One of the major challenges for the grouping will be how to maintain a balance between the Quad’s role in curbing Chinese coercion and positive development agenda

It’s a riveting photo that speaks more about the Quad than a thousand words. On 11 February, after labyrinthine closed-door discussions on emerging geopolitical equations in the Indo-Pacific, vaccines, Ukraine and the centrality of ASEAN, the Foreign Ministers of India, the United States, Australia and Japan gathered at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. Well, they didn’t quite play cricket there, but it turned out to be the perfect pitch for image management of the four-nation grouping which has been derided and demonized relentlessly by China. The suave Foreign Minister of India, S. Jaishankar, held forth on the message of Quad, with the Australian host, Marise Payne, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasha Hayashi listening in, all ears. “Anybody who doubts that the Quad has a positive message and positive approach should have been with us at the MCG. I think a major advancement was made when we could teach Minister Hayashi and Secretary Blinken, the intricacies of cricket, including bowling and how to actually use the seam on the cricket ball,” said Jaishankar. “So, nobody should doubt the positive contribution of Quad,” Jaishankar later said laconically at a joint press conference with Ms Payne.

Battle of Narratives

The picture of the four Quad ministers standing together and exchanging banter at MSG points to deepening trust and bonding among the four major democracies, separated by thousands of miles, but firmly intertwined by a vision of an inclusive world order. Jaishankar’s focus on the positive message of Quad wasn’t a diplomatic homily, but highlighted a new arena in intra-Quad collaboration: information warfare. In a first, the joint statement emerging from the Melbourne meeting identified “countering disinformation” as a major focus area for the grouping. There is a lot at stake in this unfolding information warfare and battle of narratives. Over the last three years, China’s foreign office has not missed a chance to attack the Quad as a gang-up against Beijing. Just ahead of the ministerial meeting in Melbourne, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson slammed the Quad as a tool to contain China. This misinformation campaign is orchestrated to undermine the Quad in the region, especially among ASEAN countries who are not ready to risk hostility of Beijing by openly declaring support for the Quad. The Quad, on its part, has made it a point to underline the centrality of ASEAN to an inclusive Indo-Pacific region at every meeting and in every joint statement. In the run-up to the Tokyo summit and beyond, one can expect this information war to intensify, which should prod the four Quad countries to enhance their coordination to shape a positive narrative of the Quad by disseminating positive and constructive agenda of the grouping. “Whoever tells a better story, wins,” said Joseph Nye famously.

China Containment?

Looking ahead, one of the major challenges for the grouping will be how to maintain a balance between the Quad’s role in curbing Chinese coercion and positive development agenda. At the Melbourne meeting, India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar briefed his counterparts on how China has violated written agreements regarding the boundary question and sought their support for India’s position on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border. Jaishankar argued that when a large country violates written agreements, the world has a stake in it as it could jeopardize regional and global stability. The other Foreign Ministers also voiced their outrage against China’s repeated violation of international norms in other geographies such as South China Sea and East China Sea.

Advantage India

The Melbourne meeting marked another step forward in the evolution of the grouping as it made room for differing opinions and perspectives. While the grouping reached and reinforced convergence on an entire array of issues, ranging from freedom of navigation to shaping the rules-based order, differences were aired on some issues without denting the larger Quad solidarity. In this regard, even as India opposed sanctions against Myanmar and Russia, this did not come in the way of the US, Australia and Japan from joining hands with New Delhi in taking a strong collective stand against cross-border terror sponsored and perpetrated by Pakistan’s deep state.

Despite the US’ spirited pitch, it was largely due to India that Ukraine didn’t figure in the Quad joint statement. India made it clear that it will like to keep such a fractious issue out of the Quad agenda as it will not like to be entangled in rivalry between two of its key strategic partners, the US and Russia. India’s nuanced position on Ukraine and Myanmar is a strong refutation of critics who have erroneously argued that the Quad will subvert India’s strategic autonomy. By allowing space for differences, the Quad is set to strengthen its credentials as a grouping of like-minded democracies who can occasionally differ on some tricky issues, but in a true democratic spirit, are able to pool in their collective strength to shape an inclusive world order.

Above all, the Melbourne ministerial meeting has cemented India’s role as a primary driver of the Quad. The vaccine diplomacy initiative—the most tangible symbol of intra-Quad cooperation—is set to fructify with the first batch of vaccines manufactured in an Indian facility ready for roll-out in the first half of 2022. The US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, unveiled on the same day as the Quad ministerial meeting, has underscored the centrality of India in the region. The strategy paper is a stirring rhapsody on the rise of India, describing the country in glowing terms: a “like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean”; a “driving force” of Quad and other regional fora; as “active in and connected to Southeast Asia”; an “engine for regional growth and development”; and a ‘net security provider in the region.”

The US and the region have soaring expectations of India, but going forward, New Delhi has to expertly juggle its multifarious relationships that span the globe to retain its strategic autonomy. In this context, India’s Foreign Minister has a perfect opportunity to flesh out the country’s vision on the Indo-Pacific at the Munich Security Conference and the Indo-Pacific Forum in Paris over the next few days. Expect China to crib and carp, but this sniping should not detract the Quad from realising its core mission as “a force for global good,” in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words.