Doubts have been raised on the efficacy of the Quad but it has already served the limited purpose of improving coordination among four major maritime powers in the Indo Pacific. We must not forget that the Quad has been able to work effectively in an expanded framework of Quad plus (with the inclusion of Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand) to coordinate policies and responses with regard to the pandemic at the Foreign Secretaries level.

By Anil Wadhwa

The significance of the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting in Tokyo on 6 October 2020 lies in the fact that it happened in person despite the pandemic – last year the Quad foreign ministers had met on the margins of the UNGA. The level of this annual meeting has now been elevated to Foreign Ministers and individual statements indicate they will meet regularly -giving it a quasi-formal status and there is a willingness to work together in a Quad plus format at the Vice Minister, officials and specialists’ level. There is also a domestic consensus for the Quad meetings in all four partner countries. The discussions on 5G, Resilient Supply Chains, critical minerals and technologies indicates a common desire to shift critical dependencies.

The Quad meeting was watched with interest amongst geo-political analysts because it came against the backdrop of a series of aggressive Chinese actions in the Indo – Pacific – from the line of Actual Control on the border with India, to Taiwan Straits, the Senkakus, South China Sea, in the military field, to the trade retaliation and cyber-attacks against Australia. There was a nuanced emphasis in individual statements which needs attention. The US Statement was a strong indictment of China, “the exploitation, corruption and coercion by the communist party”, and its cover up of the Corona virus pandemic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically referred to Chinese aggression in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, and the Taiwan Straits. Australia pointed out that states cannot assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the UNCLOS, and that the Quad countries were committed to a region that was “governed by rules, not power” which was a veiled reference to China. Australia also emphasized cooperation in infrastructure, especially in the Pacific and working together on critical minerals and related technologies, countering disinformation, strengthening cyber technologies, and strengthening cooperation with regional partners and institutions, especially in the Mekong sub region.

Japan laid stress on the happenings in East China Sea, South China Sea and North Korea and framing international rules together in the area of digital economy. Japan welcomed the interest shown by countries in Europe towards a “Free and Open Indo Pacific” and expressed its strong support for ASEAN centrality, and unity.

Japanese and Indian Foreign Ministers met in a bilateral meeting and emphasized on the increasing role played by digital technologies – they also highlighted the role for resilient and robust digital cyber systems. Japan has agreed to be a pillar for the infrastructure leg of the India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. India stressed on reform of multilateral institutions, referred to its UN Security Council membership, Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, connectivity, increasing resilience of supply chains, enhancing access to affordable vaccines, medicines, and medical equipment and infrastructure development. India emphasized, that the objective of this meeting was advancing “the economic and security interests of all States with legitimate and vital interests in the region”. Key phrases in External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s opening remarks were “like minded countries”, “vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values”, “free, open and inclusive Indo Pacific”, “rules based international order”, “freedom of navigation in international seas”, “transparency”, “respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes.”

An analysis of the various statements issued after the meeting reveals that the common points were Covid/ post Covid recovery, maritime security, cyber security, infrastructure, HADR, freedom of navigation, and rule of law. US, India and Australia stressed on resilient supply chains except Japan which also mentioned it bilaterally with India. Doubts have been raised on the efficacy of the Quad but it has already served the limited purpose of improving coordination among four major maritime powers in the Indo Pacific. We must not forget that the Quad has been able to work effectively in an expanded framework of Quad plus (with the inclusion of Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand) to coordinate policies and responses with regard to the pandemic at the Foreign Secretaries level. In recent weeks there is enhanced interest from countries like France, UK and Germany, which have come up with its own version of an Indo Pacific strategy. The Quad countries have continued to express their desire to work with the ASEAN with due regard to ASEAN centrality.

China was obviously discussed in the closed-door meeting, but the reason why no country other than US spoke openly against China in the opening statements is not difficult to fathom. The US is the lynchpin of the Quad grouping but the US election looms large on 3 November. President Trump has blown hot and cold against China; for the past year the trade war with China and the blame of the Coronavirus has squarely been put on China by President Trump and the US administration. In case President Trump is a winner, there is a lingering apprehension that he may cut a deal with the Chinese although as time has gone by that has looked increasingly difficult. Biden has had a record of being soft on China – again everything points to a bipartisan consensus in the US that none of the parties would change the China policy. Yet, other countries of the Quad are still wary and are obviously watching because a Biden administration could well focus on domestic policies. So, the upshot of these public dissonances perhaps led to an air of tentativeness about the Quad meeting on 6 October.

It is the events following this meeting which have provided further clarity on where the Quad members stand individually on the future of the grouping. One of these is that there it was a desire on the part of US to institutionalize the Quad and perhaps expand it to include countries like Republic of Korea, New Zealand etc. and the others have found that to be difficult right now for their own reasons. The consensus seems to be to consolidate amongst the four and to work with others on specific issues in an expanded format. In this context, we must note the statement of Deputy Secretary of State Beigun a few days ago, where he stated that US was not looking for expansion of the Quad. He also stated that US respected India’s strategic autonomy while engaging in strategic military cooperation. Even as a future adjustment of the Biden administration with China has an outside chance, Japan could be persuaded to engage with China and the big businesses and universities could put pressure on the Australian government to also adjust if US policy towards China undergoes a change.

It is well known that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is keen to visit Japan at the earliest, perhaps to discuss a possible visit by President Xi Jin Ping to Japan maybe early next year, but the Japanese have so far held off on the visit. An important development worth noting is that during the telephonic conversation with PM Suga, President Xi Jin Ping talked of China and Japan working together on supply chains and China’s dual currency economy, which is a euphemism for the large internal market of China. China will try to reach adjustment first with Japan, due to their economic interdependencies.

Japanese PM Suga was in Vietnam and Indonesia a few days ago where, besides economic operation, and handling the pandemic, he spoke about the Free and Open Indo Pacific. There was agreement on export of defense equipment and security technology to Vietnam. In Indonesia, notably, the two leaders agreed to hold a 2+2 meeting between their foreign and Defence Ministers. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the five ASEAN nations before PM Suga’s trip and said in Malaysia on 13 October that “The US, Japan, India and Australia are planning to create an Indo Pacific version of NATO”. He called on the ASEAN countries to distance themselves from the Free and Open Indo Pacific concept because “it would damage the framework for regional cooperation”. The Chinese spokespersons have made statements that naval cooperation between countries should not go against the interest of the countries in the region and that the Quad countries should not form “exclusive cliques” that threaten the interests of third parties. The Chinese concerns and comments over the Quad meeting seem to be an overreaction and a tactic of playing the victims card to stymie cooperation amongst the four like minded democracies in the region.

While the Quad can be a force multiplier and a signal in the maritime cooperation domain, it is not a military alliance. India’s battles on its land border for example, will have to be fought by India alone. It is for this reason that India has continued to engage with China bilaterally in the peaceful resolution of the border standoff which has been triggered by aggressive Chinese PLA actions on the LAC since March 2020.

In this light the Indian decision to invite Australia to join the Malabar exercise has created some excitement, but this was in the works for a few years, and the significance of expanding the Malabar exercise should not be exaggerated. Neither should the invitation to Australia to participate in Malabar exercises be seen as linked to attempts at creating collective security structures in the region. The Malabar series of exercises started in 1992 with the US. The idea was to be able to work together in other humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations. Japan joined as a permanent member in 2015 after taking part on two other occasions earlier. These exercises have not been targeting any country. It will take concerted efforts over an extended period of time from the four navies to assume a threatening and offensive posture. Chinese attempts to link it to the threatened scenario of security for the ASEAN in the region are also part of diversionary tactics. It would be best if the China refrained from aggressive actions in the region and not stoke speculations of a group of democratic countries ganging up against the Chinese nation.

The cooperation of the Quad in the foreseeable future will be issue and needs based framework. There appears to be consensus amongst the participants that they will continue to work on issues at multiple levels before the next meeting of the Foreign Ministers. That again, seems to be progress. At the moment, the pandemic related cooperation, health and medicine, infrastructure and connectivity and maritime security are the focus areas. The China factor and its aggression in the region have only brought about intensity and urgency in the Quad and it can be discerned that it has become a galvanizing factor. The Quad, however, has a number of agenda items on its plate. It would be most useful if the Quad can strengthen intelligence sharing within the four countries and that should include maritime as well as space intelligence.

The issue of resilient supply chains initiative already mooted jointly by Australia, India and Japan needs to be built upon. However, this initiative would require putting into place financial incentives for these shifts. It would also require the participants to agree on preferential investment rules, key tariffs specific to these supply chains, quality standards, rules of origin for determining value addition, cross border data flow rules, and dispute settlement mechanisms. The Quad countries should work together on infrastructure projects as a viable alternative source of funding by pooling resources for Japan, USA, India and Australia. India provides $200,000 each year on a roll over basis to each of the 14 island states who are members of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) for developmental projects. This is in addition to the ASEAN India fund, the ASEAN India Green fund, the ASEAN India Science and Technology Fund, as well as the $ 1 billion credit facility announced for digital and infrastructure connectivity in 2015.

All these resources can be pooled for a selected, quick impact projects to demonstrate alternate capability. India has not joined the Blue Dot Initiative so far which aims at Quality Infrastructure. If it does, it should ensure that the initiative is not confined to certification and actually works out a plan of infrastructure funding in the Indo Pacific which interests all Quad participants. India is likely to continue its participation in groupings like SCO/ BRICS/ RIC/ JAI in order to advance its interests based on specific issues. For India, all these groupings, and its participation in them will be complementary and not exclusive. As External Affairs Minister Jaishankar has said, “the emergence of the Quad is an outcome of the multipolar world and a more fractured world… these adhoc combinations of countries who will work together.”

The author is a distinguished fellow at VIF. The article was first published in VIF and belongs to them.