Guest Column | Coming of Age

The alliance of four countries could become an enabler of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific

Ajay SinghAjay Singh

The meeting of Quad leaders on 12 March 2021, did not have the grand photos shoots and visuals that usually accompany a meet of such significance. But then the four leaders—US President Joe Biden, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi, Scott Morrison of Australia, and Yoshihide Suga of Japan—held only a virtual meet on camera. But what the meeting lacked in optics, it made up in substance. It set the tone for developing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue from just a talk shop into what could become a comprehensive security framework for the Indo-Pacific. After years of dithering, it seems that Quad is finally coming of age.

The enthusiasm with which the four nations have embraced it is a far cry from the hesitancy and pussy-footing which has characterised the grouping ever since it was first conceived in 2007 after the Tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean. That developed into a series of naval exercises with all four nations, but the move collapsed when China issued a sharp demarche condemning the move as directed against China. Australia left after a year, and none of the other powers—including India—showed any great urgency to pursue it. Perhaps the Chinese were right in describing it as ‘foam on the sea.’ Quad could have dissipated as such, had it not been galvanised, ironically by China’s activities itself.

It took the Wuhan virus, ruthless expansionism in the China Seas, a crackdown in Hong Kong, innumerable human rights abuses against the Uighurs in Xinjiang and of course, the shedding of Indian blood in Eastern Ladakh before the world awoke to the extent with which China was following its hyper nationalist agenda. As China expanded into the Indo-Pacific—riding roughshod as it extended its claims—it had already become too big and too strong to be countered individually—even by a super-power such as the US. That has galvanised this alliance ‘for a free and open Indo-Pacific’ and could make it a defining alliance, perhaps on the lines of an Asian NATO.

 

The Takeaways from the Summit

The Quad Summit was the first meeting of world leaders that Joe Biden attended. Coming within two months of taking over as President, it indicates his priorities. It was the first time that all the leaders of Quad nations had got together (albeit on a virtual platform). It was also the first time that a joint statement was issued. This statement ‘reviewed common challenges across the Indo-Pacific’ and committed itself to a ‘free and rules-based order for security and prosperity in the region.’ China was not mentioned at all, but the implications of the statement were clear. The slew of initiatives that were announced signaled that Quad was evolving from just being a security dialogue to a holistic framework, incorporating aspects of economic, military and technological security.

The most significant was the Quad Vaccine Partnership which will pool in resources to roll out one billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine by 2022. India will provide the manufacturing hub for the vaccine through its pharmaceutical facilities (especially the Bangalore based Biological E). The US will provide R&D resources, including the know-how of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine it is developing; Japan will provide the finances and Australia will deliver the ‘last-mile’ logistics for distribution in South-East Asia.




It is quite symbolic. The vaccine would be the counter to the Wuhan virus which has crippled the world. It will also give a massive boost to make India the pharmacy of the world.

Another significant initiative was the Quad Critical and Emerging Technologies working group which will develop a joint data and manufacturing base in key technologies like semi-conductors, Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, surveillance and space technology. China has had a huge jump in this field and had also successfully infiltrated telecom networks across the world. There is a need to develop alternate technologies (especially in the field of 5G) and build up ‘resilient and diversified supply lines’ to act as alternatives to China. This would ensure technological and economic security in a vital field which could shape future power equations. It is also a field where India could use its IT and telecom prowess to develop reliable and trustworthy alternatives—and give a huge boost to these sectors.

The setting up of the Quad Climate Control Group reaffirmed the commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change. This is a pet concern of President Joe Biden and Quad nations could take the lead in the development of renewable energy resources.

It was significant that there was no military content in the message emanating from the meet. But by focusing on economic, technological and ideological moves, it provides a more comprehensive outlook to security, without unduly ruffling feathers. It also enhances the scope of Quad considerably—way beyond the holding of annual naval exercises. Definite goals and time-bound targets have been laid down which will be reviewed when the leaders meet around October this year—this time in person. Quad has now evolved from meetings between foreign ministers to Summit meetings which will heighten the levels of commitment. Subsequent meetings will further develop the physical structure of Quad.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the other three Quad country heads, US President Joe Biden, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison

 

Evolving Quad

Quad seems to be emerging as the preferred security arrangement for the region. The US has put its weight behind it, and it is reflective of the ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ which Joe Biden himself had helped formulate during his stint as vice president in the Obama administration. Moreover, the present administration, recognises the need for allies and actively nurtures them. It is likely to actively develop this one.

Much of the success of Quad would depend on the stability of Indo-US ties. And the visit of the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd James Austin to India, almost in conjunction with the summit, is indicative of the importance the US lays on India as a partner in the region. And, in spite of irritants like barbed comments on falling democratic norms and human rights and the imposition of CAATSA on India for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system—Indo-US relations seem to be on track.

India, too, has thrown its lot squarely behind the concept. For too long it was the hesitant partner, going so far as to even curtail the Malabar Exercises so as to avoid hurting Chinese sensibilities. Perhaps the shedding of blood on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has galvanised our policy makers and the old notion of remaining ‘non-aligned’ has finally been dumped. By casting our lot with the US, it will serve our interests better—not just through Quad, but in all other forums.

Japan and Australia too have shed their reticence. The new Japanese Premier has taken a harder line to Chinese infiltrations around the disputed Senkaku Islands and is actively pursuing security alliances to buttress its position. Even Australia which was ‘punished’ by Chinese curbs on its exports of beef and poultry has adopted Quad completely, calling it ‘Australia’s most significant security mechanism, since ANZUS’.

So, with all four nations embracing the concept of Quad—where can it go from here? Even now it is not a formal grouping—it remains the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with no distinct charter. The alliance needs to be formalised, but perhaps that may not be done too soon. Yet, even in this form, it can provide a viable security architecture of ‘like-minded democracies’ (with Democracy being the defining word). There could be a Quad plus arrangement with Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea as additional members. Other nations such as France, UK, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia could also come on board. France will be participating with the Quad navies in the ‘Le Perouse’ exercises in the Bay of Bengal this April and the UK, too, has expressed its interest in future exercises. These annual naval exercises will enhance the interoperability of the navies and synergise their capabilities. That, in a way, will help preserve sovereignty and the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and other arenas.

So how will China react? It has been harsh in its condemnation of Quad, calling it—‘a clique targeting a particular nation’ and accusing it of creating of a ‘new cold war mentality.’ That in itself reflects its concerns. But its own actions have invited criticism and turned much of the democratic world against it. The US-China meet in Alaska—the first in Joe Biden’s time—got off to a frosty start with both sides hurling rather unparliamentary accusations in full view of the media. UK recently imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Other nations too are gradually delinking their economies from China. It could respond in kind by forming its own alliance—perhaps with Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China (I resist the temptation to acronym it as PRIC) and will also retaliate by excluding India from the forums it dominates—such as BRICS and SCO (in fact, it already termed India as ‘a negative asset’ in these). But whatever action it takes, India must follow its own course. And the course lies in developing its own alliances, not only multi-national groupings, but also individual, bilateral ones. In these, Quad offers the most promise. Its vision of comprehensive security could translate into a host of economic and technological advantages for us. Plus, it could emerge as the countervailing force in the region, and in doing so become an enabler of peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

(The writer is an author of four books and over 180 articles)

 

 

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