Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first post-pandemic foreign visit has evoked great interest in the geopolitical, academic and strategic community in India and abroad. Besides reviewing India-US relations and exploring measures to expand trade and investment opportunities, the meetings will include multiple-level discussions on strengthening defence and security partnerships, including a meeting of four apex leaders of the Quad.
Among all the Quad meetings held so far, this one is probably the biggest because it involves the participation of the apex leadership of the member countries – India, US, Japan, and Australia. Besides the leadership, the timing of the meeting adds greater significance. This is the best time to determine the nature, agenda and the roadmap for the over one-and-a-half-decade-old multilateral experiment. In spite of holding several meetings at various levels, the Quad members have not yet clearly enumerated the grouping’s purpose, agenda, programmes and objectives.
The progress of Quad, which began as a temporary and ad-hoc platform after the tragic Tsunami in December 2004, has been slow but steady if one were to consider its evolutionary story. After a promising start in 2007, the Quad was more or less dormant before it was revived in 2017 as Quad 2.0.
While it is too early to consider the institutionalisation of the Quad, it is necessary to conduct a stock-taking and cost-benefit analysis before we decide to invest more time and resources on this platform.
Differing challenges of Quad members
As a curtain raiser to the Prime Minister’s visit, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has reiterated India’s stand that the Quad is “not a military alliance” and that it was designed to cater to requirements of the Indo-Pacific. Earlier, Quad meetings have discussed issues pertaining to climate change but without arriving at a consensus on programmes. Quad has discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on trade, commerce and economy, but it is not a trade body.
By now it is clear what the Quad is not, but it is yet unclear what the Quad actually is. There is nothing wrong in continuing to engage with such multilateral forums as long as we know where our interests lie and how we are going to protect them.
There are a number of common challenges and threat perceptions that the four Quad members face in the region, which in itself is a good enough reason to work together towards a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. Needless to say, the scale and level of threat perception of these four countries largely vary.
While India has a higher level of threat from the north and the west as also from the Indian Ocean in the south, Japan faces very different challenges in its backyard and in the Senkaku Islands. In the case of Australia, there are lesser military threats but the challenges on the trade and commerce front is significant considering the fact that its trade balance with China is passing through a difficult phase.
Compared to these three countries the fourth member, the US, has very different concerns while dealing with China. It has to protect the security interests of its allies in the region, tackle the issue of China’s forays into the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region, and also maintain a healthy balance of trade.
The AUKUS signal to China
In such circumstances, even as the agenda for the Quad meeting is being evolved, the US announced a new trilateral defence partnership with Australia and the UK – acronymed AUKUS – angering France and leaving friends and allies mystified.
It is difficult to determine whether the conflicting signals from different establishments in the US is part of a larger strategy or a sign of greater confusion and lack of coordination. The Pentagon and the security establishments are gunning for China’s military show of strength in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
But President Joe Biden’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) tries to play down the confrontation part of America’s foreign policy. Biden, in his address, clearly stated that the US is “not seeking another world-dividing Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs”. Needless to say, it was in reply to China’s allegation that the US is perpetuating a “Cold War mentality”, a reference to the AUKUS.
Without naming China, President Biden assured that the United States is ready to work with any nation that agrees to pursue peaceful resolution to shared challenges “even if we have intense disagreements in other areas, because we’ll all suffer the consequences of our failure”.
But even before one could conclude that the Biden administration was seriously considering identifying areas where it can cooperate with China, he made a special mention of violence against minorities in Xinjiang. It is no secret that the world opinion is more or less united against the state-sponsored repressive measures against Uyghur resistance to curbs on freedom in Xinjiang. Given Beijing’s stand of ‘uncaring attitude’ on issues of human rights violations in Xinjiang or Tibet, it is difficult to believe that it will grab the olive branch offered by Biden.
Newer partnerships for India
India seeks to focus on the need to stem radicalisation, extremism, cross-border terrorism and dismantling of global terror networks. Yet, we are not part of any regional structure post US withdrawal from Afghanistan. India and Japan are not part of the AUKUS.
Is it time for New Delhi to forge new partnerships? Nothing should deter India from seriously pursuing India-France-Japan trilateral as a security framework in the Indo-Pacific. This will also strengthen the recently floated AUKUS, which claims to attend to the serious business of providing a security platform in the South China Sea.
Besides the two Oceans, another area that requires immediate attention is Africa where economic development has taken a back seat due to paucity of fund flow and pandemic-related setbacks among other factors. Some of the African countries were drawn into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) orbit and have lately realised that they inextricably got into the burden of debt trap. A resource-rich Africa is not a new place for India and Japan (because of the Asia Africa Growth Corridor) as well as France, a former colonial power which had presence in about fifty per cent of Africa.
The best way to strengthen multilateralism is through greater cooperation on trade, security and geopolitical issues among like-minded democracies. If Quad falls short of these parameters, there is an urgent need for a security-cum-trade architecture, which will not only bark but also bite, if need be.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)