It’s probably not an edge-of-the-precipice, vitally interesting event, given that few people know much about it. But the in-person summit in Tokyo of Quad leaders, which includes Japan, India, the US and Australia, is important, all the more because of a fact that is usually unnoticed. This grouping is about India. The other three are already ally partners, New Delhi being the new kid on the block.
Perhaps due to that, India says very little about it, though the media is over-exuberant, while other members sometimes say too much. So, the picture is rather like an old-fashioned kaleidoscope, shifting and moving depending on the hand holding it.
Quad started as a diamond
The Quad was originally a vision of former Japan prime minister, Shinzo Abe. In 2007, he visualised a ‘security diamond’ between these countries. The speech was made during his historic address to Indian Parliament, but didn’t get much traction, given the immediate shrinking back with any reference to ‘security’. Shinzo revived it later in 2013, this time wrapped up in far milder language, and followed it up with energetic and highly successful visits to Australia and India. In the latter case, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a near personal interest in the relationship as Japan offered not just peaceful use of nuclear energy and a “bullet train,” but also an agreement on transfer of defence technology.
Meanwhile, the Quad got its groove when the US took to it even as China began to flex its muscles in the South China Sea in 2015. It became, in time, almost former President Donald Trump’s favourite grouping, giving him a platform to solidify his rather clear-sighted opposition to China. Australia initially showed little enthusiasm, but bucked up later as China began to muscle up.
The Quad meetings have become rather like a relay race since 2017, with a foreign ministers’ meet in 2019, and not less than five ‘Leaders’ Conference’ since March 2021. Try to find another regional grouping that has met as many times, even if two were virtual. That’s point one.
Second, much has been made of the fact that the Quad seemed to be rather adrift, unclear as to what it was meant to be. Delhi says it’s about “shared values and commitment to the principles of democracy, international law, and rules-based international order as also a vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”. More importantly, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar strongly stated what it was not, which was any kind of an ‘Asian NATO’, a phrase that was being broadcast from Beijing.
It was also true that Quad leaders’ Joint Statements from the start seemed to cover a host of issues including shipping, climate change, energy, emerging technologies and the vital issue of joint production of Covid vaccines in India. That should have been the easiest way of showcasing ‘tangible cooperation’ in an emergency. It flopped. The reason? One seems to be Indian regulatory processes with regard to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and the other was the clearance from the World Health Organization with regard to India’s own vaccine, Corbevax. Vaccines are all about Big Pharma and big bucks, which opens up suspicions on all this swearing about fair distribution and the like. Hang on though. It’s been less than a year since four bureaucracies sat down to thrash this out.
Third, as Sri Lanka’s virtual collapse illustrates the economic disaster of Covid and the stupidity of the Ukraine war, it’s time to realise that Quad members are also among the largest economies and part of major international financial institutions, which makes the announcement of a Quad Debt Management Portal look like a quick reaction of sorts. For those who think Quad does nothing but issue long-winded statements, that might be something.
Fourth, as South Asia in particular gets hit badly by climate change—both Pakistan and India have seen their wheat crops get reduced—there’s an acronym coming up that should please PM Modi’s heart: Q-Champ or “Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package”. That translates into big money, not altruism, as new tech like green hydrogen and ways to address recycling across the Asia Pacific get shared. The lesson? No single country or even a group of them can address climate change. It has to be across the world. Someone needs to tell that to local municipal corporations who are hacking away at the trees and the completely unimplemented ban on single-use plastics. If you think India is bad, look at plastic-intensive US hyper malls. In short, in a year, the Quad is outlining a footprint. No more. But that’s something.
The security thing
The first Quad Joint Statement never mentioned the word ‘defence’, nor does it now, except with regard to the cybersphere. Meanwhile, the four countries have had plenty of military exercises, either bilaterally or multilaterally. But most of these predate Quad by decades. The Malabar exercises with the US started in 1992, while the MILAN began in 1995. It has rather expanded, starting with just five countries to 40 currently, including the Quad. Then there is also the fact that India has the 2+2 formats going with all four; which means defence ministers also sit down to talk to their counterparts. So, it’s not just a foreign ministry jamboree. Then there’s the fact that each has also signed logistics agreements with the other. Japan for instance, signed one with India in 2020 and then another with Australia. The US has such agreements with some 120 countries, as do others like Australia, which has similar arrangements with treaty partners. But it is highly unusual for Japan and India to go in for such arrangements, though for different reasons.
Japan has long adhered to its post-World War commitment to self-defence and India has shied away from anything that led it away from non-alignment. Both are shifting, Japan more than India. Under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan is planning to double its defence expenditure in a trend being seen in Europe, and no wonder. Even as Quad meetings were taking place this week, the Japanese Air Force had to scramble as China and Russian bombers conducted Joint Operations from the East China Sea. The signal was unmistakable.
The rapid shifting and changing
Such actions by China and Russia raise the stakes in the Indian Ocean, especially in the aftermath of Ukraine. And the reactions are the same. South Korea, as well as eight other Southeast Asian countries, though hesitant to openly mention China in any negative light, are now part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a clear alternative to the China-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which China aspires to join. It is also a statement that the Quad is vitally about economics, a core issue in a pandemic world.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s upcoming visit to eight Pacific countries follows hard on the signing of a security pact with the Solomon Islands and raises fears of possible Chinese bases in this sensitive area. It will also probably serve to dispel doubts within Australia’s new government. The Labour Party, once seen as close to China, especially after Senator Sam Dastyari resigned over connections to a donor linked to the Chinese Communist Party, is now demanding training of Pacific Islands’ security forces and increased aid. But even as the new prime minister, Anthony Albanese hurried to attend the Quad summit, the reality is that while Australia’s trade with China has come down considerably, it is likely that the Labour government – like India – may prefer a less military led approach to China than the Scott Morrison government. Then there’s France, where Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron reminded the world and his countrymen that “over 1.6 million French citizens live in these overseas territories, while three‐quarters of the French exclusive economic zone—the world’s second-largest—is located in the Indo‐Pacific”. Not a bad reason to cruise around with the Quad navies in La Perouse exercises last year.
All in all, everything is still very fluid. But there’s one thing that’s clear. Even as new initiatives are announced in grand declarations, time is running out not just for countries like Sri Lanka, but also world economies, stung by inflation and rising production costs. In such times, major economies tend to close doors rather than open them, turn to protection rather than competition and tariffs rather than aid. That could fuel the current downturn, not only leaving little for the defence of the land, but fuelling doubters who have little faith in the promises of the big guys and their corporations. If Quad has to succeed, some of that talk about ‘norms’ and ‘openness’ has to be seen on the ground. The disaster of the pandemic, and now a terrible war, means it’s really got to be one for all, and its obverse – working together for a common good. If Quad capitals don’t get that, then they get nothing. And Quad will remain nothing but a geometric equation in the sand.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.