Quad countries commit to vaccine partnership and multi-sector cooperation

Last Friday, March 12, 2021, Quad members – U.S., India, Australia, and Japan – announced the formation of “The Quad Vaccine Partnership”: “a landmark partnership” to “assist countries in the Indo-Pacific with vaccination,” including in the “production, procurement, and delivery of safe and effective vaccine”.

The countries made a point of confirming their commitments to supporting global vaccination efforts, saying they would, “ensure expanded manufacturing will be exported for global benefit,” in particular by ensuring vaccine availability for “key multilateral initiatives, such as COVAX”.

The Quad – initially organized to assist in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami and increasingly to cooperate on “areas of common interest” in the Indo-Pacific region, though not at the expense of overshadowing established institutions (ASEAN and EAS) – also announced the formation of three other “groups”: “The Quad Vaccine Experts Group,” “The Quad Climate Change Group,” and “The Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group”.

The club had until now lacked any “working groups” and continues to lack a “Quad secretariat,” or formalized institution, as well as a “standing army task force” – mostly due to the preferences of its members, but also from outside pressure. The working groups, then, can be seen as “flexible coalitions of the willing on different issues,” and the Quad itself  – a so-called hallmark of “modern diplomacy” – as being nimble enough to “broaden its agenda” and include other countries where appropriate – New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam for example.

The Quad Vaccine Experts Group will see “top scientists and officials” from each member country develop a joint “implementation plan” for “the COVID-19 vaccination effort,” among other knowledge sharing and capacity building initiatives. This group is expected to “make additional recommendations” sometime later this year.

On climate change, the Quad will work conjointly “and with other countries to support, strengthen, and enhance actions globally,” including on the Paris Agreement’s  implementation and by “advancing low-emissions technology solutions”. It is unclear whether “advancing” solutions will entail joint technology partnerships or a common regulatory framework.

The Technology Working Group will see the development of common rules on technology in the form of “a statement of principles on technology” and greater “coordination on technology standards” between “national standards bodies”. It will also cooperate on “telecommunications deployment” and “convene dialogues on critical supply chains”.

The U.S. – though it has said it will not share vaccine doses until it has vaccinated its own population – through its Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has committed to financing Biological E Ltd., an Indian pharmaceutical company, to expand its vaccine manufacturing capacity. The company’s goal is to produce “1 billion Covid-19 vaccines by the end of 2022”. It is unclear how much the U.S. has committed to this effort.

Japan, despite its and Australia’s sluggish vaccine rollouts, “is in discussions to provide concessional yen loans for the Government of India to expand manufacturing for COVID-19 vaccines for export”. Financing to the Indian government will come from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and potentially its Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC).

Though important, ‘last mile’ vaccination in all regions has posed a number of challenges. Therefore, members as a group have committed to support multiple aspects of this vaccination segment: “This includes supporting countries with vaccine readiness and delivery, vaccine procurement, health workforce preparedness, responses to vaccine misinformation, community engagement, immunization capacity, and more”.

Specifically, the U.S. will work through its “existing” immunization programs in the region, which have $100 million in funding. Japan will support the “purchases of vaccines and cold-chain support” through $41 million in grants and “new concessional yen loans”. Australia, has committed US$77 million for the “provision of vaccines and ‘last-mile’ delivery,” particularly in Southeast Asia. It had previously committed to support the vaccination efforts of “nine Pacific Island countries” and Timor-Leste.

Support for vaccine production in India and rollout in Southeast Asia, and the establishment of working groups on pressing global issues is sure to be a welcome sign for Quad countries and the greater Indo-Pacific region. Japan, under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has long advocated greater collaboration among the Quad countries on regional issues. As the U.S. under the previous administration spurned multilateral engagement in the Indo-Pacific, Japan has not only maintained existing structures for cooperation but has also rivaled China in its infrastructure and development investments in Southeast Asia.

Australia, though historically less inclined to make any waves to trouble its trade relationship with China, is perhaps eager to work more broadly with other regional powers after its special trading partner lashed out and blocked most of its exports – China receives nearly a third of Australia’s total – as retribution for its advocating a “Covid-19 inquiry” in China.

The U.S., apart from seeking to “pivot” to Asia, may see efforts to bolster vaccine rollout in Southeast Asia and the expansion of the Quad’s mandate more generally as ways it can maintain its influence on a number of issues beyond security while not being seen as domineering, particularly in the eyes of Southeast Asian countries – which would rather not have to choose between the U.S. and China, but hope to reap the benefits of “friendly competition”.

In order to lead on climate change and have any chance at moving China to increase its ambition, the U.S. will also need to work with regional powers – the other three Quad countries do not have particularly stellar records when it comes to climate (India and Japan have announced climate goals; Australia was barred from participating in the “Climate Ambition Summit” last December).

No other country wants to see China dominate emerging technologies, such as 5G, and impose them or its regulatory regime on neighboring countries. Globally but particularly in the region, there has been much talk of reorienting supply chains away from China; this may lead to an accelerating shift in manufacturing to Southeast Asia. It’s unclear whether hi-tech development will be supported in the region, though Vietnam’s plans to make further investments in its tech industry appear promising.

India feels the heat from multiple directions: it’s the only Quad country to experience “lethal confrontation” with China along its shared border; it has the third highest GHG emissions, but has large “energy development needs”; and it seeks to combat growing Chinese influence in its own “neighborhood” generally. It has already donated vaccines to several of its neighbors, and has also lobbied Quad members to support its vaccine manufacturing in order to compete with Chinese global vaccine distribution.

On that last point, the Quad countries have taken pains to reassure regional countries as well as the international community that their efforts “to boost vaccine capability” will complement rather than undermine global initiatives to distribute and administer Covid-19 vaccines. This is manifest in the joint statement’s repeated references to “support” and “strengthen” the “work of international organizations including the WHO, COVAX, GAVI, CEPI and UNICEF” as well as other organizations not directly related to public health: “G7, ASEAN, and governments”.

Assurances of providing “safe and effective vaccine”, i.e. those that have “Stringent Regulatory Authorization (SRA) and/or World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Use Listing (EUL),” are important for any country, but can also be read as a counter to China’s vaccine development and distribution efforts for which there has been less transparency on Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness and lack of cooperation with international initiatives – compared to “Western” vaccines.

Globally, “As of early March, China had committed more than ten times as many doses overseas as it had administered in China (52 million),” wrote Yanzhong Huang, a Senior Fellow of Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. China’s focus so far has been on Southeast Asia: “China committed 250 million doses to Southeast Asia – 44 percent of the total doses committed worldwide”. Notably, Indonesia accounts for “40 percent of all vaccines and active ingredients shipped overseas,” he added.

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