QUAD (literally referred to as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) has emerged as a credible alignment of democracies while its focus from sheer security dimension has diversified to encompass the synergy of economy and technology to garner new and reliant global value and supply chains. Trade and investment, health and food security, ICT and space, technology and resilient infrastructure, climate change and countering terrorism have become the cornerstones of its expanding footprints with each summit interactions and working level as well as ministerial meetings.
This sudden growth trajectory and a renewed focus on making QUAD a success has continued to ruffle the Chinese feathers even if it tried to dismiss it as ‘froth’ and wondered if it will not fizzle out. It turned out to be wishful thinking and Beijing even began to refer to it in desperation as an ‘Asian NATO’. Any movement forward in QUAD’s efforts to further integrate and align their synergies led to more insidious commentary from China and its mouthpieces.
Even though at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pitched for freedom of navigation and a Free and Open rule-based Indo-Pacific, he had discounted any intent of India to be a part of containment of China or any other nation despite the hegemonistic and aggressive acts of the dragon. He sought essentially a behavioral pattern in accordance with the international law and UNCLOS even though ironically the USA has not acceded to it and China adheres to it in defiance. PM Modi again reiterated that QUAD is a force for the global good. Secretary Blinken and others also tried to underplay the containment narrative even as the writing on the wall was clear.
An all Whiteman’s club in ‘AUKUS’ with clear security imperative was launched with USA, Australia and UK to carry the mantle of force projection with modern nuclear submarines and other technologies underwriting the accord. However, observers believe that if bad goes to worst QUAD and AUKUS synergies could be harnessed to confront an unbridled Chinese demarche or a potential Cold War 2.0 challenge.
After a struggling and unwilling start the QUAD has come of age. The ‘Spirit of QUAD’ statement after the first virtual summit had laid the contours of collaboration in the Indo-Pacific with a greater focus on economy and technology and COVID-19, climate change and critical technologies to create alternate resilient global and regional value and supply chains with India at the heart of it given its large market and human resource potential. India’s strategic autonomy cuts both ways for all sides and partners.
The two virtual and two physical summits have covered a lot of ground and identified newer areas of cooperation while taking stock of the progress made on promises and expectations. Mechanisms for ensuring smooth delivery have been created.
So far it has been possible to align and mitigate the principled differences on political issues, especially in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war where India has maintained a proactive yet principled and non-aligned stance serving the cause of dialogue, diplomacy and peace. Even the new Australian leadership is recalibrating their stance by being less sanguine and combative against Beijing. Tokyo Joint statement has clearly identified the problems without naming and shaming either Russia or China. A lot of innuendos seemed to have served the purpose and diplomatese has conveyed the message to the ones it was meant for. It may not be the weakness but smart navigation to say the least.
Expansion of QUAD has also been on the cards for a while. South Korea was said to be on the cards but apparently Japan was not too comfortable with it. But then US President Biden had bigger worries and wanted to create a non-controversial expanded economic grouping to address the challenges created by RCEP and TPP where neither India nor USA are partners but feel the heat.
Hence the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) followed with thirteen members (leaving Taiwan out to keep China guessing) who fit into the overlapping Venn diagram of regional organisations. Later Fiji, also being wooed by China, joined. How will the competing market access issues including the new dimension of corruption etc. will blend in with the aspirations of the grouping will have to be seen. How closely knit and financially sustainable it will become as a counter to Chinese BRI in the region remains to be seen.
China and Russia have not kept quiet either. Apart from scrambling some reconnaissance fighters over Japan while the Tokyo Summit was on, they have made efforts to breach the American underbelly. Moscow has created a wedge in the Organization of American States (OAS Summit) where Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua closer to Russia have been disinvited as Mexico threatens not to attend. Brazilians and Argentinians have not been happy either with the US foreign policy.
China on the other hand went in overdrive trying to woo the small pacific island nations and was aiming to create ten-member security and economic grouping after its Solomanic conquest. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s hurricane tours yielded partial success but we have not seen the end of it. No doubt the Aussies, Kiwis and Uncle Sam woke up to the reality and tried to do some damage control. Perhaps these small island nations, wanting to keep their voice intact, could prefer their brand of strategic autonomy as the Fijian Prime Minister lamented and upbraided those focused on “geopolitical point-scoring”, saying it “means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas”.
Be that as it may, QUAD and its alignments will see a more definitive trajectory but as Indian Foreign Minister Dr Jaishankar warned ‘If QUAD is to continue growing, we must also be cognisant of what we should not do. Trying to straitjacket it, subject it to stress tests or impose congruence over convergence are harmful not helpful’.
This article was first published in CNBC TV 18 as The Quad comes of age with focus beyond security dynamics on 4 June 2022.
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About the Author
Anil Trigunayat, former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; Distinguished Fellow and Head of the West Asia Experts Group at the Vivekananda International Foundation