The first Quad Summit, to be held in a virtual format on March 12, is a development of seminal importance. The historic gathering of leaders of the four Indo-Pacific powers – the US, India, Japan and Australia – can have an impact on Asian geopolitics and beyond. Its outcome merits a close watch.
In its recent itineration, the Quad (or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) has been toiling since 2017, through deliberations among mid-level and senior officials, to develop a common vision for the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region, challenges caused by China’s menacing rise and aggressive behaviour. Three meetings of the foreign ministers since September 2019, punctuated by frequent consultations among foreign secretaries in the Quad Plus (including Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand) format during 2020, has provided continuous momentum. Former US President Donald Trump, by awarding the Legion of Merit to the other three leaders – former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, PM Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison – projected the Quad as his administration’s singular achievement. President Joe Biden lost no time in picking up the baton and has raised the stakes by proposing the first summit.
China is the obvious glue that holds the Quad together. The four member-states have shown resolve to manage challenge posed by China, constraining the Middle Kingdom through an astute mix of competition, cooperation and confrontation. But pure negativity (on China) is neither practical nor capable of winning wider support. Now the new twist is to provide a more positive focus and motivation to the grouping. The Quad wants a strategy anchored in an inclusive agenda, to attract a coalition of the willing first from the region itself (countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and New Zealand), then from West Asia, and also from Europe.
India has played a vital role in shaping the Quad’s new agenda covering regional and international issues. At least four specific areas of cooperation have been identified, which will be at the centre of the leaders’ discussions. These are: i) maritime security and coordination (to ensure a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific), ii) climate change, iii) collaboration on COVID-19 related issues and iv) economic and technological cooperation.
Mutual understanding and cooperation on maritime security made considerable headway during the Trump era. The Malabar Naval Exercise last year, with participation from all the four navies, is a sterling example. Expanded cooperation involving the Quad and non-Quad Navies is on the cards, designed to signal to China that it should adhere to international norms and law, or else be ready to face formidable opposition. Climate change has been gaining salience in Biden’s domestic and foreign policy agenda due to a global perception that the goals set at Paris need to be more ambitious to truly save the planet. Besides, this is one area where the US and its partners want China to deliver more.
COVID-related collaboration reveals India’s signature. From the beginning of the COVID era, the Modi government crafted and ran with the idea that, while its first responsibility was towards the people of India, it would do much to also help the world win the war against the pandemic. Through its imaginative and vigorous healthcare and Vax diplomacy, New Delhi has contributed immensely to ease pain and hardship. India-made medicines and vaccines have reached everywhere from South America through Africa to Canada, Bangladesh and the Philippines. But much more remains to be done. Countries with greater resources – the US, Japan and Australia, among others – should come forward to fund an expanded vaccine programme — to speedily arrange safe, equitable and affordable vaccines to every needy person in the Indo-Pacific region.
The fourth area, relating to economic and technological cooperation, is of special significance. It recognises in China a threat both strategic and techno-economic, one which requires a comprehensive and long-term response. Resilient and diversified supply chains are desirable, but how should they be re-created? Emerging and critical technologies on the entire Industry 4.0 spectrum need to be developed and harnessed. Issues relating to critical minerals, renewables, cyber security, fintech and space cooperation should also be deliberated and a blueprint for effective cooperation be constructed.
Finally, the Quad Summit must find agreement on two issues. First, the tragic developments in Myanmar are seen as a cause of discord within the Quad, with the US and Australia riding the bandwagon of human rights and sanctions, while India and Japan advocate pragmatism. President Biden should heed sane Asian counsel, find common ground and support the Indonesian/ASEAN initiative to urgently promote reconciliation in Myanmar. Second, the summit must issue a joint statement. Assuming that the summit’s primary goal is to persuade the world about the Quad’s unity of purpose and strategic congruence, it must speak in one – not four – voices. Let the four Foreign Offices work their magic.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador.
This article first appeared in The Indian Express.