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Quad must be built on agendas, not emotions. Can’t afford to become another NATO

Jaishankar described the Tokyo Quad meet as ‘consultations’. It needs more than China to become a regional institution.

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It is important to recall the history of the Quad because alliances have to be formed on agendas, not emotions.

From the outset, the US projected and China perceived the Quadrilateral security grouping of US, Japan, Australia and India as the ‘Asian NATO’. Angered by the first-ever meeting of the four countries in 2007 on the initiative of then-Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, the Chinese leadership had come down heavily on the grouping describing it as an anti-China security formation. The Chinese reaction had so rattled several of the partner countries that the Quad lost its momentum as soon as it was born. Abe lost the elections in Japan a few months after the Quad meeting. Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Asō, who became the prime ministers after him, were not too enthusiastic about rubbing China on the wrong side. In Australia too, John Howard lost power in the same year. The new Labor government that came to power led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had completely reversed the Liberal government’s policy towards China. The Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Rudd worked overtime to strengthen China-Australia ties. His Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, categorically stated in February 2008, after a China-Australia strategic dialogue, that Australia would not attend any of these future four-country security dialogues. Smith told his counterparts in Japan and the US that Australia would continue to have security dialogues with them but wouldn’t want India to be included in the process.

On its parts, the Indian government under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had quickly revised its policy, primarily under the pressure of the Indian Communist parties, which were important allies of the government at that time. A.K. Antony, the defence minister, was said to have ticked off the chief of the Indian Navy at the time for inviting Australia to join the annual Malabar exercises, usually participated in by the navies of India, Japan and the US.

A decade later, when the Quad attempted to get back on its feet again in 2017, the only country to have a different dispensation was India. The Republicans were back in power in America. In Japan, after a five-year hiatus, Shinzo Abe had returned to power in 2012. In Australia, the Liberal government had returned to power after 2010. In India, though, it was the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that was at the helm of affairs when the Quad was being resurrected.

US President Donald Trump, from 2017 onwards, has made his opposition to China a public affair. Abe wore his anti-China credentials on his sleeves by visiting the Yasukuni shrine for the war dead a few months after becoming the Prime Minister in 2012. Incidentally, he again chose to visit the shrine a couple of weeks ago, soon after demitting office as Prime Minister, knowing it will irritate China. In Australia too, the Liberal prime ministers who came to power after 2013 – Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and current Prime Minister Scott Morrison – have under the growing popular pressure as well as out of geo-strategic concerns, started distancing Australia from China.

Also read: Jaishankar pitches for ‘territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes’ at Quad meet

Treading cautiously in Tokyo

In the last three years, however, India has tread cautiously with regard to the revival of the Quad. In the first two years, the Quad meetings were attended only by the officials of the four countries and expressly remained non-militaristic. The meetings got upgraded to the foreign ministers’ level last year but remained informal. When the first formal meeting of the Quad foreign ministers took place last week at Tokyo, India continued to tread cautiously with respect to the agenda on the Quad table while others, especially US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were explicit in their attacks on China. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar came under criticism from a section of netizens for his nuanced approach at the meeting.

Thirteen years after its first meeting and three years into revival, the Quad still remains a hazy idea without any formal institutional structure or an agenda. The participating foreign ministers at the Tokyo meet shied away from issuing any joint statement at the end of the session. Each minister, instead, issued a separate statement about the outcome of it. Far from sounding belligerent and militaristic, the statements of the foreign ministers of Japan, Australia and India were conciliatory and inclusive. After the departure of Abe, the new leadership of Japan seems hesitant to take on China directly. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga talked about a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, but quickly added that he would ‘stabilise relations’ with neighbouring countries ‘including China and Russia’. Australia too seemed reluctant to make any aggressive pitch.

India’s stand has been consistent for several years now. Key phrases in Jaishankar’s opening remarks were ‘like-minded countries’, ‘vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values’, ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’, and ‘rules-based international order’. Jaishankar took care to describe the meeting as ‘Consultations’, and insisted that “our objective remains advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region”.

Also read: Jaishankar’s bland speech at Quad said nothing. But look at the naval ties India is forging

Not a NATO

Earlier, there was the talk about New Delhi hosting Quad ‘2+2’ ministerial meeting in September this year. However, that meeting didn’t take place. And India continues to refrain from expanding the Malabar exercises to include Australia. India’s calibrated approach to Quad is understandable and appropriate in the face of the exuberance and aggression of the US to convert it into an Asian NATO of sorts.

The NATO, formed during the Cold War era, had 12 members at the time of its formation in 1949 and expanded later to accommodate 30 countries. It acquired notoriety as the catalyst of wars in Western Europe even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the breakup of Yugoslavia to the downfall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the NATO footprints can be seen all over Europe and its neighbourhood. The Quad members would hardly want such a scenario evolving in the Indo-Pacific region.

On its part, India has always maintained that its disputes with neighbours such as China and Pakistan would be handled on a bilateral basis without precipitating the involvement of any third country. That mature principle could be the reason for it not to fall for the temptation of creating or joining any formation exclusively against any single country. ‘Inclusive’ Indo-Pacific was one of the key points of Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018. It is pertinent to mention here that India continues to be a member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Also read: Quad grouping has potential, India shouldn’t treat this as mere tactics

A coherent agenda

All this leads to the central question about the future of Quad. Will it remain merely a body of ‘consultations’ or evolve into a formal regional institution? It is interesting to note that the Indian External Affairs Minister’s opening comments used the word ‘Consultations’ twice with ‘C’ in capital. Maybe, it will be a small ‘c’ in consultations next year and will gradually lead to Quad’s institutionalisation.

It is undeniable that the ascendence of China is severely impacting the global order. The dexterity with which the Chinese leaders reset their global goals gives them an upper hand in setting the global agenda. It today dominates global institutions and is in a position to challenge the supremacy of the world order led thus far by America. It resents the Quad grouping and describes it as the ‘closed and exclusive small circles’. “We hope that relevant countries will do more to enhance mutual understanding and trust among countries in the region, and promote regional peace, stability and development, and not the opposite,” said the Chinese embassy in Tokyo in response to the Quad meet.

The one thing that rightfully weighs the most in the minds of the Quad member countries is the desire to contain China. Yet, for the Quad to emerge as a major grouping in the world’s most happening region, it has to build on a coherent and inclusive agenda that attracts more and more regional democracies into its orbit. The centrality of the ASEAN nations, many of which have been at the receiving end of China’s aggression, must be upheld in regional interest. That will be possible only if the regional powers in Quad – India, Japan and Australia – get into the driver’s seat and steer it in the direction of what Jaishankar described as “rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes…connectivity and infrastructure development, security including counter-terrorism; cyber and maritime security; and the stability and prosperity in the region”.

Ram Madhav is member, board of governors, India Foundation and former general secretary, BJP. Views are personal.

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  1. Let us face it, India and the ‘Hindu nationalists’ got a beating from China, and do not know how to react.

    The Hindus are used to reacting against Pakistan, or fighting within the country. With Pakistan, they can carry out something and say they were successful, even if they were not. But not with China.

    The Hindus seek refuge in Quad and hope others will check China. But the others do not have borders with China. They are not going to cut relations or fight for India.

    India with its Hindu militancy has got into a position where it faces a coordinated two front war. It has a shrinking economy, Covid has gone beyond control, and Hindus have nothing better to do than fight with Muslims over a TV ad.

    The sooner Hindus start daydreaming about being a Hindu power, and start to work hard, and govern India properly, they will get somewhere.

  2. Did Ram Madhav really write this ? I have seen him in a Mehdi Hassan interview, and also a BBC interview, with Stephen Sackur and in both, he came across as a typically uncouth low IQ RSS Hindu.

    This article is on the whole sensible compared with what Seshadri Chari writes. Chari is another RSS fellow who writes here optimistically about how India has the upper hand and is making China run. I do not see similar bombast from Ram Madhav, at least here.

  3. In deed a clear opinion, dialogue is a good step but it has to be built with very strong Agendas to see some results…

  4. Quad won’t become a NATO.. NATO had/has stable borders (albeit tense) , we don’t. No democratic head of state would want to be forced into declaration of war because of our border skirmishes. If the Quad becomes a NATO then it would be one without Article 4 – which defeats the purpose and essence of NATO.

  5. I suppose the broad Agenda of QUAD is to keep China under check. Particular actions in this regard by member countries can’t be orchestrated into a symphony for public performance. Like somebody rightly stated in these columns earlier, though QUAD members will be seen reading from the same book, each will be on a different page. That is precisely the difference from a NATO.
    Actions and reactions to emerging diverse situations on the world stage are not detailed in any text book nor can they be programmed to be run on a computer. What is definite is that within a framework, each member has to work out its own actions and reactions to suit a particular circumstance.

    • ‘What is definite is that within a framework, each member has to work out its own actions and reactions to suit a particular circumstance.’

      For the Indian framework, you told us we have a reliable chowkidar who has been running tirelessly to make up for 70 years of stagnation.

  6. All this is wishful thinking on your part. There is no quad per se. The new US administration of Joe Biden that would come in on November 3, would be busy for a long time in reviving America’s economy, which is in recession now. it has also said that it can’t take on China alone. It is pulling out of Afghanistan and Germany, a NATO ally. So, obviously it is not looking for a fight with Chin. It wouldn’t have any time. to attend to China, or foreign policy. Australia is also fighting recession by exporting to China, and it has told America in no uncertain terms that it doesn’t want to strain its relations with China. Japan has lot of investment in China to worry about. Its business community is pressuring its government to not strain relations with China. Moreover, Japan’s new PM owes his jjon to a politician who is pro-China. So, remains India, the only country out of the so-called quad, that has to deal with China on its own. None of the other countries have a land dispute with China, AND NO COUNTRY IS GOING TO FIGHT ANOTHER COUNTRY’S BATTLES. EACH COUNTRY IS ON ITS OWN! No other country has a stake in Ladakh. The world is in deep recession, and no country can afford a war. A modern war would be very expensive. All counties want to do business with China, as a result of which its exports are very high at present.

  7. The world will deal with China as it considers best. For India, the stakes could not possibly be higher. There have been several missteps in our foreign policy in recent years. This is one relationship which we should handle impeccably.

  8. Ram Madhav has given a comprehensive picture of Quad from its inception to present position. Now Quad is more active than earlier. However, he expressed doubts from certain quarters, as to why Australia, Japan and India were not vocal against China unlike America’s Mike Pompeo in the recent Tokyo meet? Why those subdued statements? America doesn’t belong to Asiatic region. It’s far away. It can make any noise. The other Quad counties including India should be calibrated in their approach. What S Jaishankar did, is the right way.

  9. Jaishanker’s speech is vague and not very far from Manmohan Singh’s appeasement and avoiding the real issue. His policy about Ladakh is also very vague and entirely based on “disengagement” not on status quo ante. He may be a good diplomat, but, is he a good Foreign Minister ?

  10. A balanced approach is needed in deciding the roles & responsibilities of each participating country . Lay down specific goals for mutual interests & to ensure security as the prime objective besides economic cooperation. A well written article highlighting the issues from Indian perspective. Rightly said that it should not become another NATO .

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