A regional cooperative initiative that has obtained considerable attention in the Indian media is being referred to as ‘Quad 2’ by commentators in Delhi. Briefly, on 18 October 2021, when the Indian external affairs minister, Dr S Jaishankar, was on a visit to Israel, he and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, joined the UAE minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in a virtual four-way conversation. This meeting had been preceded by a meeting in Washington on 13 October of the ministers from the US, Israel and the UAE to commemorate the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ finalised a year ago.
By joining this trio on 18 October, India appeared to be signalling its participation in a new regional quartet, referred to in Indian media as a ‘minilateral’. And, since this meeting took place soon after the summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in September 2021, which had brought together the US, Japan, Australia and India, it was natural to view the new quartet as ‘Quad 2’ since it included two countries from ‘Quad 1’. What we know so far is that the Quad 2 will focus on cooperation in trade, climate change, energy and maritime security, and that the four ministers have set up a joint working group to coordinate progress on these subjects.
Indian media have exhibited a high level of enthusiasm for this new entity — seeing it, variously, as a ‘strategic shift in the Middle East’; as India and the US taking on China with this Quad; India finding ‘a new role in a changing Middle East’, and, finally, the Quad providing a ‘significant impetus to India’s prominence in West Asia’. A Pakistani commentator has pointed out that Quad 2 indicates a ‘massive geo-political expansion of the US’s containment strategy’ directed at China, while a Gulf scholar, Hasan Al-Hasan, highlighting the importance that India has traditionally placed on its ties with Iran, has also pointed out that ‘the palpable threat posed by China’ has pushed India into taking sides in West Asian rivalries, though, he believes, India will attempt to balance its relations with Iran with its close links with the US.
However, in public remarks that are likely to embarrass India, the Israeli ambassador in India, Naor Gilon, said that, while Quad 2 was not against any one country, one of the major factors bringing the four countries together was the instability caused in the region by Iran. The Iranian embassy in Delhi responded with a sharp statement — referring to the ‘alleged childish remarks of the adventurous envoy’, it recalled that Israel is ‘a terror house in which its illegitimate establishment has been rooted in bloodshed, assassination and massacre of Palestinians and other nations in the Middle East’.
What is missing in most of the discussion is any serious analysis about this initiative — its timing, what it implies for regional politics, and what realistically could be India’s role in it. The following observations may be noted in this regard:
• There are grave uncertainties about the US’s role in West Asia, as also its approach to the challenge posed by China to the US-led world order. Hence, to believe that Quad 2 is a well-thought-out US-led strategy to ‘contain’ China is premature.
• India itself fits in very poorly in a minilateral that has a regional security content. For the last three decades, India’s approach to West Asia has been based on two guiding principles — its approach to ties with the regional states has been bilateral and transactional. This has enabled India to maintain relations with all the nations of West Asia, despite the contentions between them. While there is need for a review of India’s approach to the region, it is not suggested that India affiliate itself with one grouping or the other in the contentious region. Thus, there is no prospect of India picking and choosing as between the Sunni, Shia and/or Jewish states in the region; its ties with Iran will remain important, though subject to the vagaries of US policies periodically.
• Flowing from the point above, India is not and is not likely to be a security-provider in West Asia; there is no indication that India is looking at aligning with a larger grouping which has a regional security agenda.
• It is important to recognise the limits of the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ — only four Arab nations have joined them; these accords enjoy no popular support in most countries of West Asia. The ‘normalisation’ of ties with Israel by four states (besides Egypt and Jordan earlier) highlights not so much the steady inclusion of Israel in regional affairs as the persisting divide between the rulers concerned and their people. Israel is still and will remain an outsider in West Asian affairs until it reaches a settlement with the Palestinians.
• The issues identified for deeper cooperation among the Quad 2 members are already being addressed at other platforms; Quad 2 hardly brings any additionality to the ongoing dialogue on these subjects.
• It is absurd to mention the ‘containment’ of China by Quad 2 collectively or its members individually. All West Asian states, without exception, have the closest possible ties with China — economic, political, cultural and logistical — even as most of them are enthusiastic participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Digital Silk Road Initiative and Health Silk Road Initiative. Both Israel and the UAE have cemented their substantial ties with China with formal agreements — Israel entered into the ‘Innovative Comprehensive Partnership’ with China in 2017, while the UAE and China signed the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ in 2018, the highest level of ties that China has with foreign partners. As the UK- based scholar, Guy Barton has pointed out, Quad 2 could, at best, evolve into a platform for ‘greater commercial cooperation rather than transform geopolitics’.
The US too is more interested in ‘managing’ its relations with China, and has no interest in a direct confrontation. It is very likely that high-level dialogues between the two countries in coming months will address many issues that divide them and prepare the ground for better management of bilateral relations.
My view of the ‘Quad 2’ conclave is that there is no strategic interest that actually binds the quartet. As argued above, this grouping can hardly be the platform to confront Iran, as Israel would like, or China, as India or the US would like to suggest, possibly complementing ‘Quad 1’ whose base of operations is the Indo-Pacific.
The conclave, put together rather hastily after the 13 October meeting in Washington, was a public relations necessity for its core participants — the US, Israel and the UAE. The Biden administration, under pressure from domestic constituencies, felt the need to ‘celebrate’ the Abraham Accords, even though they serve no US interest and have negligible resonance across West Asia. The administration also needed some fresh diversion to make up for the fiasco accompanying its exit from Afghanistan.
The new government in Tel Aviv was anxious to affirm to its people that some ‘important’ Arab states had normalised ties with it, without seeking any concessions from the government on behalf of the Palestinians. And the UAE, by joining a high-level and high-profile conclave, could project to its people its special status in the region and convey to the Americans (and the Israel lobby in the US) that it represents modern and moderate Islam and is the emerging bastion of high-technology.
India joined in to project at home that, despite the eighteen-month stand-off at the border with China and bad publicity being given globally to domestic contentions in different parts of the country, it remains a sought-after associate in important global counsels. This was theatre as an end in itself, and served no real Indian interest.
India is a misfit in this entity. Thankfully, it will very likely wither away under the weight of its own irrelevance.
(Excerpted from West Asia At War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games by Talmiz Ahmad (pp. 544, Rs 799), with permission from HarperCollins India)
(Talmiz Ahmad, a diplomat, served in Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He has also authored three books on West Asian politics.)