The first-ever in-person meeting of the ‘Quad’ comprising India, US, Australia and Japan is now over, and a wide-ranging Joint Statement issued. And no, it’s no longer called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. An unnamed senior administration official who chose to give a briefing a few hours earlier, called the Quad an “informal grouping” with no military or security dimension to it. Further in response to questions, he said clearly that Quad and AUKUS were quite separate and had nothing at all to do with each other. That should serve to quieten those who have been calling the Quad an ‘Asian NATO’. But all the same, the Quad essentially has an à la carte menu, with each member left to bring to the table what it chooses to. To understand its potential, compare the two and decipher the objective of each.
The written word
First, check what’s there in black and white. The AUKUS, which consists of Australia, UK and US, has its intent stated clearly by the Joint Statement, which specifically calls it an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” to “strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests”. It doesn’t get clearer than that. But it also adds that while signatories “resolve to deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region” this is also to be done “by working with partners”. That means each could be a node to strengthen security interests with other like-minded countries.
Now look at the Fact Sheet of the Quad. Not one word on the military aspect, though the Joint Statement states “we will continue to champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea…to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”. That can’t be attained by just pointing fingers. It needs some heft and might. Besides, any show of muscles or standing up at international forums, can’t be done by just one country, not even the US. It needs a certain critical mass. But here’s what’s important. It’s not obligatory for any member to step up.
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The underpinning organisation and the costs
Now consider the organisations that underpin each. AUKUS countries are already bound together by an overlay of mutual defence treaties. Australia is not part of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) but has signed the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (with limited commitments) and has been part of NATO operations, including in Afghanistan. It is an “Enhanced Opportunity Partner” together with others who operate alongside NATO on the ground. Simply put, it means that Australia exercises, arms itself, and uses communication platforms that permit interoperability with any or all of NATO countries. Quite separately, Australia and the US have operated together since 1918, with this formalised through a security treaty (ANZUS) in 1951, but which doesn’t specifically commit to mutual defence. Australia also cooperates closely with the US on missile defence, and has some 580 defence personnel across the US, embedded with the American military.
The UK has its Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958, extended in 2004, effectively letting the US complement the UK nuclear effort. The US has some 9,000 personnel in the UK in shared RAF bases, while British officers are stationed in a variety of roles in the US. Incidentally, the US has long funded various projects in Northern Ireland, and President Joe Biden in his meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson “reiterated his longstanding support for a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace”. That’s just to underline that there’s a price to be paid for a “Special relationship”. In a similar vein, Australia opting for US nuclear-powered submarines, ensures that it’s tied by the leg to the US for decades to come, even after the submarine is produced sometime in 2040.
Compare that to the Quad. There is, as of now, no secretariat for the grouping nor is there likely to be. Instead, it works through a series of bilaterals between members. For India, that means the 2+2 Framework (Defence and Foreign Ministers), which has now been bolstered considerably by two summits. Those bilaterals cover a lot, including defence ties. Consider the US-India Joint Statement that ‘welcomes’ the inclusion of Australia in the US-India-Japan naval exercises, India’s hosting of various Indo Pacific conferences like the one of army chiefs, positioning of liaison officers at key nodes, and cooperation in the defence industry. The first 2+2 with Australia has similar clauses, welcoming the Quad, invitations to military exercise and joint partnerships in the defence industry. This 2+2 framework is replicated, for instance, between Japan and Australia. And each of these is serviced by critical ministries on a bilateral basis. India has also signed logistics agreements with each, all of which together with the signing of the four foundational agreements with the US, brings it into a network of information-sharing and geospatial information with the others. Add to that a series of exercises, and there is some limited interoperability, that is only likely to grow as India buys more US defence equipment, which according to one account involved some $22 billion in the last decade, and probably another $10 billion waiting to be inked.
But here’s the thing. Interoperability is still limited, particularly as New Delhi insists on continuing to buy Russian equipment like the S-400; there are no Indians embedded at any US or other facility; and Quad countries do not operate together on the ground for any extended period. Important joint actions like the “Malabar” naval exercises began in 1992, and has nothing much to do with the Quad per se. And finally, in defence equipment, we are tied to several countries, a dubious privilege but less dangerous than being tied to just one.
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So, what is the Quad at present?
For an understanding of how important the Quad is poised to be, consider the areas of cooperation outlined not just in the Joint Statement – which includes production of one billion vaccines, cyber security, climate crisis and other issues – but also a separate agreement on Development of Critical and Emerging Technologies, which calls for not just supply chain management but also fair markets and non-use of technology for oppression. No prizes for guessing who that is aimed at. All of this becomes vitally important when one thing is considered. No one is going to war with China. As a substantial nuclear power, that is a risk too great to even consider. When that uncomfortable reality is accepted, it then becomes clear that the only way to circumscribe Chinese power is actually through all of the initiatives outlined in the Quad documents that cut back on China as the world’s supermarket. As the unnamed ‘senior administration official’ said, the Quad is not a security grouping. It really doesn’t have to be. Leave that to the AUKUS. They’re welcome to it. . And here’s the best part. A body that obliquely limits China and at the same time builds up Atmanirbhar India, suits Delhi right down to the ground, even as the muscle-flexing is done elsewhere. Quad and AUKUS complement each other. That’s the bottom line.
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 Neera Majumdar)