The Quad declaration, in the form of the joint statement issued after the first summit of the Quadrilateral Grouping (Quad) on Friday, is tantamount to the declaration of the New Cold War between the US and its allies and China. This is the first ever joint statement by a Quad meeting which has, till now, been notoriously shy of coming out with anything “joint”.
The statement defining the “spirit of the Quad” declares that the battle is “for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion.” Just who the adversary is, is something we have to infer since the only reference to China, is the suggestive one to “South China Sea.”
Quad consensus on China needs to be dealt with comprehensively
The Quad’s “New Cold War aims”, if we can call them that, are contained in the second paragraph of the joint declaration which notes “Together we commit to promoting a free, open, rules-based order… to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” Later, the statement speaks of the decision “to facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas”.
In many ways, the decision of the Quad countries to focus on dealing with COVID-19 marks out a new approach towards China.
By focusing on soft-power rather than hard, the Quad—US, India, Japan, and Australia—not only present a picture of unity, but also appear to have struck on a strategy that has a greater potential to solve the problem on hand: containing China.
Given the overwhelming superiority of the militaries of the US and Japan in the western Pacific Ocean, going head to head with China on the military front is actually not the problem. The aim, however, is to take on the comprehensive challenge that Beijing has offered, ranging from trade, technology, aid and connectivity.
Quad’s first joint vision statement is significant
Though the joint statement has spoken strongly of support to the ASEAN’s unity and centrality, it is no secret that many countries there do not want to explicitly take sides in the geopolitical contest between the US and China. There is no doubt that most of them welcome the US presence in the region, but at the same time, they are aware that most of them benefit economically from their links with China, which is more likely than not, to be their principal trading partner.
The Quad, which was revived in 2017, was with an eye on Beijing as an informal strategic forum run at an official level, it was rapidly scaled up to the ministerial level thereafter.
However, one unique feature of its meetings was that each country chose to put out its own press release rather than come up with a joint document.
The fact that the first ever summit has issued a vision statement speaks for itself.
Announcing the participation of US President Joe Biden in the online Quad meeting, the White House spokeswoman Jan Psaki had earlier this week said that there were expectations that the problems of the global community would be discussed in the meeting, “from the threat of COVID, to economic cooperation and… the climate crisis.”
This has been borne out by the creation of three groups, one for COVID-19, a second for encouraging cooperation in emerging technologies, and a third one for climate change to coalesce a Quad agenda for the future.
Quad’s Covid-19 fight sets the alliance agenda
By focusing on the fight against COVID 19 the Quad has adopted an unexceptional approach and also shown some sensitivity to the countries of the region.
The Quad’s decision to cooperate in using the Indian base to manufacture vaccines developed in the US, and financed by Japan, is an inspired one.
It plays on the strengths of these countries. India is already the producer of 3/5ths of the world’s vaccines of various types and its companies have considerable experience in mass producing them.
Japan is the world’s largest source of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and, indeed, the ASEAN is a region on which it has long focused on. As for the US, there is little doubt about the ability of the US R&D base to come up with some of the best pharmacological products.
The aim of the initiative is to take on one of the greatest public health challenges confronting the world by creating capability for rapid vaccination of large numbers of people, something that is vital to defeat the rapidly mutating virus.
China’s worry about India joining the US in ‘contain China’ mission
The Chinese response, contained in an article in Global Times, includes an arch proposition that India was becoming a “negative asset” for BRICS and SCO. China is backing India for holding the BRICS summit in 2021 and the paper accused India of “strategic blackmail” against China.
Given the current situation, New Delhi needs to weigh to just what extent it matches the Quad statement words with deeds. It is to the latter that Beijing pays attention since it is aware of the constant hedging countries do in relation to their approaches towards China and the US.
India is seen as a vital element in any Indo-Pacific strategy, but it is the only country, besides to a limited extent Japan, which militarily confronts China directly. So far, it has been hesitant to work upfront with the US on its China containment agenda. But the increasing gap in the comprehensive national power of China and India may leave it with little alternative but to look to the US as a critical security provider, just as the other members of the Quad, Australia and Japan do.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and columnist on these issues. Views are personal.