Three months after its virtual summit on 12 March, the Quad – composed of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia – is attaining greater consolidation, even as its challenges acquire a sharper edge. As the US-China strategic contestation continues unabated, the progress of the new grouping has global implications.
The coalescing of three treaty allies and India, a strategic partner with each of them, compels attention. The Quad has begun planning for its first in-person summit, likely to be held in Washington in the autumn. The goal is to strengthen ‘The Spirit of the Quad’ (the title of the joint statement issued after the March summit) through expansion of the partnership in vaccines, climate change, critical technologies. Cooperation for infrastructure development, supply chain resilience and maritime security are also emerging as priorities.
In this context, the Quad’s four dimensions merit a close look.
First, India-U.S. ties received a boost during External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s substantive discussions in Washington in late May. Both the list of his interlocutors and the extensive agenda revealed the maturity of the relationship. His interactions with key figures of the administration, Congress and corporate leaders were valuable. They focused on advancing cooperation in the fight against Covid, fine-tuning the strategy to deal with China, and deepening of security, defence, and economic relations with the U.S.
Dr. Jaishankar’s informal meeting with the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, underlined the vital significance of intelligence-related cooperation in countering terrorism, Afghanistan’s condition after U.S. troop withdrawal and China’s aggressive postures in eastern Ladakh and the Indian Ocean. America’s generous assistance to India in the latest wave of the pandemic and increased frequency of consultations between Delhi and Washington has resulted in a closer convergence, contributing to the Quad’s blossoming.
Second, the European dimension assumed special significance. Leading European countries – France, Germany, UK and the Netherlands – have been working on their Indo-Pacific policies. They were followed by the European Union (EU) announcing its Indo-Pacific strategy in April. The EU is set to “reinforce its strategic focus, presence and action” in the region, based on the promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedom of navigation. This could mean a higher profile for the EU in terms of maritime presence, economic cooperation and diplomatic activism as the 27-member bloc strengthens synergies with India. However, the EU made it clear that its Indo-Pacific strategy was “not anti-China.” The Quad, therefore, will need to devise its own ways to be closer to the EU. India’s helped its own case with the historic India-EU Summit (8 May), aiming to expand its relationship with an important global player.
Third, the ASEAN dimension represents the Quad’s vulnerability. ASEAN nations – which are large trading partners equally with the EU, the US and China -have been largely silent on the Quad’s assertiveness. While China’s continuing aggression is ignored, the Quad’s will to constrain it is seen as a new cold war. Despite daily provocations ranging from harassment of Philippine fishermen to Malaysian air space violations, Chinese measures are underplayed, partly out of fear and partly economic temptations. Two ASEAN grievances are the Biden administration’s delay in connecting with major ASEAN capitals at the highest political levels, and the Quad’s silence on Myanmar, even as ASEAN’s mediation initiative on Myanmar received public support from China. The Quad can overcome this gap by cultivating close ties with key players – Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, as also the Philippines.
Four, the Pacific dimension goes beyond the U.S. working closely with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines to enhance maritime security coordination concerning China. It relates to a promising turn for the Quad in the South Pacific. Against the recent background of public differences on China between Australia and New Zealand, Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern held cordial discussions in Queenstown on 31 May. A common way forward to address the China challenge was crafted. In their joint statement, they expressed “serious concern” over developments in the South China Sea as well as human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Beijing reacted adversely by expressing its “firm opposition” to the joint statement.
Two additional policy suggestions can help. First, despite a deep-seated hostility towards Russia, the U.S. administration, in the larger interest of the Indo-Pacific, can initiate a rapprochement with Moscow. The Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva on 16 June offers an enticing opening. Will American policymakers remember how the Nixon-Kissinger team executed a strategic breakthrough in 1971, by weakening China’s alliance with the USSR?
Second, the Quad’s conflict with China is not only about maritime security and rule of law, but also about economy and new technology. A comprehensive plan for both is necessary. Gateway House will soon release a blueprint of path-breaking recommendations, devised by an international taskforce of reputed experts from the Quad nations.
A part of this article was first published in the Hindustan Times.
Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House.