Resurrected in 2017 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue –popularly known as the Quad– formed primarily to contain China’s assertive rise across the Indo-Pacific, was seen as an important policy move that would affect the region. But since the war in Ukraine, its messaging has been somewhat diluted.
The United States of America –a member of Quad– and its European allies are distracted by the war in Europe. Now they see Vladimir Putin’s Russia, not China, as their main enemy. Meanwhile, Australia and Japan –the two other members of Quad apart from India– are close US allies and, as a result, are in tune with Washington.
“The focus of the two Quad Summits since May 2022 has been dissipated by the Ukraine crisis. Quad is being pushed to take positions on matters that are not linked to the Indo-Pacific,” says Gurjit Singh, former Indian ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN and the African Union.
The West has launched an all-out effort to get as many countries across the world to rally behind Ukraine. India, as a traditional friend of Russia, is now a major target. Every international forum is being wracked by acrimonious wrangling between the US and its allies on one hand and by Russia and China on the other.
The G-20 meetings of finance as well as foreign ministers have had problems getting together a communique because of the Ukraine War. The United States is bent on getting nations in all multilateral forums to bend to their way of thinking. India does not see Russia in this light but was unable to stop the focus on Ukraine.
“The existential status of the Quad reminds me of the seven-valued Jain logic: It is there, it is not there, it may be there. Despite the repeated declarations that the Quad is not against any particular country, it has been formed by America which regards China as its principal rival, by Japan, which sees a threat from China, and India which has a practically irresoluble border dispute with China. As for Australia, it changes its policies from government to government,” says retired ambassador KP Fabian.
“For all the four Quad countries, China remains the biggest trade partner. So they are vulnerable to economic pressure as Australia recently experienced. After the new government of Prime Minister Albanese came to power, Foreign Minister Penny Wong went to Beijing to put it in plain English, in sackcloth, and ashes,” Fabian ends with a flourish.
The coming together of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan was the late Shinzo Abe’s brainchild. The forum was initiated in 2006 but was abandoned soon afterwards when Australia’s Kevin Rudd decided to pull out of fears of offending China. Since then, much has changed in the world, and the steady upgradation of the Quad from senior officials’ level in 2017 to foreign ministers in 2019 and finally to that of the heads of government in 2020, is an indication of the new power game being played out in the Indo-Pacific.
One thing is evident: all four democracies that make up the Quad are together in the Indo-Pacific battle to checkmate a rising and belligerent China. Yet, none of the Quad members will admit it publicly. It is not a military alliance like NATO. The military component in the Indo-Pacific is the AUKUS – the Australia, UK, and the US formation. So, what is Quad all about then?
“It is a force for good,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the recent Raisina Dialogue. Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong said that the Quad “enables choices’’ to nations in the region, including the Pacific island countries. Simply put, it merely means that the Quad hopes to counter China’s tremendous clout in the region by offering alternatives to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that countries across Asia had at one time signed on to. The BRI may have lost some of its shine now but China continues to be a major force in building infrastructure and spreading its influence across Asia.
Quad speaks of offering a better alternative to the Chinese way of doing things. While AUKUS is in place to deal with the military challenge, the Quad is engaged in ensuring that democracies of the world have a better and more transparent way of doing business. Whether it is building infrastructure, combating climate change, establishing secure supply chains, keeping the waters of the Indo-Pacific open and inclusive, no one country –China– can dominate or bully the ocean lanes. It also means keeping an eye on “irregular movements” in the global waterways.
There is a lot of hype about the Quad, yet, not much is evident on the ground, as it continues to be a work in progress. The general idea is to reduce and counter Chinese influence in East Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific. The Quad focuses on messaging and signalling a diplomatic offensive in the Indo-Pacific. The message has not been lost on China.
The Quad also gives India a cushion to develop its capabilities and ramp up its defences, modernise its military, and develop its border infrastructure to be better equipped in the future to thwart China.
“For India, it helps to deepen and widen collaboration with not just the Quad partners but also with several nations in the Indo-Pacific, it expands our footprints across East Asia,” says Asia Society’s C Raja Mohan.
“We reiterate our conviction that the Quad, acting as a force for regional and global good, will be guided by the priorities of the Indo-Pacific region through its positive and constructive agenda. Through the Quad, we seek to support the region through practical cooperation on contemporary challenges such as health, security, climate change, clean energy transition, critical and emerging technologies, infrastructure and connectivity, addressing the debt crisis through sustainable, transparent, and fair lending and financing practices, space cooperation, cyber-security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), maritime security and counter-terrorism,” said the foreign ministers in a joint statement released after their conversation in New Delhi on March 3.
Yet, all four Quad countries continue to do brisk business with China. In fact, since the pandemic, the Quad partners have individually increased imports from China. Much will depend on whether the Quad can deliver on the many promises it has made for the region.