Taiwan, also known as the sovereign Republican of China (ROC), set up in the aftermath of the revolution in 1911 in China. The U.S. government recognized the ROC as the legal government of China till the end of 1978 and has thereafter maintained a non-diplomatic relationship with the island after its official recognition of People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the legal government of China in 1979. Even though the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is deemed as “unofficial” by the U.S. Department of State, official contacts between the two governments based on the Taiwan Relations Act have never ceased, the most important of which includes U.S.-Taiwan arms sales. The “strategic ambiguity” embedded in the three U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqués in 1972, 1979 and 1982 allows the U.S. to maintain its involvement in the regional security of Taiwan Strait under a statutory framework despite PRC’s countless opposition.
America’s long-standing commitment to Taiwan and involvement in the region is not only bound by the jurisdiction of the Taiwan Relation Act, but has created “historical and ideological connections”. The support for Taiwan, especially when in the face of an increasingly aggressive China, is usually bipartisan in the U.S., but the Republican party seems to be more provocative when it comes to defending Taiwan from the threat of mainland China. Historically, Republican politicians usually stroke first to take a pro-Taiwan stance when disputes across the Taiwan Strait arose. Meanwhile, the ongoing “asymmetric polarization” in the U.S. – the Republican Party is turning conservative more than the Democratic Party turning liberal – is influencing Washington’s policies involving the Taiwan Strait. In 2020, conservative Republican senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz introduced the Taiwan Defense Act (TDA) and Taiwan Symbols of Sovereignty (Taiwan SOS) Act respectively, both of which aimed at defending Taiwan from Chinese Communist Party’s oppression and even invasion. As Republicans are rapidly turning more conservative, is it likely that the U.S.-Taiwan relations will enter a honeymoon phase? And how that would affect U.S.-Taiwan arms sales?
Historical links between U.S. Republican Party and Taiwan
- 1949 – 1971: The China Lobby
Throughout the history U.S.-Taiwan relations, there have been multiple times when conservative Republican officials and public figures have worked at the forefront of campaigning for closer U.S.-Taiwan ties, often along with anti-PRC policies.The Republican Party’s intimacy with Taiwan dates back to 1949 when the Chinese Civil War ended. The defeat of Chiang Kai-shek split U.S. policymakers on the issue of whether to defend Taiwan if Communists from China initiated an attack. Democratic Secretary of State Dean Acheson was prone to abandon the island while Republican Senators Robert Taft and William Knowland, together with former Republican President Hoover adamantly demanded that America should protect Taiwan.
In the 1950s, the China Lobby, a broad network of people who shared the common goal of support Chiang Kai-shek’s recovery of mainland China from Mao Zedong-led communism, represented the apex of Taiwan’s success in America. It involved both Nationalist Chinese officials and right-wing American politicians who were mostly Republican politicians, including Senator Barry Goldwater, Jesse Helms, Senator Bob Dole, and Representative Dana Rohrabacher. Although not every supporter of Chiang actually cared about Taiwan issues since many of them simply took advantage of it to advance their own political agendas, the China Lobby, supported by the Republican Party, was capable of arguing for their cause aggressively and intimidating dissidents.
2.2 1971-1991: The Sino-US Normalization – Inner Conflicts among Republicans
Republican President Nixon won bipartisan support for his trip to China in 1972, which marked the end of U.S. efforts to isolate People’s Republic of China. Praises for Nixon’s China initiative came not only from leading congressional Democrats such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Mike Mansfield, but liberal communist James Reston. However, domestic controversy and criticism also arose and mostly came from conservative Republicans who complained that the preliminary rapprochement undermines America’s longtime ally – Taiwan. As the conclusion of Nixon’s visit to China, the “U.S.-PRC Joint Communique (1972)” was issued, which incurred opposition and even wrath of Nixon’s conservative Republican supporters who were upset by the gradual reduction in U.S. forces in Taiwan as implied by the communique.
A decade later, Republican President Ronald Reagan issued the “U.S.-PRC Joint Communique on Arms Sales” – also known as 1982 Communique – which clarified that the U.S. intended to gradually decrease its arms sales to Taiwan, but Reagan’s secret Memorandum on the 1982 Communique specified that the reduction in U.S. sales of arms to Taiwan was “conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences”. As a matter of fact, not only did the Reagan administration have Republicans in Congress reassured through his written clarification that the communique would not disadvantage Taiwan, but he continued to work to assuage potential criticism from the pro-Taiwan Republicans by selling twelve C-130H military transport aircraft to Taiwan in 1984.
2.3 1992-2016: The Gradual Revival of Republican-Taiwan Ties
In 1992, an agreement was reached by PRC and ROC governments in the name of “1992 Consensus” in which the commitment of “one China, respective interpretations” was shared and seen as the foundation of the rapprochement between the two sides of Taiwan Strait ever since. Douglas H. Paal, the Director of American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) between 2002 and 2006, buttressed the 1992 Consensus by emphasizing its critical importance to maintaining cross-strait peace in 2012, days before the presidential election of Taiwan. However, the former Republican Senator Frank H. Murkowski supported Tsai Ing-wen’s challenge to the 1992 Consensus – “Taiwan consensus”, and claimed that Tsai’ proposal “represents the will of the Taiwan people”.
Two years after the proposal of 1992 Consensus, the Clinton administration sought to upgrade the U.S.-Taiwan relations but still restricted high-level Taiwanese government officials’ access to U.S. visas. In the same year, Republicans swept the mid-term elections, which led to a growing movement in the Congress that favored closer relations with Taiwan. In 1995, Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House as well as the conservative Republican representative of Georgia stated that president of ROC should not only be able to visit the United States, but ROC itself deserved a seat in the United Nations.
The majority of House Republicans’ support for Clinton Administration’s efforts into bringing China into WTO was surprising, but harsh criticism against China also came from Republican politicians and public figures such as Representative Chris Smith, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, and 1992 Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, most of whom were allies of conservative forces that held anti-PRC and pro-sentiment.
2.4 2017 – present: Increasingly Conservative Republicans and Closer U.S.-Taiwan Ties
After winning the 2016 U.S. president election, the Republican president-elect Donald Trump had a 10-minute conversation with the President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, an unprecedented move for a soon-to-be U.S. president and Taiwan’s top leader. This led many people to label Trump as a pro-Taiwan president and some even speculate his intention to support the independence of Taiwan.
The conservative Republican president’s policies toward Taiwan were as bold and aggressive as his domestic policies. Even though some may claim Trump’s attitude was “neither new nor Taiwan-specific”, it cannot be denied that his leadership, directly or indirectly, accelerated Republican Party’s right-leaning dash and that came with more pro-Taiwan policies that got under Beijing’ nerve. In 2018, Trump “gladly signed” the Taiwan Travel Act that encourages all levels of U.S. government officials to travel to Taiwan and high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the U.S.. The bill was introduced by the Republican representative Steven Chabot and won bipartisan support before being signed into law by Trump. In 2020, the Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Taiwan Defense Act (TDA) to ensure America’s obligations of defending Taiwan from Chinese Communist Party’s invasion. In the same year, the Republican Senator Ted Cruz recognized Taiwan’s National Day and introduced Taiwan Symbols of Sovereignty (Taiwan SOS) Act.
The conservative Republican Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also known for his staunch support for Taiwan. During the final days of Trump’s presidency, Pompeo announced that the U.S. was lifting restrictions on U.S.-Taiwan relations by allowing U.S. government contacts with Taiwan despite an increasing risk of invoking Beijing to trigger a new cross-strait crisis. Even in the post-Trump era, Republicans does not seem to put a stop to their pro-Taiwan cause. In April 2021, the Republican Representative John Curtis introduced the “Taiwan International Solidary Act” to condemn China’s overreach of the sovereignty of Taiwan – a year after he authored the “Taipei Act” to strengthen Taiwan’s international diplomatic recognition and had it passed by bipartisan support. The ongoing partisan divide has yet to show a sign of deceleration after Trump left the office. Based on the redder Republican Party’s historical favor toward Taiwan, it is likely that there will be more Republicans initiating anti-PRC and pro-Taiwan policies, including increasing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Asymmetric Polarization in the U.S.
As early as in the 1990s, themes of polarization, division, and fragmentation started to be discussed by media and political commentators of American politics. The editor of the Columbia Journalism Review declared the conservative politician Patrick Buchanan’s speech at the Republican convention in 1992 a “culture war” and asserted “There is increasing polarization in American society over race, religion, family life, sex education and other social issues”. Similar perceptions include “the sharpening cultural polarization of U.S. society after the mid-1970” and the two dividing values camps in America – the “culturally orthodox” and the “culturally progress”. As shown in Figure 1, Republican legislators have been turning more conservative and Democratic legislators more liberal, which makes the Senate and House more divided than ever since the end of the first World War.
Figure 1: Increasing Polarization in Congress 1870-2010 based on DW-NOMINATE Index
Each point represents the discrepancy between two parties’ mean DW-NOMINATE scores. Higher values along the y-axis indicate stronger political polarization. (source: Moskowitz & Snyder, 2019)
The Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., with their ongoing conflicts commonly acknowledged, are not simply mirror images of each other. A wealth of studies find that the two parties are not moving away from the center at equal speeds. Scholars such as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point out that the phenomenon “asymmetric polarization” – Republicans have marched much further right than Democrats have moved left – is what has escalated partisan conflicts, which is also demonstrated by Figure 2. Nolan McCarty, the professor of Politics and Publica Affair of Princeton University, asserts that the polarization is “a Republican-led phenomenon where very conservative Republicans have replaced moderate Republicans and Southern Democrat”. The disproportionate share of rising polarization is thereby greatly explained by Republican party’s march toward the ideological extreme.
Figure 2: Asymmetric Polarization based on DW-NOMINATE Scores
(source: Moskowitz & Snyder, 2019)
Correlations between U.S. Asymmetric Polarization and US-Taiwan Relations and Arms Sales
Compared to 1991 when it had more than 20 countries as suppliers of arms, Taiwan only has the U.S. as its supplier nowadays. America, however, remains Taiwan’s sole and largest supplier of arms by taking advantaging of the strategic ambiguity of the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique of 1982 and the Taiwan Relations Act. More importantly, keeping arms sales to Taiwan can be used as political leverage by the U.S. for the U.S.-RPC relations. The U.S. military sales agreements with Taiwan amounted to $9 billion and delivers totaled $12.3 billion between 1991 and 1998. During the Bush and Obama Administration, U.S.-Taiwan arms sales were oftentimes delayed or cancelled due to concerns over relations with the RPC or U.S. domestic political disputes in Taiwan. However, to counter the cross-Strait military imbalance, the arms sales to Taiwan during the Trump Administration exceeded any previous administrations over the last four decades, including seven packages of arms sales in 2017, C-130 and F-16 fighter parts and accessories in 2018 and 2019. As shown by Figure 3, the overall volume of U.S.-Taiwan arms sales experiences an increase between 1981 and 2010 despite some fluctuations.
Figure 3: U.S. Government Arms Deliveries to Taiwan 1981 – 2010 ($billion, values not adjusted for inflation)
The scatterplot is composed by the author of this article (source: Arms Control Association, n.d.)
For years, Republicans constantly praise the common value shared by the U.S. and Taiwan and never attempt to hide their stance on defending Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act should China violate the peaceful status quo across the strait. The U.S. support for Taiwan is oftentimes dominated by Republicans who tend to convert their anti-CCP ideology to pro-Taiwan policies. Those prominent Republican politicians include Senator Marco Rubio, Senator John McCain, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Republicans’ pro-Taiwan impression culminated when Donald Trump, the Republican then-President-elect, had a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the first official U.S.-Taiwan conversation since 1979. Throughout history, most prominent pro-Taiwan Republican politicians have shown a higher level of conservatism than their colleagues based on DW-NOMINATE ideology scores, including Senator Barry Goldwater, Senator Frank H. Murkowski, and Senator John Curtis, whom of which have made great contributions to tightening the relations between the U.S. and Taiwan. According to those Republicans, Taiwan is a loyal friend of the United States who deserves their strong support which includes the timely sale of defensive arms.
With Republicans’ accelerating right-leaning dashing, the anti-China sentiment has been rising and a large portion of it has been translated into pro-Taiwan actions. The Trump Administration’s hardline reprimand of CCP has starkly juxtaposed Taipei and Beijing in the current international political environment. This has enhanced the image of Taiwan as “a tiny democratic ally threatened by a totalitarian neighbor”, which has given Republicans more legitimacy to take aggressive actions to defend democracy of Taiwan by means of promoting more arms sales to the island.
However, is the asymmetric polarization the only reason behind the increasing U.S.-Taiwan arms sales? Even the polarization of Republicans seems to proceed at a faster pace, Democrats’ process of radicalization is tagging along. The boundary between liberal and left had almost vanished by the end of the 1980s, and the self-identifying radicals started to be replaced by leftists relabeled as “progressive”. The progressive movement of Democrats has been accelerated by “neoliberal globalism” and the “Cyber Left” – an amalgamation of hundreds of thousands of online organizations, blogs, Twitter and Facebook groups. A study of Brookings finds that the ratio of progressive non-incumbent House winners to total democratic candidates was as high as 41% in 2018, a huge increase compared to 26% in 2016 and 17% in 2014. There is a chance that Democrats could also show stronger support for Taiwan to help the island stand up to the presence of increasingly aggressive China, which is also consistent with their emphasis on a harmonious global community and “social responsibility”. It is true that notable Democrats such as Senator Bob Menendez, Senator Ted Kennedy or Speaker Nancy Pelosi do have been open about their appeal for Taiwan’s rightful place on the global stage and have never been shy about celebrating Taiwan’s democracy. Whereas, it is also progressive Democrats’ pro-globalization stance that makes them tend to downplay anti-Communism ideology and thus provide insufficient legislative support for Taiwan. Therefore, military support for Taiwan is still and will be dominated by the conservative Republicans who uphold anti-Communism ideology and value a strong military power to increase security and peace.
The history has proven the Republicans’ overall pro-Taiwan stance from the perspective of ideological similarity, strategic purposes and common values. The increasingly right-leaning Republicans’ support for Taiwan is not only confined to the legislative branch, but has permeated the executive branch. Being regarded as the most pro-Taiwan president in the US history, Donald Trump lifted U.S.-Taiwan arms sales “to the next level” by not only upgrading the quality of arms, but significantly changing the frequency and procedure of sales.
Biden’s ambition to reunite the U.S. is not likely to happen on a short notice given the highly divided American society in terms of income inequality, identity politics, race divergence and so on. The ongoing asymmetric polarization is only going to get worse before it gets better, and that would lead more conservative Republicans, instead of moderate ones, to take power in the foreseeable future. Against the backdrop of deteriorating U.S.-PRC relations, hawkish policies for China will become the mainstream among Republicans. That may not necessarily increase the arms sales to Taiwan under the Biden Administration, but the partisan divide in the current American political environment has made and will make pro-Taiwan policies one of the few agendas that can reach a bipartisan agreement. Therefore, that would neither leave sufficient scope for the Biden administration to adjust its Taiwan policy nor make its China policy too different than his predecessor despites his eager to fix the relations with the second largest economy.
While GOP Wants Change, the Democratic Donkey in Power Dig in Their Heels
“All the world’s a stage,” proclaimed the hero of a Shakespearean comedy. If we follow this metaphor, presidential elections in America are always a multi-act drama, often turning into a melodrama with elements of tragicomedy and even farce. Major and minor characters perform on the political stage, sudden plot twists are punctuated by various special effects, and culminate in a colorful extravaganza in November of each leap year.
The audience watching the play from inside the theater can only follow the actors’ performances, trying to keep up with the rapid unfolding of the plot’s intricacies, and wonder how the show will end. But unlike the conclusion of a Shakespearean comedy, much depends on the outcome of the US election. So, even if the opening of the show doesn’t herald a stunning display of stagecraft, the world’s attention will be focused on the American political scene in one way or another.
Two categories clearly stand out among audiences of this theater. The first can be conventionally described as political romantics. This group does not demand a reading from the actor, but a complete death in earnest. The romantics always talk about the “historic choice,” about the critical “bifurcation point” in the development of the US, and about the “fateful” significance of this electoral cycle both for America and for the rest of humanity.
Another category are the conventional skeptics. They assume that, for all its splendor and even pomp, the process will make little difference to the lives of Americans, let alone to all the other inhabitants of our planet. Mark Twain, who clearly belonged to the skeptical camp, is credited with perhaps the most emphatic credo of the latter: “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”
These two categories are certainly present in Russia. Our romantics always hope that a change of team in the White House will open up new opportunities in relations between our two countries. Today, they assume that there can be no one worse for Russia than the incumbent US president. They remind us that, since Richard Nixon, it has always been easier for Moscow to deal with pragmatic Republicans than with ideological Democrats. They also pay tribute to Donald Trump, generously quoting his recent reassuring statements about Russia.
Skeptics, for their part, stress that American foreign policy has always been bipartisan and that there is a strong negative consensus against Russia in the American political establishment. They also often bring up Trump, but only as a clear illustration of the fact that even a US president who is generally favorable to Moscow is inevitably powerless in the face of the all-powerful ‘deep state’.
Probably both romantics and skeptics have their own truth. But if the skeptics are right in general, the romantics may be sometimes correct. Indeed, there is now a broad and enduring anti-Russian consensus in the US – broader and more enduring than even a similar anti-China consensus. The White House and Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department, the leading media and influential think tanks generally have, if not unified, then very close positions on Moscow, and these positions are unlikely to change even in the medium term.
Nevertheless, any new team in Washington has to distinguish itself from the old one and prove its undeniable superiority over its predecessors. This means new nuances in foreign policy. For example, the Republicans will not abandon military support for Kiev, but they will have to take into account that foreign aid programs have never been popular with voters, especially conservative ones.
It is therefore reasonable to expect that the Republicans will seek to tighten control over how US military and other aid to Ukraine is spent. We can also expect them to push for a “fairer” distribution of the burden of military support for Ukraine between Washington and its European allies.
Moreover, US approaches to Russia should be seen in the broader context of US foreign policy. For example, Democrats have traditionally been much more concerned than their Republican opponents about promoting liberal values around the world. This fixation wins Joe Biden points in predominantly liberal Europe, but creates problems with such important “illiberal” or “not quite liberal” US partners like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, or even India.
A Republican victory would be enthusiastically welcomed in these countries, but would pose a serious challenge to fragile transatlantic unity. These differences, though not radical, need to be taken into account by all international actors, including Russia.
As always, the Republican elephant in opposition today demands change, while the Democratic donkey in power wants things to hold firm. A victory for Biden in next November’s election would mean another four years of the status quo, unless the aging president is forced to leave office before January 2029. A victory for any Republican candidate would trigger a process of revision of policy, creating both new opportunities and new challenges for America and the rest of the world.
From our partner RIAC
US-China: Creeping Escalation
The deterioration of US-China relations has long been a generally recognised trend. Contradictions on specific issues, such as human rights, have been accumulating since the boom in trade between the two countries in the 1990s and 2000s. During the presidency of Barack Obama, the outlook for bilateral ties gradually began to darken against the backdrop of the US pivot to Asia, the situation in the South China Sea, and several incidents in the digital environment. Donald Trump took an even tougher line toward Beijing, directly voicing Washington’s entire list of claims against China.
The high-tech sector has become a key front for containing China. The general line of Washington is to limit the access of Chinese companies to the technologies of the United States and its allies. Such technologies can solve dual-use problems and lead to the subsequent modernisation of the PRC in both the military and civilian sectors. President Joe Biden has continued the prior administration’s protectionist course, which confirms the absence of critical inter-party differences on the issue of relations with China. Another indicator of China’s containment in the field of high technologies is President Biden’s new Executive Order “On Addressing United States Investments in Certain National Security Technologies and Products in Countries of Concern.”
The new Executive Order introduces a National Emergency due to the fact that individual countries use access to US civilian technology to develop their military-industrial complex. In the annex to the Order, China is named as such a country, as well as the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. The very concept of the National Emergency concept has its own specifics. More than four dozen states of emergency are simultaneously in effect in the United States with regards to various foreign policy issues. The president imposes them on the basis of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 (IEEPA), which gives the US Commander-in-Chief the ability to use economic sanctions to counter existing threats. That is, a state of emergency is introduced on a selective issue, and serves as the basis to exercise individual powers.
The Executive Order implies at least two innovations. First, the Administration, represented by the State and Commerce Departments, must create a list of foreign persons who are individuals or legal entities from a particular Country of Concern. In this case, from China. Such persons must be connected in one way or another with high-tech transactions mentioned in the Order. In other words, we are talking about creating another list, which, most likely, will name large Chinese technology and industrial companies and, possibly, their leaders or individual employees. Second, US citizens will be required to notify the authorities of certain transactions with these individuals. In addition, a number of other transactions will be prohibited. The list of such transactions must also be determined by the Administration and periodically subject to revision.
The new legal mechanism gives the Administration wide room to limit Chinese companies’ access to US high-tech firms. The flexibility of the mechanism will be determined by the ability to revise the categories of transactions, technologies and foreign entities that are subject to restrictions. At the same time, the mechanism is likely to provide more opportunities, in comparison with the norms that already exist.
Among the previously-imposed restrictions, one can note the prohibition of Americans from buying or selling securities of “Chinese military companies”. The ban was introduced by Donald Trump in November 2020. Biden modified it somewhat, but without major changes. The appendix named the largest Chinese companies in the field of telecommunications, aircraft manufacturing, electronics, etc. Even earlier, in May 2019, Donald Trump declared a National Emergency due to threats to the US telecommunications sector (Executive Order 13873).
The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and a number of its subsidiaries were included in the Entity List of the US Department of Commerce — it was forbidden to supply certain goods in the field of electronics, including manufactured outside the USA using American technology. In addition, a number of Chinese companies have been placed on the Military End User List (MEU-List). These companies are prohibited from supplying certain items on the US Department of Commerce’s Commerce Control List.
Such restrictions have a negative background: separate legal mechanisms for sanctions against Chinese persons in connection with the situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), etc. In addition, members of Congress periodically propose sanctions bills against China in connection with a variety of reasons, starting from the already familiar topics of human rights and ending with sanctions for possible cooperation with Russia. During the presidency of Joe Biden, none of these projects became law, which does not exclude the adoption of those and other bills in the future.
However, the intensity of US sanctions against China is incomparable to the volume of US restrictions on Russia. So, for example, the number of Chinese persons under blocking US financial sanctions can be measured in the dozens, while the number of Russians already exceeds 1,700. This does not include those persons in respect of whom the so-called “Rule of 50%” is in force, extending blocking sanctions to subsidiaries and controlled enterprises. The same can be said about export controls.
Restrictions against Huawei, the creation of a list of Chinese military companies, and the replenishment of the list of military end users by Chinese enterprises create a media response. But compared to the restrictions against Russia, the sanctions against China are still negligible. It is forbidden to supply almost all dual-use goods, hundreds of industrial goods and “luxury goods” to Russia, including consumer electronics and appliances. Large-scale restrictions on Russian imports and transport sanctions complete the picture. In addition, the United States has managed to build an impressive coalition of sanctions allies against Russia, while it is much more difficult to create such a coalition against China.
However, there is no guarantee that Beijing will not face a similar scenario in the future. Back in 2016, publications cautioning about possible US sanctions against China presented an unlikely scenario. However, the situation in the early 2020s is already significantly different from that reality. The United States and China assume the irreversibility of confrontation, but for their own reasons, they delay its escalation. This does not mean that sooner or later there will not be a landslide fall in relations. Predicting exactly the timing and scale of such a fall is as difficult as was predicting a crisis in relations between Russia and the West. In the meantime, there is a gradual accumulation of restrictive measures, one of which was Biden’s new Executive Order. The creeping nature of the escalation gives Beijing time to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
From our partner RIAC
Quad foreign ministers meet in New York for the third time
Quad foreign ministers met in New York for the second time this year and the seventh time since 2019. The four-nation grouping’s ambit of cooperation has clearly expanded and diversified over the years. What were the key talking points this time? I analyse.
The foreign ministers of India, Japan, Australia and the United States – four key maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific – met on the sidelines of the 78th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on September 22. This was their seventh meeting since 2019 and the second of 2023. Notably, exactly four years ago, this four-nation Quad was raised to the foreign ministers’ level amid a UNGA session. Earlier in 2023, the ministers met in March on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial in New Delhi and in May, this year, the Quad leaders’ summit was hosted by Japan on the sidelines of the G7 summit. Having met twice in 2022 as well, the ministers congregated six times in person and virtually once so far.
The previous ministerial in New Delhi saw the four-nation grouping making a reference to an extra-regional geopolitical issue for the first time – Ukraine – and also the initiation of a new Working Group mechanism on counter-terrorism, a key agenda item for India and the United States, among other themes of discussion. Following the seventh meeting, India’s foreign minister Dr S. Jaishankar tweeted, “Always value our collective contribution to doing global good”, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that the grouping is “vital to our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and together we reaffirmed our commitment to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter”.
Diversifying ambit of cooperation
The ministers have clearly doubled down on the commitments taken during their previous deliberations, particularly to improve capacity-building for regional players. The joint statement that followed the meeting read, “The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness is supporting regional partners combat illicit maritime activities and respond to climate-related and humanitarian events.” Similarly, the Working Group on maritime security promised “practical and positive outcomes” for the region. Prior to the recent ministerial, the Working Group on counter-terrorism conducted a Consequence Management Exercise that “explored the capabilities and support Quad countries could offer regional partners in response to a terrorist attack”, the joint readout mentions.
Later this year, the U.S. island state of Hawaii will host the Counter-terrorism Working Group’s meeting and tabletop exercise, which will focus on countering the use of emerging technologies for terrorist activities, while the Working Group on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) will be convened in Australia’s Brisbane for its second tabletop exercise. Earlier in August, this year, all four Quad navies participated in Exercise Malabar for the fourth consecutive year, off Sydney, the first hosted by Australia. However, as in previous meetings, the ministers didn’t specifically mention Russia or China with regard to the situations in Ukraine and maritime east Asia respectively.
On the Ukraine question, the ministers expressed their “deep concern”, taking note of its “terrible and tragic humanitarian consequences” and called for “comprehensive, just, and lasting peace”. In a veiled reference to Russia, the ministers rebuffed the “use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons”, underscoring the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, and called for the resumption of the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows for the export of food grains and fertilizers from Ukraine to world markets via a maritime humanitarian corridor, amid the ongoing conflict with Russia.
Similarly, in another veiled reference to continuing Chinese belligerence and lawfare in maritime east Asia, the ministers stressed upon the need to adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to maintain “freedom of navigation and overflight consistent with UNCLOS”, reiterating their “strong opposition to any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo by force or coercion”, including with respect to maritime claims in the South and East China Seas. Going further ahead, the ministers expressed their concern on “the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore exploitation activities”. The joint readout also had mentions of North Korea and Myanmar.
The evident and the inferred
Today, almost all the areas of cooperation of Quad countries happen to be the areas of strategic competition with China, the rapid rise of which necessitated the coming together of the four nations, even though this is not openly acknowledged. In this new great game unfolding in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S.-led Quad is trying to balance China’s overwhelming initiatives to capture the support of smaller and middle powers in the region and around the world. Placid initiatives such as the Open Radio Access Network, the private sector-led Investors Network, Cybersecurity Partnership, Cable Connectivity Partnership and the Pandemic Preparedness Exercises should be read in this context.
With the rise of Quad in parallel with the rise of China and other minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific such as the AUKUS (a grouping of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), the existing regional framework based on the slow-moving, consensus-based Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was put to test. However, allaying all doubts, Quad deliberations at both the ministerial and summit levels continued to extend their support to ASEAN’s centrality in the region and also for the ASEAN-led regional architecture that also includes the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Despite somewhat differing regional outlooks, the Quad likes to see itself as “complementary” to the ASEAN, rather than an “alternative” to its pan-regional influence.
India, the only non-ally of the U.S. in the Quad, will host the fourth in-person Quad leaders’ summit in 2024. The Asian giant is often dubbed as the weakest link in the grouping, owing to its friendly ties with Russia, but other members intent to keep India’s bilateral equations with other countries away from the interior dynamics of the grouping, signalling an acknowledgement of India’s growing geopolitical heft in the region and beyond. This seems to be subtly reflected in the stance taken by individual Quad members in the recent India-Canada diplomatic row, in which they made sure not to provoke New Delhi or to touch upon sensitive areas, even though a fellow Western partner is involved on the other side.
|Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting||Month & Year||Venue|
|First||September 2019||New York|
|Fifth||September 2022||New York|
|Sixth||March 2023||New Delhi|
|Seventh||September 2023||New York|
NB:- All three Quad ministerials in New York were held on the sidelines of the respective annual sessions of the UN General Assembly i.e., the first, the fifth, and the seventh meetings.
On the multilateral front, the four ministers reaffirmed their support for the UN, the need to uphold “mutually determined rules, norms, and standards, and to deepen Quad’s cooperation in the international system, and also batted for a comprehensive reform of the UN, including the expansion of permanent and non-permanent seats in the Security Council. While China and Russia, two powerful permanent members of the Security Council, continue to denounce the Quad as an “exclusionary bloc”, the Quad ministers and leaders tend to tone down any security role for the grouping.
However, a recent comment made by Vice Admiral Karl Thomas of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet during this year’s Exercise Malabar is noteworthy. He said the war games were “not pointed toward any one country”, rather it would improve the ability of the four forces to work with each other and “the deterrence that our four nations provide as we operate together as a Quad is a foundation for all the other nations operating in this region”. Even in the absence of a security treaty, in a way he hinted at the grouping’s desire to cherish its collective strength across all fronts and to check on hegemonic tendencies that may manifest in the region from time to time.
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