Quad Summit: An Opportunity to Define the Contours of the Post Covid Indo-Pacific
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

Indian Prime Minister Modi, US President Biden, Prime Minister Scott Morrisonof Australia and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan will hold the first summit level meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, popularly known as the Quad, on 12 March 2021 in a virtual format. The summit meeting comes soon after the foreign minister level meeting of the Quad in February. Its outcome will be watched with great interest in the Indo-Pacific region as it is expected to bring clarity to the grouping which has been struggling to define itself.

The Quad was set up in 2007 on the initiative of Prime Minister Abe of Japan. But it could not sustain itself because Australia, which was at that time developing close ties with China, went cold. It was revived in 2017 at the official level. After a series of official level meetings, the first meeting of Quad at the foreign minister level was held in 2020 and again in February 2021. That was a milestone in its evolution.

The decision to upgrade the Quad meeting to the summit level is related to the growing Chinese intransigence and expansionism in the region. China has flouted with impunity the established international rules and norms. This has raised regional and global concern.

In the Quad meetings held so far, the interlocutors have emphasised the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific, rule-based order and freedom of navigation. Many of these concepts are still underdeveloped and need to be converted into practical initiatives. Hopefully, the summit will provide some clarifications.

Although the Quad is a security dialogue mechanism, its remit has been expanded to include issues such as cooperation in supply chain resilience, building quality infrastructure, cybersecurity et cetera. This raises the question about its objectives. The summit may bring some clarity in this regard. For pragmatic reasons, the participants have been careful not to name China and have avoided giving an impression that the Quad is a security alliance in the making to contain China.

China was initially dismissive of the Quad. Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously described it as nothing more than ‘foam’ in the ocean which would dissipate soon. But, as the Quad dialogue got upgraded, China has got worried and began to see it as the beginning of the formation of an Asian NATO designed to thwart its rise.

Russia is equally suspicious. It fears that the Quad would cut its influence in the Far East. Foreign Minister Lavrov in a a hard-hitting critique described the Quad as the West's ‘new game’ designed to draw India into anti-China strategies and undermine Indo-Russian relations.

ASEAN countries have been lukewarm so far to the geostrategic construct of Indo Pacific. They have their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific. They fear that the Quad and the concept of Indo-Pacific would undermine ASEAN’s centrality in the region. They do not want to be caught in the emerging strategic rivalry between the US and China. To make the Indo-Pacific idea palatable, the Quad meetings have emphasised their commitment to the ASEAN centrality.

The Quad leaders will have to grapple with the central question: how far is the Quad a forum for security cooperation? Until recently, Japan, Australia and the US used to feel that India was reluctant in participating in the security dimension of the Quad in order not to offend China. India was careful to state that it was in favour of an inclusive Indo-Pacific concept. India is shedding its hesitations. Last year it invited Australia after a gap of 13 years to participate in the Malabar naval exercises in which Indian, US and Japanese navies participate. This is a one-time invitation but Australian participation may become a regular feature.

The year 2020 was a turning point in the evolution Quad as it was upgraded to the foreign minister level. During the year, India, Japan, Australia and the US faced the heat of Chinese expansionism and intransigence in varying degrees. India is locked in a prolonged military stand-off with China on the Line of Actual Control in the north. It lost 20 soldiers in a military skirmish in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh in June 2020. India-China relations are at their worst since 1962. Japan faces the brunt of Chinese transgressions in the waters around the Senkakou Islands in the East China Sea where China has implemented an Air Defence Identifiction Zone too. Australia is being punished and squeezed by China on the trade front. In the South China Sea, where China has occupied the disputed islands ignoring the ICJ judgement, it regularly interferes with the movement of the American military ships. The US and China are locked in a major trade and technology competition. The Biden administration has identified China as a strategic competitor.

So far the Quad countries avoided issuing joint statements after their meetings. Instead, they came up with separate country statements indicating that they did not have a common position on key concepts and issues. Each member wanted to retain flexibility in dealing with China. It would be a major development if, after the Quad summit, the leaders manage to issue a joint statement highlighting the commonality of views on important issues.

The Quad has developed as a dialogue forum with no binding commitments for its members. Many experts feel that it is better to keep the Quad that way and retain the flexibility in developing mutual cooperation in different areas as per the dictates of the situation. Some experts feel that the Quad is essentially a security dialogue and it should not be diluted by bringing in too many issues. It will be interesting to find out whether the leaders decide to keep the Quad as an informal dialogue mechanism or give it a more institutional character, including a charter, a headquarter and a more formal structure.

Whatever shape the Quad takes, the decision to hold the Quad meeting at the summit level at this juncture will have major implications for the Indo-Pacific region. The leaders would no doubt realise that China is the big elephant in the room whether or not they acknowledge it openly. The Quad summit is likely to be a step towards shaping the contours of the post Covid Indo-Pacific.

India has huge stakes in ensuring peace and stability in the region. It has the task of maintaining peaceful relations with China while ensuring that it does not become a victim of Chinese expansionism. It needs to play an active role in shaping the contours of the Quad.

Image Source: https://images.hindustantimes.com/img/2021/03/05/550x309/WhatsApp_Image_2021-03-05_at_16.48.36_1614943215083_1614967294469.jpeg

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