Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Australian Foreign Minister Maris Payne

Venue of meeting of Quad Foreign Ministers likely to be shifted from New Delhi to Tokyo

The foreign ministers of India, United States, Japan and Australia may meet in Tokyo next month to discuss ways to counter China’s belligerence in Indo-Pacific region, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government appears to be in dilemma over hosting the meeting in New Delhi.

The meeting of the foreign ministers of the ‘Quad’ – a coalition of India, Japan, Australia and the United States – was initially proposed to be held in New Delhi. The Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, also confirmed during a webinar on August 31 that the meeting would take place in the capital of India. But the venue is now likely to be shifted to Tokyo with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi hosting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Foreign Minister Maris Payne and Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

The meeting of the Quad Foreign Ministers is being planned amid China’s growing belligerence, not only along its disputed boundary with India, but also in South China Sea, East China Sea and elsewhere in Indo-Pacific.

The venue may be shifted to Tokyo, as New Delhi is in dilemma over hosting a meet, which may send out a signal about India’s own vision for Indo-Pacific region turning overtly adversarial to China. The four-month-long military stand-off between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh has brought the relations between the two neighbouring nations to a new low. But a section within the Modi Government still has reservation about going the whole hog and allowing New Delhi to be seen as a zealous participant in the ‘Quad’, which is largely seen as a US-led move to bring the democratic nations of the Indo-Pacific region together in order to build a bulwark against expansionist and hegemonic aspirations of China.

Jaishankar did take part in the first meeting of the ‘Quad’ Foreign Ministers, which was held on the side-line of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York in September 2019. He will also take part in the meeting in Tokyo if it is indeed hosted by the Japanese Foreign Minister. “But”, a source in New Delhi told DH, “taking part in a meeting is not the same as hosting one.”

“While India remains committed to its vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, it will have to tread cautiously, preserving its own strategic independence,” said the source, who is aware of New Delhi’s approach on Indo-Pacific region.

India is apparently keen to make it sure that it does not appear to be moving closer to the US in the wake of military stand-off with China.

President Donald Trump’s administration has been slamming China for its aggression along its disputed boundary with India, as well as elsewhere in Indo-Pacific, like the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. The US Navy sent two carrier strike groups led by USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz to South China Sea in July to conduct exercises and send out a message to Beijing. The USS Nimitz, while returning from the South China Sea, carried out a joint exercise with India’s warships INS Rana, INS Sahyadri, INS Shivalik and INS Kamorta near Malacca Strait in Indian Ocean.

But a section of the senior policy makers in the Modi Government is of the view that New Delhi should not rely much on the US, which could tone down its rhetoric against China after the November 3 elections, no matter what the outcome of the polls might be.

Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently had a meeting in Moscow and the two sides agreed to continue talks between diplomats and senior military commanders of the two nations.

What also added to New Delhi’s dilemma about hosting the meeting of the foreign ministers of the ‘Quad’ is Russia’s unease over India’s participation in the US-led move against China in Indo-Pacific. Moscow has been engaged in quiet back-channel talks with New Delhi and Beijing to defuse tension between the two neighbouring nations.

New Delhi signalled its keenness to maintain strategic balance in its Indo-Pacific approach, by deploying Indian Navy warships INS Ranvijay, INS Sahyadri, INS Kiltan and INS Shakti to exercise with Russian Navy’s Admiral Vinogradov, Admiral Tributs and Boris Butoma in the Indian Ocean early this month.

New Delhi, Tokyo and Moscow are also discussing a separate trilateral initiative in the region, with India and Japan partnering for projects in the Far East region of Russia.

Another source told DH that unrelenting spread of Covid-19 in India might have also been factored in when the decision to shift the venue of the Quad Foreign Ministers’ second meeting from New Delhi to Tokyo was taken. The viral infection has fallen in Japan.

Tokyo also wants to signal continuation of Shinzo Abe’s policy on Indo-Pacific even after he resigned as Prime Minister and Yoshihide Suga succeeded him. Jaishankar, Pompeo and Payne are likely to have a meeting with Suga on the side-line of the Quad Foreign Ministers’ meeting – an opportunity for the new Japanese Prime Minister to articulate his plan to respond to expansionist moves of China.