President Joe Biden is hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for the first-ever in-person Quad summit. That the meeting is taking place during a pandemic that has curtailed the globetrotting of statesmen and women adds an extra layer of diplomatic significance.
Expect to hear a lot about the need for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” — code for countering China’s growing might and increasingly aggressive territorial claims.
The new relevance of the Quad summit is a rare mark of continuity between the Trump administration and a Biden White House that reversed much of its predecessor’s foreign policy. It is also another sign of the administration’s intent to shift the emphasis of its diplomacy to the Asia-Pacific region, after sacrificing relations with France to send nuclear-powered subs down under.
The Quad is not a formal military alliance like NATO. But that doesn’t rule out joint exercises in the region. And there is growing speculation that something more formal may emerge, which could mean a debate about what the Quad is actually for.
While each member of the Quad has its own national security concerns with Beijing, ranging from territorial disputes and economic pressure to espionage and cybersecurity, the White House stresses that Friday’s talks will also cover the climate crisis, emerging technologies and cyberspace. No doubt the pandemic, a threat facing every country, will come up. But overall, the meeting is a sign that four key democracies in the Asia-Pacific region are feeling pressure to respond to China’s power.
And the alliance architecture in the region is evolving as a result.
‘Could we please unmute the minister?’
A traditional New York City sign that summer is turning into fall: The chic young Fashion Week influencers posing in streets downtown vanish, replaced by chic young diplomatic aides zipping around uptown for the United Nations’ high-level week.
Do not come, the US told the world ahead of the UN General Assembly, fearing a super-spreader event. But after more than a year of lockdowns, social distancing restrictions and Zoom glitches, few could resist riding around Manhattan in motorcades complete with miniature flags and flashing lights, and the opportunity to rub elbows with other interesting foreigners between the marble columns of the UN headquarters. More than 100 national delegations showed up anyway.
It was good timing for a visit. The city that never sleeps is back, more or less, after reaching 70% Covid-19 vaccination of adults with at least one shot in June. Capacity restrictions on bars and restaurants are over, and customers can wander indoors with proof of vaccination. Sidewalks are crowded, subways packed and reserving a table at a trendy restaurant is as hard as in the pre-Covid days.
While some delegations have already come and gone, sharply dressed junior diplomats can still be seen hustling up and down 42nd Street, gossiping about “my minister.” Leaders of Germany, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark will all address the global body on Friday — which means Thursday will be the last night on the town for some entourages.
Free vaccinations have been available on request just outside the UN, which might have made the week an effective window into post-pandemic life had Covid-19 not been the biggest topic on every meeting agenda — and had the Brazilian health minister not made headlines by testing positive just as his country’s delegation prepared to head home. With a minority of officials attending virtually, the familiar irritations of videoconferencing also persisted — with the refrain heard more than once at a news briefing, “Could we please unmute the minister?