The foreign ministers of a strategic four-nation bloc operating as a bulwark against China signed a framework to coordinate disaster response operations in the Indo-Pacific while reiterating their commitment to "multilateral cooperation" in "support of advancing a free and open" region.
The partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief came to fruition on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Friday. It was first announced by the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the US at a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Tokyo in May.
The plan represents yet another non-military initiative by the Quad, which was reestablished in 2017 and has been characterised by Beijing as "Asia's Nato".
The White House now describes the strategic bloc as a "a premier regional grouping ... on issues that matter to the Indo-Pacific".
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said it was "extremely significant" that Quad nations "demonstrate" their firm commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region as the world "witnesses direct attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force".
Hayashi said this vision could not be achieved without cooperating with the countries in the region and contributing to solving their problems.
According to James Schwemlein of the South Asia programme at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the initiative recalls the Quad's origins.
When it was established in 2004, the Quad nations worked together to respond to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people. But the alliance fell apart after Australia under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd decided to pursue better ties with China.
"From climate change, investment, education to Covid response, there are other ways in which this kind of a loose grouping ... can be kind of a leader in terms of facilitating and organising collective responses to common problems," said Schwemlein, adding that "China has made very aggressive attempts to brand Quad as something it is not".
Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations said no "rebranding" was necessary for the Quad, as it had always defined itself as "focused on the needs of the region". Smith pointed to "no evidence" of the group's meetings being "some sort of military alliance", as claimed by Beijing.
"The Quad is not an alliance," she said, adding that it was "one of the many minilateral groupings that populate the region".
Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre, a Washington think tank, believed the Quad's widening scope and reach in the region would elicit more "hostility" from China because it "covers more dimensions other than security, and it does have the appeal because it (has) focused on non-security issues".
The Quad's "non-military focus, as manifested, also demonstrates varying levels of willingness among the four members to forge (a) collective military approach toward China", she added.
What comes next for the Quad, however, is an open question.
As long as the leaders of the Quad nations see a benefit in working with one another, Smith said, the bloc would continue and the results would determine the region's receptivity to it.
"Already, they have produced results in providing Covid vaccines and in helping to establish vaccine production in the region. A new maritime domain awareness effort will help nations monitor illegal activity across this vast maritime region," she added. "Results are emerging from this common effort."
But Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an opinion piece that the Quad "must do more to deliver on its core security goals" and "manage expectations on what it can achieve". Madan said China's "growing assertiveness demands that the group move with greater urgency".
In light of "renewed concerns about China's possible designs on Taiwan, against India, or in the East or South China seas, the group's mission to ensure collective peace and stability in the region will only become more critical", she warned.
"The idea is to provide choice, stability, and to bring resources to the region that otherwise might not have been available."
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