Fear of China is the biggest glue that binds Quad

Going by the optics of beaming smiles of the US President Joe Biden, Indian PM Narendra Modi, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida and the newly elected Australian PM Anthony Albanese who rushed to join the summit in less than 24 hours of his election, visible bonhomie, personal chemistry, long joint statement and new initiatives, the Quad Summit in Tokyo on 24th May 2022 was a success. Quad Leaders were meeting fourth time in less than two years; they had met earlier twice virtually and once in person in Washington; this underlines the significance they attach to the Quad and its expanding agenda.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar wrote in his op-ed (HT 26/5), “As the Modi government completes eight years in office; one of its major accomplishments has been the firm establishment of Quad.” He added further, “the Tokyo summit is the most productive to date, underlining both the distance that Quad has travelled and its potential for its future growth.”

The joint statement of the summit underlines members’ intent to bring tangible benefits to the region and their “steadfast commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient”. In PM Modi’s words, Quad is a “force for good” that strengthens democratic forces and increases cooperation for vaccine delivery, climate action, supply chain resilience, and disaster response.

Though China wasn’t mentioned by name, the issues in the joint statement which the group opposes leave no doubt that they were attributed to her. Quad leaders strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo “in the Indo-Pacific”, including the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coastal guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries ‘offshore resource exploitation activities’. Obviously, for Quad, China is the main threat to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific abiding by international laws including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Quad leaders “strongly support the principles of freedom, rule of law, democratic values, sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force and oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo and freedom of navigation and overflight, all of which are essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and the world”.

“We will continue to act decisively together to advance these principles in the region and beyond. We reaffirm our resolve to uphold the international rule-based order where countries are free from all forms of military, economic and political coercion,” they assert.

The devil is in the details. Aren’t most of these principles being brazenly violated in Ukraine? The pledge of the leaders to “act decisively to uphold these principles in the region and beyond” sounds hypocritical when they, in the joint statement, don’t even condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine which has violated its freedom, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. According to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in 100 days of her invasion, Russia now occupies 20% of Ukrainian territory! Are the principles of freedom, rule of law and democratic values being upheld in Afghanistan?  

The credit for giving a new lease of life to the Quad goes to the POTUS Donald Trump who energised it as a group in 2017 to rein in China’s assertive, aggressive and intimidatory policies towards her neighbours in the region with whom she had long-standing territorial disputes. Trump administration deployed more US forces in the South China Sea and increased FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation operations) Again it was Trump who rechristened it as Indo-Pacific in place of Asian –Pacific underlining India’s significance. While for the US, the Indo- Pacific stretches from Hollywood to Bollywood, for India, it stretches along the Indian Ocean covering the African continent. Realising that nearly 30% of global trade passes through Indo-Pacific, some European countries wish to join the Indo-Pacific.

Behind US President Biden’s heightened efforts to strengthen the Quad and the Indo-Pacific lies his resolve to regain and reaffirm America’s leadership role in Indo-Pacific and the ASEAN which was being questioned after Trump withdrew from the TPP. It is also aimed at countering China’s growing influence in this region. Quad leaders have stressed their unwavering support for ASEAN unity and its centrality to Indo-Pacific. But are mere words enough?

Though Biden said yes to the question whether the US will intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan, his administration rushed to reiterate that US strategic ambiguity remained unchanged. This shows the limit of the US to pressure China.

Of course, tangible benefits can flow to the region if the initiatives on Covid vaccine supplies, emerging technologies, telecom echo system, semiconductor value chains, green shipping practices and corridors, green hydrogen, sustainable infrastructure, disaster response, and humanitarian assistance produce concrete results on the ground. China’s influence can’t be countered merely by high sounding announcements. One shouldn’t forget that China is the largest trading partner for every member of the ASEAN.

The pledge of US$ 50 billion by the Quad leaders for infrastructure support in the next five years is welcome but there is no indication of the source of this funding. Prospects of cooperation on climate change and mitigation, cyber security, and 5 G suppliers’ diversification should be welcomed. Hopefully, actions will speak louder than words.

A lot has been written about 100 Quad fellowships for STEM studies. Around 62000 Indian students go to the US on student visas each year; hundreds of them pursue STEM studies. So, what’s this brouhaha about?

Similarly, there is a considerable hype about the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum which is expected to promote common interests in trade, supply chains, infrastructure, and finance. Both the US and India, which walked out respectively of the TPP and the RCEP, are happy to join this Forum. But can any Economic Forum which doesn’t talk of market access, reduction of tariffs or legal framework for ensuring action and conflict resolution produce results which can match the ambit and impact of the RCEP or the TPP?

While Quad members shout from the rooftop that the Quad and Indo-Pacific aren’t against China, both China and Russia emphatically maintain that they, in fact, are. Trump’s tariff war against China had severely bruised China’s economy. Seen in that backdrop, Quad’s activities in the last two years have rattled China. Though China had initially mocked Quad as a group that would “dissipate like sea foam” now she perceives Quad as a “tool for containing and besieging China to maintain US hegemony”. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has termed it as “Indo-Pacific North Atlantic Treaty” which is “trumpeting Cold War mentality” and “stoking geopolitical rivalry”.

India has overcome the hesitation of history about being perceived as close to the US. And China’s incursion in the Galwan valley in June 2022 dispelled India’s hesitation about the Quad. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken and polarised the international order. In spite of the pressure from the US and EU and their allies, India has stood to her guns and followed her independent stance towards Russia dictated by her national interest.

Modi’s nimble-footed diplomacy is adroitly performing several simultaneous tight rope walks vis a vis the US, EU, Russia, and China. After landing support for Quad’s call for freedom, democracy, rule of law and human rights, at the 4th Regional Dialogue on Security in Dushanbe, India was rubbing shoulders with Russia, China, and Iran which have nothing to do with these principles. She also values her membership in the SCO dominated by China; its members hardly observe these principles. Obviously, Indian diplomacy has overcome all moral dilemmas for national interests!

Indo-pacific Partnership for Maritime domain awareness (IPMDA), an initiative which will respond to humanitarian and natural disasters and combat illegal fishing (by China) in cooperation with regional players, deserves full support.

EAM Jaishankar has summed it up succinctly, “Quad expresses the approach of the Modi government to put India’s interest at the centre of its thinking, even while embracing the world as a family. The Tokyo Summit is the most recent validation of this approach.”

Surendra Kumar is a former Indian ambassador.

The Quad leaders “strongly support the principles of freedom, rule of law, democratic values, sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force and oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo and freedom of navigation and overflight, all of which are essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and the world”.

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