The foreign ministers of the Quad grouping of India, the US, Australia and Japan vowed to work vigorously to achieve the grouping’s shared vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and collectively deal with common threats such as terrorism.
QUAD: A backgrounder
Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad is an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, India and Australia that is maintained by semi-regular summits, information exchanges and military drills between member countries.
- The US, Japan, India and Australia came together in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to assist the devastated countries.
- Later, officials of the four countries met in 2007 “to look at issues of common interest.” During an India visit, then Japanese PM Shinzo Abe unveiled the idea of “the Confluence of the Two Seas” that gave birth to the concept of the Indo-Pacific.
- A decade later officials of the four countries met in the Philippines in 2017 to talk about an aggressively rising China.
- In 2019, the foreign ministers of the Quad countries met in Washington for the first time.
- In November, the Quad nations came together to participate in a two-phase joint military exercise, Malabar 2020, in the Bay of Bengal and in the Arabian Sea.
Now it is increasingly viewed as ‘Asian NATO’.
Focus on Indo-Pacific: For the China-wary world
- The latest meeting of Quad comes at a time when all four countries have either trade or security disputes with China.
- Despite not explicitly mentioning China, Quad has been openly supporting a “free and fair” Indo-Pacific which is seen as a clear message to Beijing that it needs to curb its assertive behaviour.
- The optics were hard to miss when India, the US, Japan and Australia joined their navies for the mega Malabar military exercise late last year, an activity which raised alarm in Beijing.
- This posturing by the Quad nations sent a strong signal to China.
(1) US vs China
- USA had followed a policy to contain China’s increasing influence in East Asia. Therefore, USA sees the coalition as an opportunity to regain its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
- The US has described China, along with Russia, as a strategic rival in its National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy and the Pentagon’s report on Indo-Pacific Strategy.
- Both are navigating intense disagreements over trade and human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and the western Xinjiang region, as well as the coronavirus pandemic and increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
(2) Australia vs China
- Australia is concerned about China’s growing interest in its land, infrastructure and politics, and influence on its universities.
- Ties have been on a downward spiral since 2018 when Australia, accusing China of meddling in its domestic affairs, passed a new law against foreign interference and espionage.
- It also barred Huawei from building the country’s 5G mobile network, among the first countries to do so, citing national security.
- The atmosphere worsened when PM Scott Morrison’s government called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
(3) Japan vs. China
- Tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute have recently increased.
- China has relentlessly continued attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku Islands.
- The more salient indicator is the number of Chinese patrols inside the territorial sea of the islands, which Japan sees as an explicit violation of its territorial sovereignty.
(4) India vs. China
- India’s strained relations with China needs no explanation. The year long border dispute is the testimony.
- The Quad summit is taking place in the backdrop of an ongoing military disengagement between India and China following their months-long border standoff in eastern Ladakh.
- China is increasing its footprint in our neighborhood through its Belt and Road policy and political coercion following the debt trap are some of the increasing concerns other than economic imbalance.
Opportunities unveiled for India
India’s engagement with the Quad goes back to China’s expanding footprint in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region over the last few years. India can reap some benefits as discussed below:
(1) Checkmating the Chinese
- The maritime sphere is wide open to India to undertake coalition building, rule sets, and other forms of strategic exploration than compared to land borders.
- The maritime space is more important to China than engaging in land grab attempts in the Himalayas. A huge chunk of Chinese trade happens via the Indian oceanic routes that pass through maritime chokepoints.
(2) Channelizing geo-politics
- There is a growing great power interest in the maritime sphere, especially with the arrival of the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’. For instance, many European countries have recently released their Indo-Pacific strategies.
- The most recent was for France to send its warship in the international waters of the South China Sea.
(3) Maritime domain for India
- Above is the backdrop against which one must see the progressive evolution of Exercise “Malabar”,
- In the beginning, it was a bilateral event involving just the Indian and US navies. It became tri-lateral with the inclusion of Japan in 2015.
- And now it has transformed into a four-cornered naval drill that will also include Australia.
(4) Check on China’s India Ocean Ambitions
- The Quad has a valuable role to play as a check on China’s Indian Ocean ambitions.
- India must develop ingrained habits of interoperable cooperation with its Quad partners.
- This interoperable cooperation could pre-emptively dissuade China from mounting a naval challenge in its backyard.
(5) Eccentricity in South Asia
- With India, located right at the centre of the Indo-Pacific geopolitical imagination can realize the vision of a ‘broader Asia’ that can extend its influence away from geographical boundaries.
- Further, India with Quad countries can check the imperialist policies of China in the Indian Ocean region and ensure Security and growth for all in the region.
Issues with Quad
(1) Structural problems
- The Quad has a core structural problem as its objective pivots around the U.S.
- The Quad riles China as a hostile grouping, but hardly serves the security interests of its members.
- Despite rhetoric relating to the promotion of a ‘rules-based’ world order, the Quad neither shares a strategic vision nor is it animated by a shared agenda.
(2) Nature of alliance
- Alliances involve written commitments to come to the defence of the other against a third party.
- Despite the potential for cooperation, the Quad remains a mechanism without a defined strategic mission.
(3) Economic alliance not feasible
- Quad is neither a military alliance nor an economic partnership.
- Its intention to counter China in the rare-earth sector is logical given the dominant role the country plays in supplying more than half of the world’s such key materials.
- But, for a country like India, the lack of relevant technologies and talent pool could obstruct its progress in building up a supply chain from scratch.
(4) Overt emphasis on Maritime domain
- The entire focus on the Indo-Pacific makes the Quad a maritime, rather than a land-based grouping, raising questions whether the cooperation extends to the Asia-Pacific and Eurasian regions.
- India’s core concerns with China are primarily undemarcated borders and trade deficit.
(5) Lack of existence of Indo-Pacific system
- There has never been Indo-Pacific system ever since the rise of the port-based kingdoms of Indochina in the first half of the second millennium.
- There were two Asian systems — an Indian Ocean system and an East Asian system — with intricate sub-regional balances.
- The effort by a U.S. to artificially manufacture to combine the Indo and the Pacific into a unitary system is unlikely to succeed.
(6) Indian borders can go more vulnerable
- A lesson for India is China’s long-held and strategic interest in parts of Jammu and Kashmir.
- It is wrongly argued that it is Pakistan that is the issue in J&K.
- China undoubtedly is as big an issue but has quietly hidden behind Pakistan’s cover.
Challenges: China will retaliate
(1) China’s assertiveness
- China claims that it has historical ownership over nearly the entire region of South China Sea, which gives it the right to manufacture islands.
- However, the International Court of Arbitration rejected the claim in 2016.
- Since then, the incidences of Chinese transgression has only increased making China more assertive for its interest.
(2) Preying small nations
- The ASEAN countries have a well-knit relationship with China. So are other SAARC countries have fallen prey to Chinese debt traps.
- The Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a recent example of China’s increasing influence over ASEAN nations to which Australia is even a forerunner.
- Considering the economic might of China and the dependence of Quad nations like Japan and Australia on China, the Quad nations cannot afford to have strained relations with it in the long run.
- India too, is still very heavily dependent on Chinese exports.
- Need for a clearer vision: It is important for members of the Quad not to be reactive. It is also important to exhibit openness, and ensure that all talk of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ is more than just a mere slogan.
- Consensus for a common objective: The Quad nations need to better explain the Indo-Pacific Vision in an overarching framework with the objective of advancing everyone’s economic and security interests.
- Setting an agenda: This will reassure the littoral States that the Quad will be a factor for regional benefit, and a far cry from Chinese allegations that it is some sort of a military alliance. Future meetings can be an opportunity to define the idea and chart a future path.
- Expanding Quad: India has many other partners in the Indo-Pacific; therefore India should pitch for countries like Indonesia, Singapore to be invited to join in the future. There is also a vital need to economically expand the Quad.
- The Quad framework derives its geopolitical validation from India’s association and presents a unique opportunity for India to be an active participant in shaping regional security architecture with global undertones.
- India’s moves with the Quad will be closely watched, as they bear more meaning than ever before on the path it will take to realise its strategic future.