On May 23, before the Quad leaders’ summit in Tokyo, the United States launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with a diverse group of 12 countries initially — Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The US-led economic engagement is a salient attempt to allow countries to decouple from Chinese over-dependence in order to ultimately strengthen the existing free and open rules-based global order, which China has been targeting to upend, and re-establish US dominance . That the launch coincided with the Quad summit during President Joe Biden’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo signifies the essence of the Quad and its extension as a “plus” grouping.
Importantly, both the IPEF launch, and the Tokyo summit dispel any remaining misgivings about the Quad disintegrating and certify that it is a cohesive unit where it matters. The India-rest of Quad divide over Ukraine and the Western disquiet over India’s softer stance on Russia has hardly made a dent as far as the cohesiveness of the Quad and its future are concerned.
Fundamentally, the IPEF complements the “Quad Plus” process. It brings together seven critical countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), all Quad states, and dialogue partners, including South Korea, solidifying a case for the “plus” characterisation of the Quad process. The strongly imbibes Quad Plus character at a time when two of the largest IPEF of the world, namely India and the US, are not part of the China-led Regional or ASEAN-led Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP; China is still an applicant). Thus, it is an encouraging sign that the Quad countries are investing their strategic orientation in this regard. Yet, doubts over the relevance and merit of the Quad Plus grouping still continue to abound.
Critics might dismiss the Quad Plus as a virtual assembly of agreeable nations that were engaged during the Covid pandemic. Yet, the format holds much promise amid all the current uncertainty. It would potentially represent an amalgamation of the eastern and western “like-minded” countries. Even in its current abstract framework, it includes a wide array of states (which also comprise the IPEF) — developing and developed powers as well as middle and major that are committed to maintaining an inclusive, rules-based and liberal institutional order.
The inclusivity angle is suspect as the grouping is essentially what China calls a US-led “anti-China” tool. However, the criticism could be mitigated by developing — instead of a reflection of a broader coalition, which is very much abstract at present — a “plus” framework based more on a shared commitment to the existing international order rather than “democratic values” that are harder to define and more exclusive in nature. Therefore, what interested states must envision is a broad, all-embracing, and comprehensive framework that can stand as a pillar for regional security and stability, multilateralism, and defense of global institutionalism and the status quo. Establishing a stronger regional economic framework that promotes a resilient and secured supply-chain connection is just the beginning.
Further, the narrative of the Quad as an anti-China tool (with a range of epithets, from “sea foam” to “Asian NATO”) promoted by China along with its belligerent tactics in the neighborhood and beyond has only served to coalesce the Quad states. The growing synergy would only strengthen the extension of the Quad, which is a China-containment rather than an exclusively anti-China grouping, both through inclusion of more states (plus format) and agenda (security). The expanding grouping and the related Quad initiatives will build a comprehensive and integrated approach to combating shared challenges arising out of Xi Jinping’s push to promote manoeuvres that achieve his ultimate goal of rejuvenating China’s glorious past and transforming it into an absolute great power.
The IPEF — which covers fair trade, supply chain resilience, infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonisation, among others — is likely to complement the other Indo-Pacific projects like the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI, founded by the three Quad states, Japan , Australia, and India) that also seeks to build resilient and secure trade linkages by reducing dependence on China. In this respect, the inclusion of Taiwan, which already has a critical role in the global semi-conductor supply chain network, in the SCRI and the IPEF as well as, by extension, in the Quad format, in some manner (perhaps, first as a dialogue partner and a plus inclusion), would be a welcome addition.
Taiwan is a major economy in the Indo-Pacific region (as also the US’s eighth-largest trading partner in 2021 and a critical partner in diversifying the US supply chains), which is already engaged in the US-Taiwan Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue that includes many of the issues proposed in the IPEF. It is also an active member of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and has been consistently building its outreach within the region and beyond. Importantly, Taiwan’s inclusion would also be a geopolitical statement against coercion tactics by international actors.
A hallmark of Biden’s latest Asia visit has been South Korea’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific framework under the new Yoon Seok-yeol government; Yoon has been keen to participate in the Quad process for long. This is a long-awaited turn that could potentially lead to South Korea participating in a more meaningful manner in the Quad in the near future. During the Covid-19 crisis, the Republic of Korea (along with New Zealand and Vietnam) had joined the so-called Quad Plus meetings to coordinate actions to stem the pandemic.
Soon, the Quad Plus should take this process forward and strengthen cooperation on critical topics in the Quad’s agenda (for instance, security, critical technology, global health, climate action). States are showing their willingness, and now it is incumbent on the Quad states to allow for the creation of a “corridor of communication” that ultimately leads to a “continental connection” to strengthen a rules-based order.
Dr. Jagannath Panda is Head of Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden, and a Senior Fellow at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, The Netherlands