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Quad leaders hand Australia a bigger stick to fend off China

Beijing's attempts to bully Canberra have been utterly counterproductive

| Australia
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison participates in the Quad leaders meeting via video link in Sydney on Mar. 13: the biggest beneficiary was Australia.   © AP

Malcolm Turnbull is a former Prime Minister of Australia. His memoir "A Bigger Picture," was published last year.

All of us on this side of the Pacific should be very pleased that U.S. President Joe Biden chose to make the first leaders' level meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue his own first multilateral security discussion as president.

The Quad brings together Japan, India, Australia and the United States. It is not an alliance, as it is so often mistakenly called, but it serves to bring India closer to the United States and its allies, Japan and Australia.

Shinzo Abe has been central to the conception of the Quad. Back in 2007, it was his initiative to begin the dialogue, supported by India's PM Manmohan Singh, Australia's John Howard and U.S. President George W. Bush. There was a meeting of officials from the four countries followed by a joint naval exercise, also including Singapore. But then, in 2008, following strong criticism of the Quad from Beijing, Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced Australia would not be proposing another meeting.

At the same time, Shinzo Abe was replaced as Prime Minister by Yasuo Fukuda who had little interest in his predecessor's security agenda. The Quad faded from view.

The dialogue had not, however, proceeded to leaders' level meetings when, in 2008, Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd withdrew.

By the time I became Prime Minister of Australia in 2015, Shinzo Abe was once again Prime Minister of Japan. He was keen to reinstate the Quad, as I was. However, India had felt aggrieved by Australia's abrupt withdrawal in 2008 and did not want to return to the Quad only to see Australia pull out of it again following stern words from Beijing.

We began discussions in 2016 and by the following year not only had agreed to conduct joint naval exercises but to reinstate the Quad dialogue although, at that stage, between senior officials. The first meeting of Quad Foreign Ministers was in 2019 and with the leaders meeting last week, the dialogue is now fully restored.

While fear of an increasingly aggressive China will cause India to move closer to the United States and its allies, the nonaligned tradition in India is strong, reinforced by an anxiety not to provoke its considerably stronger neighbor. Nothing would undermine Modi's leadership more than provoking, and losing, a regional conflict with China even if the subject matter was some contested ridges in the high Himalayas.

So for India, the Quad represents something of a hedge against China. For the U.S., Japan and Australia, it represents closer engagement with what is the world's largest democracy and, all going well, should shortly become one of the world's largest economies. Demography, after all, is destiny.

However, right now, the biggest beneficiary of last week's meeting was Australia.

China has been trying to make an example of Australia for some time now. Offense has been taken by various Australian actions. Banning Huawei Technologies from our fifth-generation (5G) mobile network did not go down well, nor did our joining Japan and the U.S. in objecting to China's unilateral island-building in contested waters of the South China Sea. Protesting about the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong has not been appreciated, any more than complaining about a million Uigurs being interned in Xinjiang.

Daring to suggest last year that there should be an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus was particularly resented. As Xi's China has become more repressive domestically and belligerent internationally, there has been plenty to push back against.

In contrast to all of President Xi's public statements about free trade and the evils of using trade measures as political weapons, China has proceeded to punish Australia with sanctions, tariffs and even bans on many Australian exports ranging from coal to wine, barley and beef and much more besides. Only iron ore, our largest export by far, has not been affected no doubt because there is no viable, alternative source of supply.

Iron ore from Australia is unloaded at Rizhao Port, China's Shandong province: only iron ore has not been affected because there is no alternative source of supply..   © Corbis/Getty Images

This coercion is designed to make Australia mend its ways and adopt a more compliant posture when it comes to the Middle Kingdom. As a foreign policy, it is utterly counterproductive. It turns public opinion against China in Australia, makes even the slightest policy changes almost impossible to contemplate, let alone effect and of course raises great anxiety in other capitals.

One part of the Chinese strategy was to isolate Australia from its allies. So at the same time as Australia was being disciplined, Beijing sought to get closer to Japan and the United States.

The Quad meeting, therefore, was a very useful signal that the U.S. and Japan are standing firm with Australia as it stares down the bully tactics from Beijing. India, while not an Australian ally, also showed its solidarity by participating in the Quad.

Ultimately the only way to stop China from picking smaller nations off one by one is for democracies to stick together and support each other when the pressure is on.

As I know from my own experience, Chinese foreign policy, especially of the indignant variety, is always instrumental. Once it is clear that its purpose is not being achieved, then it is likely to be dropped. This may take time, but giving into coercion only invites more of it.

The picture of the four leaders looked good in each of their capitals, but it was in Beijing that it will have given most cause for reflection and, hopefully, some course correction.

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