The Quad is here to stay. But both conflict and cooperation will take place with China

History was certainly made as the leaders of four major countries met at the first-ever summit of what is now officially known as the Quad in White House readouts – a grouping of India, US, Australia and Japan. A second important fact. This was the first multilateral meeting that a President of the United States with just about two months in office chose to attend. Here’s another. It’s also the first time a Quad meeting has resulted in a Joint Statement, that too from the leadership level. Narendra Modi, Joe Biden, Scott Morrison and Yoshihide Suga not just signed on to that, but also to a joint article, which states the essence of the Quad as a ‘quest for a region that is open and free’. That really means something in diplomatic signalling.

This is for real, and it’s one on the nose for China, even if everyone is talking around that particular subject.

A Careful Joint Statement

The Joint Statement issued at the Quad summit is a masterpiece, dodging artfully between the need for unity at a time of a devastating health emergency, climate change, new technologies interspersed with references to threats and “challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas”. The immediate result of the summit was an agreement to “collaborate to strengthen equitable vaccine access for the Indo-Pacific, with close coordination with multilateral organizations including the World Health Organization and COVAX”. And in the very next statement, a call for “transparent and results-oriented reform at the World Health Organization” that everyone sees as being dominated by China.

There is also reassurance from US President Joe Biden. With an effective vaccine plan in place, forecasts show America’s growth could go from 3.2 to 6.5 per cent. That’s a shot in the arm for the global economy threatened by unbridled Chinese growth.

India’s Time In The Sun

This is India’s time in the spotlight to showcase itself as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, sending about 23 million vaccines to 20 countries. That’s another historic first, and in that same unstated aside, New Delhi is catching up with China, which also claimed to have signed deals to send its Sinopharm vaccine to another 20 countries.

The Quad cooperation aims at producing at least 1 billion doses by end of 2022 by pooling resources and capabilities with a formidable array of financing institutions involved including the United States Development Finance Corporation, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and where needed, the Japan Bank of International Cooperation. Cooperation in ‘last-mile’ delivery and cold chain technology for developing countries is envisaged, with a ‘Quad Vaccine Experts Group’ formed for implementation. That’s a pretty impressive thrust, all in all, in an area of vital importance to public health.

Climate Change And Competition

Then is the issue of cooperation on climate change and green technologies. The trouble is that China dominates in that sector accounting for more than 60 per cent of the global solar market, for instance. It is also the largest domestic and outbound investor in renewables. Leading US think tanks argue that Beijing should be given the lead in this sector. But dependence on China in any area has proven exploitative, which is why ‘resilience, technology, capacity-building, and climate finance’ is included in Quad futures.

One of the first Executive Orders of President Biden was on the climate crisis, which also directed departments to “intensify international collaborations to drive innovation and deployment of clean energy technologies”. Green tech is the next big technology that will drive agendas, and the US wants to make sure it has its edge. Japan is already a leader, while Australia is planning the world’s largest power plant in the Asian Renewable Energy Hub. Any collaboration will have to outbid China, and this is where India can weigh in to offer cheaper labour for production. The caution here for New Delhi is that destroying its forests to build ‘clean energy’ hydropower is climate suicide. Hopefully, Quad consensus will put that brake on an otherwise impressive Indian renewable energy plan.

Critical Technologies – The War Is On

The other tangible outcome is the setting up of a ‘Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group’. That includes “cooperation on telecommunications deployment, diversification of equipment suppliers, and future telecommunications”. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson was fielding questions on new restrictions on Huawei suppliers in the US, that includes semiconductors, antennas and batteries. In the same session, Zhao Lijian also delivered a tirade on the Quad, warning against “forming closed and exclusive ‘cliques’ and act in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity”.

All this is rather ironic, since Chinese telecom stocks shot up after rumours from Beijing of a joint US-China working group on semiconductors, along with the upcoming meeting in Alaska between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NSA Jake Sullivan with their Chinese counterparts, foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, and Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi. This double-barrelled meeting is unusual, and even if Washington is already warning of a difficult meeting ahead, the signal is that there is interest in talking it out. India shouldn’t complain. After all, New Delhi just hosted ambassadors of BRIC countries, a grouping that includes Brazil, Russia and China.

The Future – A Double Lane of Relations

Expect that this is the way it’s going to be from now on; a kind of double-laning of foreign relations where conflict and cooperation will both take place. That may lead to further accusations of Quad’s indecisiveness. But here’s the bottom line.

President Xi Jinping’s statements at the recent National People’s Congress on pushing China into becoming the leading economy, particularly in core technologies by 2035, can be likened to the pole around which the Quad will evolve. In essence, the four have little choice. None can power up enough to challenge this vaulting ambition alone. It’s a done deal. The Quad is here to stay and its outlines are becoming clear as a ‘flexible group of like-minded countries’ that will work together on diverse and urgent areas. The question now is the willingness and ability to forge ahead.

For that, the Quad has to draw in its ‘friends’ and other groupings. New Delhi needs to knit in its own forums like the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, or even the Forum for India–Pacific Islands Cooperation, which it seems to have forgotten about, into a hub-and-spoke model with the Quad in the centre. There are others in the alphabet soup that is now Indian Ocean politics. All it takes is a little more willingness to group together without necessarily calling out the threat in bold letters.