New Delhi: The US, Japan and Australia made some strong statements against China and Russia over the weekend in Hawaii that may well set the tone for the next meeting of Quad, but India — a neighbour of Beijing and a strategic partner of Moscow — has always avoided calling them out publicly in such multilateral forums.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin hosted Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles, and Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii Saturday, as part of the Trilateral Defense Ministers’ Meeting (TDMM).
This time, the TDMM, which last met in Singapore in June, took place right after US President Joe Biden released the Pacific Partnership Strategy for the Pacific Islands Forum, which stated that the “pressure and economic coercion by the People’s Republic of China” has led to the “undermining the peace, prosperity, and security of the region, and by extension, of the United States”.
At the TDMM in Hawaii, all the countries – the US, Japan and Australia – that are also part of the Quad, said China and Russia are “trying to dismantle” the rules-based international world order.
According to strategic and diplomatic sources, as the TDMM gathers more steam, it is inevitable that the alliance will begin to dominate the agenda in Quad, pushing India to call out China and Russia more openly and publicly.
India is not part of this TDMM alliance. However, as part of the Quad, these countries carry out a joint maritime military exercise ‘Malabar’ even as India rejects any kind of military linkages with the Quad.
The TDMM’s vision and agenda can well seep into the Quad’s agenda which has so far managed to only indirectly signal its unity and vision to China and to some extent Russia, due to India, which happens to be Beijing’s neighbour and Moscow’s strategic partner, sources told ThePrint.
“The TDMM is surely going to now define and shape the Quad’s agenda, especially now that China’s aggression towards Taiwan and Russia’s war on Ukraine intensifies,” a diplomatic source told ThePrint.
According to the diplomat, the Quad acts more like a diplomatic forum after it was revived in 2019 from its older avatar. And it was given a fresh lease of life only because the pandemic happened, the diplomat said, adding that otherwise India would have been “reluctant” in its resurrection of sorts.
The diplomat also said that even if the Quad came to existence in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the geopolitics has now “completely changed” and so has the world order post the pandemic and now after the Russia-Ukraine war.
Referring to Australia and Japan as the US’ “very closest allies”, Austin Saturday said at the TDMM, “For decades, our three democracies have worked shoulder-to-shoulder as an anchor for stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and around the globe.”
“We are deeply concerned by China’s increasingly aggressive and bullying behavior in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere in the region,” Austin was quoted in a statement issued by the Pentagon.
At the meeting, Australia’s Marles said, “We see the trilateral between our three countries as only growing deeper and stronger, and we look very much forward today to pursuing that agenda”.
He also highlighted at the TDMM that what Russia is doing to Ukraine in the ongoing conflict is something that Beijing is doing with Canberra by “exerting that same pressure”.
Japan said the international order has been “undermined”. “Today, the international community is faced with the severe security environments due to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, China’s unilateral change of status by force in the South and East China seas, and [the] remarkable development of North Korea’s nuclear- and missile-related technologies among others,” Japan’s Defence Minister Hamada said through a translator. “The foundation of the international order has been undermined.”
Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at the California-based think tank RAND Corporation, said, “I just find Australia, Japan, and the US far more comfortable airing their shared view that they need to do more to counter China’s bad behaviour. That isn’t the case when India is involved in these multilateral discussions.”
During a separate bilateral meeting between Marles and Austin that took place Saturday, both sides discussed China’s “aggressive, escalatory and destabilising military activities in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere in the region”.
According to sources, Taiwan may also soon enter in the Quad’s agenda as tensions become more intense even as India continues to defend Russia.
“The United States and Australia are united in opposing actions that threaten peace, stability and the rules-based international order,” said Austin.
‘New momentum for minilateral groupings’
Jagannath P. Panda, Head, Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs at the Sweden-based Institute for Security & Development Policy, said the Hawaii TDMM is a reflection of how Australia, Japan and the US are “setting their action plan concretised in areas such as critical defence technologies.”
“This will certainly set a new momentum for other minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific region such as the Quad and the AUKUS,” he said.
Under AUKUS, Australia plans to acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines through a trilateral defense partnership with the US and UK.
Panda added, “Quad countries need to discuss further and build a consensus on how to proceed ahead in forging a credible cooperation in areas such as defence technology including in cyber and space domains. China’s rising dominance in critical technological space comes as a constant reminder that the Indo-Pacific region needs a strong action plan. Furthermore, China’s partnership with Russia post the Ukraine war should come as a wake-up call for all the Quad countries to discuss cooperation in critical defence areas that involve sensitive technologies.”
Earlier this month, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner, who was in New Delhi to attend the U.S.-India 2+2 Intersessional Dialogue, told reporters that the US-India security partnership is “more than any individual issue” and that it is about “that shared vision that we have for the Indo-Pacific and working together to ensure that future comes to fruition.”
Meanwhile, in a significant development last week, India forced China to withdraw its resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna against the AUKUS. China had tried to get a resolution passed against the AUKUS for seeking to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines but armed with conventional weapons.
(Edited by Tony Rai)