Morrison meets with Quad leaders as Australia gets serious about tempering China's strength

It is entirely conceivable to assume news of Australia’s shock foray into nuclear-powered submarines was deliberately timed to drop as Prime Minister Scott Morrison hit the world stage.

Flying to the US for a week of high-stakes diplomacy, the Prime Minister is here to back in the support from his allies in the Indo-Pacific, as he engages in his first face-to-face meeting with Quad nations.

The alliance – between Australia, the United States, India and Japan — has become a de facto security mechanism to manage China’s rise.

Australia’s big new subs deal was perfectly timed to coincide and show how serious the nation is about the growing security threat.

However, Scott Morrison has spent most of the week hosing down concerns the move had damaged Australia’s long-term relationship with France.

It’s understandable the French are upset. Australia’s decision to go nuclear results in axing a contract with France to build a fleet of conventional vessels, worth $90 billion.

Aware of the angst it would cause, Mr Morrison first swung past the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York to meet up with European allies, in the hope of smoothing tensions spurred by cutting the French out.

At each of his press conferences this week, he’s fielded questions on how French President Emmanuel Macron has responded and, conversely, whether he mishandled or miscalculated the delicacy of the situation.

He has been at pains to stress, the deal — which has him firmly in the freezer with the French — was a decision made in Australia’s national interest, that the conventional submarines, offered up by the French, no longer cut it against threats in Australia’s region.

The PM has hedged his bets, the diplomatic freeze will defrost with time, and it is more important to show his Quad allies that Australia is serious about countering Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region by bringing the big boys into town, the United Kingdom and the US.

Quad leaders have an agenda that not everyone will be happy with 

Originally conceived as a humanitarian response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the Quad group is now more of security alliance, although the grouping shies away from the definition.

Against the backdrop of France’s furious reaction, Australia would be hoping the bigger picture prevails at the meeting.

The move to nuclear shows Australia is serious about tempering China’s strength rather than concerns about spurring conflict or derailing diplomatic relations in Europe.

Australia is punching above its weight when to comes to being a member of the Quad.

The other three nations have much larger populations, economies and military budgets than Australia.

Meeting as an equal partner at the table with the three leaders is a major moment for the Prime Minister.

Speaking ahead of the Quad meeting, without mentioning the word China, Mr Morrison made clear assertions his concerns lie with Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and growing influence in the region.

“We are liberal democracies, that believe in a world order than favours freedom and we believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“Because we know that’s what delivers a strong, stable and prosperous region.

“The Quad is about demonstrating how democracies like ours, as you said Mr President, can get things done.

“There is no part of the world that is more dynamic than the Indo-Pacific at this time”, he said.

However, this meeting is not just about China.

Other big items on the agenda include the COVID-19 pandemic and a speedier rollout of vaccines to poor and developing nations.

Together, the Quad group will aim to add to the goal of one billion vaccines shots pledged six months ago, which will involve the manufacture of the doses in India.

There will also be a commitment to more clean energy projects, specifically aimed to helping developing nations transform their economies to low carbon and the development of a 5G mobile networks system, as an alternative to Chinese Huawei equipment.

The nations will also offer 25 scholarships for each country to send science and technology students to study at US universities, at an annual cost of $138 million dollars.

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