The raging Covid-19 global pandemic has put additional burden on New Zealand’s seemingly beleaguered foreign policy by catapulting a long-brewing “concept” into a firm new grouping of - “Quad” - on the forefront of the international stage.
The recent virtual summit of the top leaders of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia held on Friday, March 12, has firmly announced the arrival of a new grouping of “Quad” on the international stage and will have significant implications for countries of the region, including New Zealand.
Plainly speaking NZ’s political leadership and foreign policy mandarins would have caught off-guarded and unprepared to respond to this dramatic rise of “Quad” – something that they would have secretly hoped to never materialise in the near term – at least not under the shadow of a raging global pandemic.
Now there will an added layer of worry and apprehension within the realm of NZ’s foreign policy – of responding to the rise of the “Quad.”
For uninitiated, Covid-19 global pandemic has already badgered NZ’s foreign policy goals, first in the form of cancellation of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit Meeting in 2021 – a major global event that NZ has been preparing for years - and subsequently in witnessing a growing disjunction with close ally Australia in recent times, particularly over the issue of Trans-Tasman air-travel bubble.
However, even before the onset of this global pandemic, the current government’s response to some of the rapidly emerging geopolitical changes in NZ’s immediate and wider neighbourhood (Asia & the Pacific) evident in the two emergent concepts of “Indo-Pacific” and “Quad” has been - far from stellar.
New Zealand’s foreign policy mandarins have been watching for quite some time with interest and apprehension these two emergent concepts - “Indo-Pacific” and the “Quad” – which have both started to firm-up in the realm of international politics in 2017.
The idea of “Indo-Pacific” had first found mention in Australian Foreign Policy since 2012 as a zone of security concern and has gained wider precedence in 2017 when it was included in the United States National Security Strategy document by the White House and the subsequent Trump administration’s foreign policy statements.
In comparison, the idea of “Quad” has more shelf-life than that of “Indo-Pacific,” first emerging in 2007 when Japan’s then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had proposed a coming together of Japan and regional partners Australia, India and the US based on their shared democratic backgrounds and mutually shared anxiety vis-à-vis China.
The trajectory of the progress and acceptance of these two concepts have not been exactly the same over the last few years.
Many experts had concurred that while the concept of “Indo-Pacific” was more reflective of the rise of India in previous decades as a net regional security provider and potentially bringing India into the mix of regional players with ambitions and capabilities to shape regional order in the vast region from the Indian-Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the “Quad” was more ambitious in countering the rise of an assertive China. It was widely argued that there was a possibility the proposed Quad cooperation could be extended to include military coordination to counter-Beijing.
Over the years, the proponents of both concepts have included caution in their pitch to reflect sensitivities of other players in the region, particularly those with an increased level of economic interdependence with China, such as ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) and countries like New Zealand.
In that endeavour, the concept of “Indo-Pacific” has started getting more traction in recent years, while many experts have remained conservative about the future of “Quad” primarily because the four participating countries had a different level of security-anxiety vis-à-vis China, and therefore a perceived different level of motivation to forge a formal security alliance.
Initially, New Zealand has not been comfortable with either of these concepts, for the simple reason of their rooting and emphasis on security, instead of the economy, as is the case with the now gradually retreating concept of “Asia-Pacific,” of which it has been an active player for the last many decades.
It has taken some time for NZ’s political leadership and foreign policy mandarins actually to warm up to the ascendent idea of “Indo-Pacific” and that has also not happened, without the simultaneous affirmation of their preference for the previously used term “Asia-Pacific”.
In fact, it was as late as in February 2020 when the then Foreign Minister Winston Peters on his maiden visit to India finally removed one of the most underlying indefiniteness in New Zealand’s geostrategic-vision by extending unambiguous support to the idea of “Indo-Pacific” in a speech delivered in New Delhi.
New Zealand’s foreign policy mandarins would have been looking to the APEC 2021 summit with so much promise to reaffirm their support for “Asia-Pacific”, which they see more inclusive and centred around the economy, hence suited to core national interests – an opportunity now shrivelled - if not completely lost because of Covid-19 pandemic.
Following a lead from many experts and commentators who had remained equivocal about the future of Quad in the near term, it seems, New Zealand, like many other countries of the region, would have caught bit surprised to have to deal with this sudden progress seen in the form of the first-ever summit meeting of the leaders of Quad countries.
The fact that America’s new President Jo Biden had chosen to continue with his arch-nemesis former President Trump's efforts to solidify the strategic partnership (Quad) as he formulates his approach to China, signals that the Quad will become a central part of the US strategy in Asia.
The manner in which the leaders of the four countries had chosen to solidify the Quad platform by affirming “vaccine-diplomacy,” manifested in the promise of jointly manufacturing and delivering up to 1 billion doses of Coronavirus vaccine throughout South East Asia, will further fetch support from the countries previously sitting on the fence.
Sooner or later, New Zealand will also have to shape its response to this new emerging dominant reality in its neighbourhood region.
For now, to the surprise of many, Covid-pandemic has offered a unique opportunity of being a springboard, or contrarily, the proponents of the concept have demonstrated sharp agility to use this global pandemic as a springboard and solidify Quad grouping on the international stage.