The Quad, which was never meant to be a military construct against any one nation, has been working towards enhancing its scope

by Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)

In less than two months after the change at the helm in the USA, a meeting, albeit virtual, of the Heads of Government of the four member Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad) grouping is being held on Friday 12 March at the behest of President Joe Biden. He will be joined by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan. This will not only be the first meeting of these four leaders but the first ever Leaders Summit of the Quad.

Following soon after the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting held on 18 February, it also comes close on the heels of the ‘Interim National Strategic Security Guidance’ Document released by the White House on ….. This document highlights the initial foreign policy initiatives taken by the present administration and provides an overview of the future course of US foreign policy and its priorities. It is the precursor to the formal National Security Strategy which will follow. As expected, it signals the return of the USA to multilateralism and to taking a leadership role in tackling the COVID pandemic and addressing climate change. It is also indicative of President Biden’s commitment to strengthen the US alliances all over the world and mentions deepening its partnership with India. It goes on to state that US foreign policy will uphold the US values of democracy and inclusivity in its global engagement and commitment to strengthening international and multilateral organisations while ensuring the primacy of USA’s national interest This interim guidance document also highlights the security challenges being faced by the US and specifically mentions China and Russia. It goes on to say that “China is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. Russia remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage. Both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world.”

Traditionally each US President articulates his national security and defence strategy during his tenure. The last NSS document was released in 2017 by President Trump and had cleared many of the cobwebs he had earlier woven with his twitter diplomacy regarding the USA’s engagement and commitment to its allies and its position on its multilateral engagement, or in his case the lack of it, on issues of global concern. It had also defined China and Russia as revisionist powers which shaped the US approach to these two countries. This administration is unlikely to shy away from the Trump administration’s approach towards China though the approach may become a bit more sophisticated and nuanced.

It should therefore come as no surprise that strengthening the Quad will figure high in the list of US foreign policy priorities. From the initial idea of developing a collective response mechanism in the wake of the devastating tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, the Quad has had its share of ups and downs. It made a promising start in 2007 but thereafter went downhill in the face of Chinese opprobrium and the diplomatic demarches that emerged from that country when the bilateral naval exercise ‘Malabar’ between India and the US was expanded to include the other Quad countries. It thereafter remained largely peripheral till 2017 when, during President Trump’s Asia visit in 2017, a meeting of mid-level bureaucrats took place on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit that year. The statements that emanated from the respective countries after that reflected more on the divergences rather than the convergences amongst the four on major issues. Most of these had largely to do with naming China as the great big elephant in the room. Since then, despite the divergences (which have continued to narrow) the Quad has grown in importance. The recent hardening of the Australian, Indian and Japanese positions vis-à-vis China in view of its bullying and belligerence and the strident anti-China posture adopted by the previous administration has further enhanced the convergence amongst these nations. In fact, at the recent Foreign Ministers meeting on 18 February, only the Japanese statement mentioned China. Concern at the developments in Myanmar and hope of an early return to the democratic process figured in the statements issued by each of the four.

The Quad, which was never meant to be a military construct against any one nation, has been working towards enhancing its scope. It has focussed on addressing the covid pandemic and the need to develop resilient supply chains; it recognises the need to develop a quick and effective response strategy to offer humanitarian assistance and disaster relief against natural and man-made disasters which are becoming increasingly frequent. It is addressing the multitude of traditional and non-traditional security threats bedevilling this region by providing direct support as well as encouraging inclusive capacity building initiatives. It is deeply committed to ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and to maintaining the existing rules-based international order.

The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the global centre of gravity from a political and economic perspective has led even Euro-centric nations like Germany and the Netherlands to articulate their Indo-Pacific strategies with peripheral Indian Ocean powers like France are seeking to play a larger role in the region. After some initial hesitation, ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific has been acknowledged. The inclusion of South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand at a Quad meeting last year to discuss a cooperative approach to Covid-19 has led to the possibility of a Quad + or a Quad++ construct of a larger ‘arc of maritime democracies’ in the future. However, while it may be too premature to consider that possibility as yet, the present four nations grouping can become the nucleus of a larger security and economic architecture for ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and maintaining the status quo on the present rules-based international order.

China has minced no words about its intention to dominate the entire seascape of the Indo-Pacific and reorient the existing rules-based order into one with ‘Chinese characteristics ‘ where China will make all the rules in its typical ‘My Way or the Highway’ approach to this region. Its rapid naval and maritime expansion (numerically it has the largest navy and coast guard in the world) and its ambitious Belt and Road economic initiative with its strategic underpinnings is a matter of concern.

This Summit, much like the Foreign Minister’s meeting on 18 February is likely to be a reaffirmation of the importance of the FOIP, regional security concerns, the response to the pandemic, issues related to climate change etc , the endorsement of which at the highest level will ensure a roadmap for the future. The Indian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) office said that “ the leaders will discuss regional and global issues of shared interest, and exchange views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. The White House statement said highlighted Covid-19, economic cooperation and the climate crisis as some of the topics of discussion. The White house Press Secretary further added “That President Biden has made this one of his earliest multilateral engagements speaks to the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific,”

It is this importance that will send a clear and unequivocal message to China of the USA’s commitment to this region as well as the resolve of the ‘right minded ‘ maritime democracies within and beyond this region to ensure status quo in the global commons. This resolve has been further strengthened by China’s unseemly conduct following the Wuhan epidemic, be it the aggression against India in Ladakh , bullying its maritime neighbours in the South China Sea, sanctioning of Australian exports, its belligerence against Japan and Taiwan or its brutal suppression of ethnic minorities and civil liberties in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hongkong.

The Quad remains an informal multilateral construct with no institutionalised secretariat but has as come to be acknowledged as a functional entity which has grown considerably in scope and stature over the last few years and is here to stay. Its shape, size and scope will continue to evolve over the years

The forthcoming Summit meeting, the first ever of the Quad countries, is therefore significant as a top level endorsement for the shared commitment of the Quad towards ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and combating the security and economic challenges in the region through inclusive capacity building, be it ensuring the response to the pandemic, combating climate change, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief or ensuring the resilience of global supply chains, each of which is an inescapable imperative in a globalised and interconnected world.