Harsh V. Pant

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) involving the US, Japan, Australia and India, is once again in focus this week with the second in- person Quad Leaders’ Summit in Japan. It was in September last year that US President Joe Biden had hosted the first in-person meeting of Quad leaders in Washington. The Japan summit, which will witness the new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s first foreign outing soon after getting elected, will allow leaders of the four nations to assess the progress of the grouping’s agenda and engage each other on developments in the Indo-Pacific region as well as around the world at a time when the global order is witnessing a remarkable transformation.

With the world focused on the Ukraine crisis, the message from the Quad summit will be loud and clear: while Russian aggression against Ukraine will reshape the priorities of major stakeholders in Eurasia, the Indo-Pacific continues to be the focal point of global attention. The China challenge is going nowhere and the world’s like-minded democratic countries are intent on giving China a good fight.

With the world focused on the Ukraine crisis, the message from the Quad summit will be loud and clear: while Russian aggression against Ukraine will reshape the priorities of major stakeholders in Eurasia, the Indo-Pacific continues to be the focal point of global attention.

Beijing recognizes this reality, and its response, therefore, betrays its anxieties when it comes to the Quad. Reacting to the American Indo-Pacific strategy ahead of the Quad summit, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi asserted that the strategy is “bound to fail” as it is vigorously promoted by Washington to “contain” Beijing. He said that the Indo-Pacific strategy “cooked up” by the US in the name of “freedom and openness”, is about forming “cliques” that are intended to contain China and make regional countries “pawns” of American hegemony.

These are all old claims that Beijing has been parroting since the advent of a multi-country plan for the ‘Indo-Pacific’, as named. But every step that regional players have taken to bring the construct of the Indo-Pacific to fruition, China’s diatribe has become shriller. For all its efforts at undermining the very idea of the Indo-Pacific as a distinct region, it is now strategic reality.

In the US, the Trump administration had formally endorsed it and now the Biden administration is clearly intent of giving it a sharper edge. The Quad’s ambitions and visibility have only increased over the past few years. China continues to persist with ‘Asia-Pacific’ by underlining that the change of nomenclature is also about wiping out “the achievements and momentum of peaceful development created by the concerted efforts of countries in the region over the past decades.”

The Quad agenda has been evolving and the ambitions of the four nations now include key areas of convergence like trade, infrastructure, maritime security, health, climate change and emerging technologies. The idea is as much about enhancing ties among the four members as it is about providing credible alternatives to regional states that often end up without any real options other than to seek Chinese help. There is a huge demand in the region for the provision of public goods and the four Quad nations are seen as key to ensuring their supply.

Yet, the Quad is not a formal alliance. It is a response to an institutional void in the vast maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific. It is a loose coalition of like-minded countries that are willing to work together on an issue-based agenda. While it has emerged as an exemplar in the realm of contemporary global institutional evolution, it is also very natural that there will be areas where disagreements among the four states will have to be navigated carefully.

This should not be surprising. Nor should it generate needless pessimism. The war in Ukraine is one such example where India stands apart from the other three nations in its response. New Delhi has been careful to keep Russia out of its engagements with other countries, even as it has continued to support the centrality of international law, the United Nations charter and the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty in its response to the crisis. India is also likely to face pressure on the issue of food security against the backdrop of its recent decision to ban exports of wheat.

India, despite these differences, remains at the heart of the Indo-Pacific and critical to the success of the Quad. As a successful democracy, a leading economy and a military power willing and able to push back against Chinese expansionism, India’s role is central to the evolving geopolitical order in the region. It is not surprising, therefore, that the other Quad members, both as part of the grouping and bilaterally, are willing to look past their other divergences with India. In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Indian position is much better understood and its constraints appreciated.

As a successful democracy, a leading economy and a military power willing and able to push back against Chinese expansionism, India’s role is central to the evolving geopolitical order in the region.

The challenge for the Quad now is to define its agenda more sharply and with greater clarity. There is also a need to show this platform’s ability to deliver on the ground. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation in talks on the US-sponsored Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in Tokyo underscores the fact that Quad members are finally getting their economic act together. Even as that effort makes progress, the security dimension of the Quad needs to be defined more robustly.

That the Quad means business is now clear. One only has to look at the growing list of countries that want to join the platform. But how effectively the Quad conducts its business depends on the four member nations and the seriousness of intent they are able to demonstrate as a grouping.

China’s pushback against the Indo-Pacific and Quad is no longer a challenge. The real issue is the internal cohesion and long-term commitment of Quad members to make it one of the most significant strategic actors in the world. The Tokyo summit should start work to address this.

This article was first published in Mint as The Quad must take centre stage and work on Indo-Pacific Security on 24 May 2022.

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About the Author

Harsh V Pant edited

Harsh V. Pant, Professor, International Relations, King’s College London; Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.