As China gains ground in a global competition across the military, economic, diplomatic, and technological domains, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US) is finally finding its footing. The extent to which Quad countries can collaborate across all four domains will determine whether China’s designs on the Indo-Pacific will succeed.
However, the first order of Quad business is assisting India as it grapples with a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. India’s priority is taking care of its sick and getting its population vaccinated as soon as possible. Quad countries — and all of India’s friends — should do what they can to help India in its time of need.
While the US was slow to offer needed materials for vaccine production, it has since come through and is providing those items plus oxygen, therapeutics, testing kits, personal protective equipment, and other aid. More importantly, Washington has also decided it will support India’s calls to temporarily lift patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines. The move could be a game-changer for India’s vaccination campaign.
Japan, for its part, has provided an initial batch of oxygen concentrators and ventilators and pledged $50 million in grant aid. Australia has announced a support package for India, although Prime Minister (PM) Scott Morrison’s banning of Australian citizens from returning home from India has created a backlash in India and among human rights groups.
China’s President Xi Jinping has also sent a letter to PM Narendra Modi, offering to assist India in its fight against the pandemic.
The letter follows a posting on micro-blogging site Weibo by a Chinese Communist Party-linked account that juxtaposed photos of a Chinese rocket blast and cremation pyres burning in India, with the caption, “China lighting a fire versus India lighting a fire.” The post caused an uproar in India and was criticised by many Chinese. It has since been deleted.
While President Xi may view the current crisis in India as an opportunity to thaw relations after last year’s border crisis, New Delhi will be wary of the outreach. The Indian public will look for concrete signs that the Chinese are pulling back forces along the contested Line of Actual Control to pre-May 2020 positions. And even then, Indian leaders will remain skeptical of China’s strategic intentions toward India. Indians will not easily forget China’s border aggression, despite Beijing’s current overtures.
While the current focus is on helping India deal with its surge in Covid-19 cases, Quad’s fundamental purpose of upholding the rules-based international order and its vision for the Indo-Pacific is as relevant as ever. Indeed, Quad’s recent vaccine initiative to ramp up Indian production of vaccines to produce a billion doses by the end of 2022 demonstrates its role in providing solutions to the region’s most pressing crises.
But Quad has a history of moving slowly — mainly due to a desire to avoid provoking China but also because of the bureaucratic complexity of convening and coordinating among four powerful democratic nations. After 14 years of fits and starts, Quad is beginning to take shape and define its purpose — preserve the open, free, transparent, and rules-based order that facilitates trade, economic and political development in the Indo-Pacific.
When Quad countries held their first meeting in 2007, China reacted badly and sent demarches to each nation asking why they were undertaking such an initiative. Canberra and New Delhi downplayed the significance of the gathering and started backing away from the concept, casting it into cold storage for the next ten years.
In the interim, China made significant strides in its military modernisation efforts and used naval power to press territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and extend its influence into the Indian Ocean. It also ramped up aggression along its disputed borders with India, strengthened its grip on Tibet, cracked down on democracy in Hong Kong, and employed both State power and illegal means to ascend toward global technological dominance.
It’s now clear that the “go-slow, avoid irritating China” approach to multilateral cooperation has neither helped to moderate Chinese behaviour nor delayed Beijing’s attempts to bend the global order toward its authoritarian ideology.
When the time is right, Quad will continue with its work not only on pandemic-related issues but also on establishing resilient supply chains for critical technologies, dealing with climate, maritime security, and providing infrastructure alternatives — just to name a few areas.
With so much work to be done, it is imperative that none of the Quad countries bend to Chinese pressure and again back away from the grouping as happened 14 years ago. The misconception that placating China by avoiding collaboration among like-minded democracies might somehow make Beijing a friendlier or more cooperative partner has been laid bare.
India is a resilient nation, and it will get a handle on the pandemic wave currently ravaging the nation. When it does, the need for the Quad will be as — or more — important as ever.
This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security and co-chair, Gateway House Quad Economy and Technology Task Force.