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Democracies Pledge over One Billion Vaccine Doses, in Diplomatic Triumph

Pharmacist Danny Huynh fills a syringe with the Moderna coronavirus vaccine in Chula Vista, Calif., January 21, 2021. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In some quarters these days, the conventional wisdom holds that America’s diplomatic commitments can no longer be taken seriously by its allies since the U.S. withdrew from diplomatic pacts such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.

This argument was in no small part a political cudgel deployed by European diplomats and commentators with a certain center-left foreign-policy sensibility coming to the defense of these agreements. While partisan splits on certain foreign-policy issues have led and can lead to reversals between successive presidential administrations, their concerns amounted to more a Trump-era political talking point than a factor that considerably constrains U.S. foreign policy — and today’s Quad summit proves it.

This grouping of the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan held its first summit between the leaders of the four Quad countries this morning and has just announced the most ambitious global vaccine push among the world’s democracies. It was, of course, held virtually, but they intend to hold an in-person meeting by the end of the year.

There’s been much made about the vigorous efforts of Russia and China to leverage their hastily developed shots as a way with which to advance their standing on the world stage, often through political coercion and spreading disinformation. The U.S. and its allies — which abided by more stringent safety guidelines — seemed to have remained on the sidelines. That is, until now.

“With steadfast commitment to the health and safety of our own people, we also recognize that none of us can be safe as long as the pandemic continues to spread,” the leaders of the four Quad countries said in a joint statement today. “We will, therefore, collaborate to strengthen equitable vaccine access for the Indo-Pacific, with close coordination with multilateral organizations including the World Health Organization and COVAX.”

Their statement doesn’t do justice to this impressive undertaking. The vaccine campaign amounts to a kaleidoscope of many overlapping efforts by the four countries. According to the White House, the U.S. and Japan have committed to financing an Indian firm’s production of 1 billion COVID vaccine doses, including the Johnson & Johnson shot, by the end of 2022. Australia will deliver the vaccines to Southeast Asian and Pacific island countries.

The Quad countries have never explicitly stated that the grouping — which was initially formed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and revived in 2017 — has aims to counter China. But former secretary of state Mike Pompeo has taken Quad meetings, such as one ministerial-level summit in October, as occasion to lambast “the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion.” Even the subtext of today’s meeting clearly makes oblique reference to the single largest threat to about a “free and open Indo-Pacific” a region “unconstrained by coercion,” in the resulting statement, titled, “the Spirit of the Quad.”

Crucially, though, the Quad counters Beijing by focusing on building a world that stands in stark contrast to what the CCP envisions in a China-led global order — thus this ambitious vaccine development program, in addition to other initiatives on emerging technologies  and climate change.

From an American standpoint, the Quad is the fruit of a remarkable bipartisan commitment — one that began under President Trump and which President Biden chose to continue — to working with democratic partners in an implicit rebuke of Chinese authoritarianism. In other words, demonstrating that the defenders of Obama-era diplomatic initiatives were wrong to argue that jettisoning flawed and marginally supported deals would cripple Washington’s ability to forge different, more worthwhile diplomatic arrangements.

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