Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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Quad 4th meet a triumph, but India’s problem is delay, slack, and unused secret weapon

Quad members also need to put the money where their mouth is, and introspect why India couldn't get nuclear submarine technology which went to Australia.

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It’s Quad time again, this time in Melbourne, Australia, an earlier laggard in joining the grouping, but now well in the lead in telling Beijing where to get off. Not that the Quad is at all about China, as is repeatedly stated by all involved, particularly the Indian side. It is a grouping of democracies that want to work together on how to deal with diverse issues including autocracies.

Official documents, therefore, have many references to ‘authoritarian regimes’ and none at all to China. Beijing unsurprisingly spewed venom and it’s all getting rather dramatic even as the foreign ministers of the four countries sip coffee and talk of shared values. The Quad is shaping up, but the outlines are still shaky, which is probably deliberate.

What they said — together 

The Quad – the grouping that consists of the US, Australia, Japan, and India – swung into specificity with the first virtual summit in March 2021, after lagging for more than a decade since 2007, and Australia fighting shy of joining up for fear of annoying China. A lot of water has since flowed under the bridge, and now this is the fourth meeting between the four countries’ foreign ministers in a remarkably short space of time.

Unlike most such meetings, this one has a lot of verbiage in the public space. There is a joint statement, joint pressers, ‘before and after’ remarks, and bilaterals that say far more in terms of actual priorities. In order of precedence, first the ‘before’ remarks. In his address, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia was expectedly pointed, appreciating Quad support against “those who would seek to coerce us”. The Australia-China trade spat, which the latter has rather unwisely weaponised for political ends, has turned vicious, ever since Beijing announced its list of 14 grievances that are impossible for any democratic nation to meet. Recently, Australian security agencies also found attempts to fund centre-left politicians to influence upcoming federal elections.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken temporised by saying that while conflict with China was not ‘inevitable’, the group intended to “defend” the rules-based order, now challenged by the Russian threat to Ukraine and the support of ‘some countries’.

Japan’s Finance Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi pointedly mentioned the Reciprocal Access Agreement with Australia, a huge page turner for Tokyo’s foreign and defence policy, and further expanded the government’s position in the Diet declaring a policy to ‘fundamentally reinforce’ Japanese defence.

India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar simply said the Quad was a force for good, and dodged a question on Ukraine. India had earlier abstained on a vote against Russia in the UN Security Council, underlining divisions in the Quad, on matters vital to at least two of its members, the US and Australia. The Japanese Parliament passed a resolution supporting Ukraine, but remains less than enthusiastic overall.

Divisions were also apparent in the position on Myanmar, where the US and Australia were again on the same page on the ‘deeply troubling’ situation, but where Jaishankar noted concerns as an immediate neighbour, and also observed that “we don’t follow a policy of national sanctions”. Quad is all very well, and it seems it’s not necessary to be entirely in agreement with other partners – especially when you’re not a treaty buddy.

In the event the Joint Statement had plenty to say on (Pakistan’s) support to terrorism specifically mentioning the Mumbai and Pathankot attacks, in what was undoubtedly a triumph for New Delhi, since it was not mentioned at all in earlier Joint Statements. Another win was the mild ‘concern’ expressed on Myanmar, rather than ‘condemn’ used to describe the North Korean missile tests. The statement was unusually strong in its commitment to countries of the region, where states strive to “protect the interests of their people, free from coercion”. That one’s for Australia.

The Joint Statement also not just called out the South and East China Sea issues, as it did before, but committed itself to capacity building for regional partners, and to “protect their ability to develop offshore resources”. That one’s for Japan and ASEAN countries that are tired of China’s expanding claims.

All of this made Beijing see red. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian declared that “the so-called Quad mechanism is, in nature, a tool to contain and circle China, and preserve America’s hegemony,” and a “man-made provocation of confrontation”.

Also read: India and China share a grey relationship. It all hinges on ‘waiting for the right time’

What they said separately and bilaterally 

Jaishankar was quick to seize on this comment, observing caustically that repeated criticism by China did not make the grouping less credible. Delhi was far more forthcoming this time, with the Foreign Minister using the Australia–India presser to point out that China  was not just discussed, but that its disregard for written agreements was an issue of legitimate interest to all.

The bilateral between Australia and India was high on content, with plans for infrastructure investment, the Inaugural Cyber Framework Dialogue and an upcoming Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. Both countries had earlier signed a vital MLA (Mutual Logistical Access) agreement in defence, which underlines increasing operational compatibility in (American-made) platforms.

The India-Australia meet said nothing specifically on defence, in contrast to the Japan-Australia bilateral, which stressed the security situation; the US-Australia bilateral discussing AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) trilateral and the threats from Russia and China; US-Japan discussing Ukraine, Myanmar and North Korea in the manner of long standing treaty allies.

India has its “2+2’ construct — which is the defence and foreign ministers’ construct — with each of these nations, who are separately treaty allies in a different context. India has logistical access arrangements with each of these, which means the Indian Navy’s reach is considerable if it should so decide. In sum, treaty allies share open security commonalities, while India stands apart, even while engaging bilaterally with each.

Also read: India-led Quad can rescue Sri Lanka from its ‘Made in China’ crisis. But timing is key

What they do — the meat in Quad 

But as Jaishankar says, to just see Quad as a ganging up on defence is to belittle it. There is tremendous potential on all fronts, provided all partners get their act together. Consider that an Indian firm is to produce a billion vaccines by the end of 2022, though the issue of IPP (Intellectual Property Protection) remains a problem; that exchange of human capital is well under way, if India optimises it; consider for instance that the 700,000  strong diaspora in Australia, the second highest tax paying diaspora after the British, can be tapped for business investments.

The Indian missions need to take up this slack urgently. Again, with Australia rich in rare earths, both can consider India in terms of alternative supply chains, for instance of specialised Neodymium-iron-boron magnets vital for everything from missiles to electric vehicles, although it depends on the business climate. Then Quad’s common principles for technology can be optimised provided India can at least get to 5G, at a time when Vietnam, a Quad Plus partner, is researching 6G.

India also has a secret weapon. The Forum for Indo-Pacific Cooperation has been dead in the water for some time. That’s inexplicable given the advantage of a large Indian diaspora in most of these islands. Take a map and look at the location of Fiji or Papua New Guinea for instance, and get this going. It’s not much use mouthing ‘Indo-Pacific’ without getting a foot into these highly strategic islands.

For all this and more to happen, ministries need to be held accountable for delays, particularly with regard to projects with Australia, where federal elections are due in May. Quick delivery will serve to enhance ties with the present government — and with Australians — who have so far supported the considerable risks attendant to standing up to China.

Lastly, Quad members also need to put their money where their mouth is, and introspect on why India could not get nuclear submarine technology which went to Australia, nor is it (yet) part of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence cooperation, a World War II relic for intelligence cooperation. Reports that the US House Armed Forces Committee wants it expanded to include India, Germany, and South Korea needs quick follow-up in a signal to India that its quiet cooperation is appreciated, even as it battles a belligerent neighbour pretty much on its own.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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