India should take lead in developing Quad as an entity to secure the region
Quad began innocuously enough—almost by accident—when the navies of India, the US, Japan and Australia came together to coordinate rescue and rehabilitation operations after the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004.
Around the same time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, articulated the concept of an ‘Asian Arc of Democracies’ in the Indo-Pacific—a strategic geography extending from the East Coast of Africa to the waters of East Asia. The idea almost died on the vine when Australia withdrew just a year later over Chinese concerns. India and Japan, too, were diffident of promoting Quad actively. The idea gathered momentum once again when the foreign ministers of the four nations met on the sidelines of the 2017 ASEAN Summit and agreed to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, holding five meetings over the next two years.
Quad sputtered along without a clear charter or aim. Most of the members, especially India, were reticent to push forward the concept of a security grouping that would be seen as a directed against China. China itself was wary of the idea but dismissed it as “nothing more than foam on the sea which will soon dissipate.” But it was China that gave it impetus by its actions in the China Sea and along the Himalayan frontiers. That seems to have galvanised the members and Quad is now slowly taking shape as a tangible alliance in the Indo-Pacific.
The recent meeting of foreign ministers of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in early October gave a hint of the direction that Quad could take. It was one of the few in-person meetings and not a virtual one and fittingly, the agenda was focused on the International Order in the post-Covid era—one in which Quad could be a major component. Yet, at the end of it all, no joint statement was issued, and only a vague call was made to “uphold a rule based on international order to advance the security and economic interests of nations.”
China was the elephant in the room, though not mentioned by any member except the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who hit out scathingly at the Communist Party of China. Though China is never alluded to, it is getting clear that Quad is emerging as the framework to protect the region from an increasingly aggressive China. Individually none of the members can match China’s economic and military clout but buttressed by the US they could collectively form the security and economic architecture to counter-balance it.
The Idea of Quad
Quad has been criticised as being a talk shop without clear cut goals or aims—and with good reason. But at least the groundwork is being laid for it to establish itself as a formal body. There is talk of Quad expanding into a Quad Plus to incorporate Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand.
Even other smaller nations such as the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and others, who are affected by the churn in the Indo-Pacific, could later come under the umbrella of a regional security apparatus. There are fears that the rise of Quad may provoke China into even greater aggression, but then it could also lay an enduring foundation for peace—just as NATO did for Europe. The visions of Quad evolving into an Asian NATO may be a little premature, but the prospect of an Asian Order (although led by the US) which acts as a countervailing force in the region is quite an appealing one.
Even though India, Japan and Australia are shaking off the earlier diffidence, there is still a hesitancy on the part of each to offend China. Yet, Japan under Yashihide Suga, promises to continue Abe’s assertive policies; Australia is shrugging off Chinese threats to develop its defence and security mechanisms. The major question mark would be how far the US will go for the grouping. A lot will depend on the outcome of the November US Presidential elections.
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