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On 12th March 2021, history was indeed made when the four leaders of the so-called QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, PM Scott Morrison of Australia and newly elected PM Suga of Japan and President Joe Biden of USA decided to meet virtually. The meeting is highly significant as the world is grappling with the Corona Virus pandemic and also with Chinese expansionism and assertiveness and the consequent global economic downturn and recession.
All four constituents have one or the other grievance or complaint against the China of Xi Jinping that made possible their congruence despite divergent perceptions and strategies. Even in the wake of Chinese invasion and violent border standoff for months India maintained strategic patience, an ever ready robust response mechanism and a preference for dialogue to resolve disputes with its overbearing northern neighbour. Australians are in an economic noose recently tightened by China and Japanese are fighting off the Chinese naval encroachments without rocking the boat. The new US Administration like former President Trump has concluded that China is their most potent competitor and rival for the numero uno position. But unlike Trump they would like to find a modus vivendi in the interim. Hence, in the Joint Statement China was not mentioned even if the dragon was very much in the virtual conference room.
The Indo-Pacific is the new theatre of competition for big powers. Quad has been hesitatingly present at least since the 2004 Tsunami but it has taken a pandemic to coalesce the four states as summit declaration read: “the global devastation wrought by COVID-19, the threat of climate change, and security challenges facing the region summon us with renewed purpose’. It had fleeting meetings at official levels since 2007 as no one wanted to irritate the Dragon.
However since 2017 , QUAD has gained greater traction and its members’ positions have become more aligned, mainly due to Chinese intransigence. The Foreign Ministers have had their meeting recently in Delhi. Even though no Joint Statement was issued, individual read outs had their own implicit punctuations and express considerations without directly hitting at the Chinese behemoth. It has also now graduated to Summit level that many had suspected may not happen and it was the occasion for President Biden’s first major multilateral discourse.
Even a Joint Statement explaining “The Spirit of the Quad” was issued. Perhaps they think that alignment of like minded democracies, which may not necessarily be in unison but can find a common cause, could send a clear message to Beijing to refrain from egregious behaviour and follow the international rules and law in letter and spirit. Leaders reaffirmed “we commit to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. We support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity. We commit to work together and with a range of partners. We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Full of potential, the Quad looks forward to the future; it seeks to uphold peace and prosperity and strengthen democratic resilience, based on universal values.”
Would China really bother? Yes, indeed it is rattled even if it scoffs at the Q or Q+ as it well understands that Newton’s 3rd Law in some form or the other, even if not exactly equal and opposite reaction, would apply. Beijingt often warns, cajoles or tries to argue the necessity not to have a singularly confrontational approach towards the Middle Kingdom by the Q-aspirants.
At the same time, Beijing has doubled up on strengthening its core expertise and techno-superiority while upgrading its own autonomous supply chains with dual approach to domestic and international markets. Outer Space and Technological edge are becoming grounds of conflict and so is the AI driven economic revolution where China wishes to retain its superiority. Huawei’s 5G and Chinese and Russian cyber capacity competence have already given jitters to the western world including the Quad constituents who are trying to cope with it. Competition will be intense. One has already seen the power and outreach of its war games and Apps like Tik Tok. In space Russia and China have announced that they will be together, also for building a joint Space Station and a Lab and base on the Moon.
As for the Free Indo-Pacific, Beijing considers large part of it as maritime fiefdom and would not brook any dictation or interference. Autonomous weapons systems, traditional military strength and an improving state of readiness remain core means to deflect any external or regional intervention. It does not pay tribute to UNCLOS, EEZ or for that matter ICJ judgements. Might is right is the defining dictum exercised by all powers at one time or the other and China is no exception. But that is precisely what the Joint Statement reiterated “We will begin cooperation on the critical technologies of the future to ensure that innovation is consistent with a free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific. We will continue to prioritize the role of international law in the maritime domain, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” It is however worth mentioning that paradoxically while China is a signatory to UNCLOS, the USA is not which makes the declaration somewhat vacuous.
The Q-Summit has outlined some priorities commensurate with the current and potential challenges in the ensuing and post-pandemic global disorder. The joint statement reads out “Our common goals require us to reckon with the most urgent of global challenges. Today, we pledge to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyberspace, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains.”
They discussed collaboration for the Covid vaccine availability in the region in an equitable safe and affordable manner. India has already evinced its credentials as a reliable vaccine hub having sent over 70 mn doses to over 65 countries. A working group has been set up in this area. To work together in critical technologies ensuring supplies of rare earths is an important achievement since China nearly controls 60% of global availability and has tied up with countries in Africa and Latin America in this field of industry. It is also equally important to identify collaborative trade and investment opportunities among the partner countries through a preferential route so that alternate global value and supply chains could be created over time where India could play a major role. Reportedly ,$70 mn has been assigned for it by the US.
QUAD is not a SQUAD , since each nation, even though it sees the clear and present danger, wishes not to take the bull by the horn. Closer maritime, naval and military cooperation has reached reasonable levels of interoperability among the member countries as far as security matters are concerned. Malabar exercises and several others lined up will further enrich the functional cooperation in defence and security. Russia is however not convinced of the motives of the QUAD and thinks that it is a budding “Asia-Pacific’ NATO against China.
Although it seems unlikely, if QUAD indeed went all the way to take shape as the “Asian NATO”, then the emergence of an alternate bloc led by China and Russia can not be discounted. It may already be in the offing in several theatres as the Biden administration tightens its noose on Moscow. On the other hand, Biden spoke to Xi twice and will have a Summit level meeting in Alaska later in the month after the 2+2 meeting between Blinken and Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts is held on March 18. Defence Secretary General Austin will be visiting India. Other high-level interactions are in the pipeline, not necessarily in the virtual mode.
For the Quad members, there are inherent crosscutting collaborative mechanisms and apparently contra-cooperation institutional structures which might have their own dynamic and challenges as China is central to it. Japan and Australia are parties to the recently signed RCEP while India and the USA are not. India is a founder of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) and RIC where none of the other three are there. In fact, this year India chairs the BRICS Summit and China has conveyed its commitment to support India during her Presidency. Likewise, India is part of the SCO- a regional security outfit with China and Russia as prominent players.
India used the word Quad officially for the first time during the third Foreign Ministers meeting but whether it will be willing to toe the US initiatives to contain Chinese at this stage remains doubtful and either way may have divergent but deep-seated implications. For the time being it looks like posturing and hedging are the buzz word, but China is watching and internally may not dismiss it merely as “cold war mentality” or a “Talking Shop”. Quad is here to stay. Talking about denuclearization of North Korea and restoration of democracy in Myanmar, the Quad also warned the Chinese benefactor of the two smaller nations.
Leaders will meet in person during 2021 and Foreign Ministers have been tasked to meet at least once a year. Likewise, working Groups have been envisaged for critical technologies and Climate Change. Whether eventually QUAD becomes a Q7 or Q10 or even Q20 clear objectives and purpose would have to be devised and defined with a constructive vision. For India, a mighty and aggressive China will be the biggest challenge across the geo-strategic spectrum, and we have no option but to design proportionate responses by ourselves. For the time being the QUAD leaders’ meet has conveyed a firm resolve and a limpid message about their shared vision while reaffirming a common commitment to quadrilateral cooperation.