The first summit of Quad leaders, described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a ‘force of global good’, is expected to raise pressure on countries in the Indo-Pacific, particularly China to follow the rule of law and desist from any unilateral show of force in the region, people familiar with the matter said.
US President Joe Biden, joined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, held the virtual meeting on Friday; their first under the aegis of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad.
While PM Modi has known US President Biden from the days he was vice president in the Barack Obama administration, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was really the untested element on the Quad after his predecessor — former PM Shinzo Abe had conceived the idea of the security grouping — stepped down in August last year due to health issues.
“The biggest thing about the Quad summit was that finally, it took place. All the leaders were on the same page and PM Suga firmly indicated that he is a proud successor to Abe’s legacy,” said a former foreign secretary.
The Quad leaders will have an in-person meeting later this year. The dates have not been decided but it could take place either on the sidelines of G-7 in the United Kingdom or more likely as a stand-alone event in the US this year.
“The best part about Quad is that every country brings something to the table, whether it be the vaccine, critical technology or climate change. The geographical location of each partner is such that Quad will be a pillar of stability in Indo-Pacific and provide ASEAN countries and far away pacific nations a voice against any coercion in the area,” said a former Indian Ambassador to the US.
At Friday’s meeting, the leaders signed off on a plan to pool their financial resources, manufacturing capacities and logistical strengths to ramp up the manufacture and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across the Indo-Pacific. The Quad Vaccine Partnership, as the plan is called, will build on India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative by creating additional manufacturing capacities in India. New Delhi has already supplied close to 60 million doses to some 70 countries.
As many news reports indicate, China was not named during the summit but the joint statement that was put out later is quite emphatic that Quad countries will be unrestrained from coercion.
“Since the virtual summit was on an open line, confidential issues could not be discussed but we all know who was the elephant in the room,” the former foreign secretary cited above said.
Officials have questioned suggestions from some commentators that see India as a weak link in the grouping because of New Delhi’s non-aligned approach and the land border that India shares with China. This perception is misplaced, they argue, pointing out that it is only the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi that has militarily stood up to Beijing’s expansion in East Ladakh in 2020, and at the Doklam Plateau in 2017. It was India again that first banned Chinese apps, a move that was replicated by the Trump administration in the United States.
“India under PM Modi is not restricted by any dogma or doctrine, it is only defined by its national interests. India is at the centre of the Indo-Pacific stability, be it with its close allies in Quad or strategic partners like France and in the Gulf, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” said the former foreign secretary.
New Delhi is expected to discuss steps to take the Quad initiative further when US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visits India around March 20 after stops in Tokyo and Seoul.
Friday’s Summit provoked Chinese state media to launch a bitter attack on New Delhi. “India has become a negative asset of these groupings…It is, in fact, carrying out a kind of strategic blackmail against China,” said the Chinese communist party-controlled Global Times, referring to BRICS grouping (which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
The Global Times article, like many others in the past, went on to emphasise that India, which is considered by the US “as the most important Quad member”, was “very inclined toward the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy”.
Analysts said this line of argument indicates that China intends to drive a wedge between India and its historically close ally Russia.
At his briefing after the summit, Indian foreign secretary Harsh Shringla underlined that the Quad does not have a negative agenda. “As far as India is concerned, we have always said the Quad does not stand against something, it stands for something…which is positive, it stands for doing something in the realm of consideration for others.”
Simply put, the Quad has no intention of picking up a fight with China but is on its way to build capacity and capability to block any extra-territorial ambitions of the middle kingdom, be it in the South China Sea, Taiwan, Senkaku islands or in Ladakh.
Given that India’s maritime surveillance P8I aircraft is able to convey information gathered by it to others in the Japanese, Australian and US navies, the domain awareness of Indo-Pacific has risen with all the Quad partners getting real-time intelligence. This will be put to test once again when Quad navies along with France will join in naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal on April 4-7 under the La Perouse banner.
To be sure, the Quad grouping has seen several false starts since its conception after the 2004 Tsunami. It was virtually disbanded in 2008 after China appeared to exercise a veto over the foreign policy of Quad partners but was revived in the right earnest in the face of a global pandemic and expansionist China in 2020. It is quite possible that Beijing will try to cut a side deal with at least one of the Quad partners to derail the grouping yet again. And that is the biggest threat to Quad.