Anthony Albanese did not get to choose his first international visit: the Quad chose him. Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, and Kevin Rudd all chose to visit Indonesia before any other country.
That had been Albanese’s plan too, until the timing of the Quad summit, informed by the US president’s schedule, made it impossible.
The importance of the first visit is mostly symbolic. Morrison’s legacy on Indonesia is mixed, despite his early visit.
Yet the balance between working in the Quad and working directly with countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific could define the Albanese-Wong foreign policy.
A bipartisan approach to China means the point of departure for Albanese is the same as it was for Morrison: how to constrain China’s growing regional influence and preserve a balance of power in Asia that is favourable to Australia.
The answer Morrison gave was mostly about doubling down on the alliance with the United States, including through AUKUS and the Quad.
It is wrong to argue that the Morrison government “neglected” its relationships with regional countries. But none of these relationships attracted the same level of prime ministerial energy or enthusiasm as the Quad, described by Morrison as the most significant development for Australia’s security since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951.
An expanded security role for the Quad would be an important way of continuing to surprise China.
Albanese’s reaffirmation of Australia’s commitment to the Quad in Tokyo struck the right note. The Quad’s most important success is the simple fact of its existence: it helps keep its members on the same page when it comes to challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
For Australia, this means keeping the US as engaged as possible, supporting Japan’s increasingly proactive foreign and security policies, and encouraging greater Indian alignment with US and allied approaches to the Indo-Pacific.
Related to this, the Quad’s mere existence tells China that it will not have things its own way all the time. If judged by its public statements, the Quad greatly perturbs Beijing. Chinese officials regularly rail against “small circles” and bloc confrontation, code for the Quad.
The Quad cuts across one of China’s central objectives in Asia, which is the weakening of US alliances, and forces China to recalculate its expectations about how durable and robust Washington’s partnerships are. An expanded security role for the Quad, as many experts increasingly advocate, would be an important way of continuing to surprise China and show it that the US and its partners are capable of collective responses.
These facts in themselves are hugely important, and alone merit the Quad’s position as a central pillar in Australian foreign policy.
Delivering ‘public goods’ might not suffice
Where the Quad’s value becomes more debatable is when it comes to constraining China’s growing influence in the three key subregions of the Indo-Pacific: the Indian Ocean region, South-East Asia and the Pacific.
The initial thinking of Quad members has been that they will together deliver “public goods” such as vaccines or other assistance, thereby showing regional countries that they have options apart from China. The delivery of public goods to a grateful region, as the logic goes, will show that the Quad is constructive and not aimed at further polarising the Indo-Pacific.
As yet, there is no proof that this concept will work. The Quad’s first flagship initiative, to deliver vaccines, has been delayed to the point that it is no longer dealing with a pressing issue. The region is now awash with vaccines; pockets of low immunisation rates are mostly the result of vaccine hesitancy rather than a lack of supply.
Delays with joint projects are no surprise. Delivering even small projects jointly with another country – even one with similar objectives and procedures – is challenging, let alone when it involves four countries as large and different as the Quad members.
The Quad agenda is already unwieldly and set to sprawl further, with the US proposing two new ministerial meetings, of transport and energy ministers.
The major new initiative announced at this week’s Quad was to provide countries in the Indo-Pacific with technology and training to improve their maritime domain awareness by better tracking activity in their own waters with commercial satellite data.
Quad partners likely hope that this initiative will be welcomed by regional countries because it would help them address the impact of illegal fishing, of which China is a key perpetrator.
Bilateral relationships remain vital
Even leaving aside the question of delivery, a bigger question remains: whether providing public goods can help the Quad gain influence in regional countries.
First, the Quad must overcome scepticism from regional countries over concerns that by competing with China, the grouping is ramping up regional tensions. Second, the group has no mechanism to deal additional countries into the design or delivery of its programs.
And finally, the Quad is limited by the willingness of regional countries to push back against China. Even if the Quad, for example, shares data on China’s illicit maritime activities with its partners, it can do little if those partners prefer not to act on the information.
In the end, the most important tool for constraining China’s growing regional influence – whether in South-East Asia or the Pacific – is the strength of the individual bilateral relationships that the Quad members have with those countries. Labor’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong clearly recognises this, given her decision to pay an early visit to Fiji.
Albanese and Wong also have good intentions to refocus on South-East Asia, which is long overdue. They will be charting a new course: engagement with Asia, even as Australia continues to push back against the region’s resident superpower.