and ASEAN affairs in general. He holds a PhD from Monash University.

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