Jaishankar described the Tokyo Quad meet as ‘consultations’. It needs more than China to become a regional institution.
It is important to recall the history of the Quad because alliances have to be formed on agendas, not emotions.
From the outset, the US projected and China perceived the Quadrilateral security grouping of US, Japan, Australia and India as the ‘Asian NATO’. Angered by the first-ever meeting of the four countries in 2007 on the initiative of then-Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, the Chinese leadership had come down heavily on the grouping describing it as an anti-China security formation. The Chinese reaction had so rattled several of the partner countries that the Quad lost its momentum as soon as it was born. Abe lost the elections in Japan a few months after the Quad meeting. Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Asō, who became the prime ministers after him, were not too enthusiastic about rubbing China on the wrong side. In Australia too, John Howard lost power in the same year. The new Labor government that came to power led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had completely reversed the Liberal government’s policy towards China. The Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Rudd worked overtime to strengthen China-Australia ties. His Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, categorically stated in February 2008, after a China-Australia strategic dialogue, that Australia would not attend any of these future four-country security dialogues. Smith told his counterparts in Japan and the US that Australia would continue to have security dialogues with them but wouldn’t want India to be included in the process.
On its parts, the Indian government under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had quickly revised its policy, primarily under the pressure of the Indian Communist parties, which were important allies of the government at that time. A.K. Antony, the defence minister, was said to have ticked off the chief of the Indian Navy at the time for inviting Australia to join the annual Malabar exercises, usually participated in by the navies of India, Japan and the US.
A decade later, when the Quad attempted to get back on its feet again in 2017, the only country to have a different dispensation was India. The Republicans were back in power in America. In Japan, after a five-year hiatus, Shinzo Abe had returned to power in 2012. In Australia, the Liberal government had returned to power after 2010. In India, though, it was the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that was at the helm of affairs when the Quad was being resurrected.
US President Donald Trump, from 2017 onwards, has made his opposition to China a public affair. Abe wore his anti-China credentials on his sleeves by visiting the Yasukuni shrine for the war dead a few months after becoming the Prime Minister in 2012. Incidentally, he again chose to visit the shrine a couple of weeks ago, soon after demitting office as Prime Minister, knowing it will irritate China. In Australia too, the Liberal prime ministers who came to power after 2013 – Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and current Prime Minister Scott Morrison – have under the growing popular pressure as well as out of geo-strategic concerns, started distancing Australia from China.
Treading cautiously in Tokyo
In the last three years, however, India has tread cautiously with regard to the revival of the Quad. In the first two years, the Quad meetings were attended only by the officials of the four countries and expressly remained non-militaristic. The meetings got upgraded to the foreign ministers’ level last year but remained informal. When the first formal meeting of the Quad foreign ministers took place last week at Tokyo, India continued to tread cautiously with respect to the agenda on the Quad table while others, especially US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were explicit in their attacks on China. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar came under criticism from a section of netizens for his nuanced approach at the meeting.
Thirteen years after its first meeting and three years into revival, the Quad still remains a hazy idea without any formal institutional structure or an agenda. The participating foreign ministers at the Tokyo meet shied away from issuing any joint statement at the end of the session. Each minister, instead, issued a separate statement about the outcome of it. Far from sounding belligerent and militaristic, the statements of the foreign ministers of Japan, Australia and India were conciliatory and inclusive. After the departure of Abe, the new leadership of Japan seems hesitant to take on China directly. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga talked about a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, but quickly added that he would ‘stabilise relations’ with neighbouring countries ‘including China and Russia’. Australia too seemed reluctant to make any aggressive pitch.
India’s stand has been consistent for several years now. Key phrases in Jaishankar’s opening remarks were ‘like-minded countries’, ‘vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values’, ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’, and ‘rules-based international order’. Jaishankar took care to describe the meeting as ‘Consultations’, and insisted that “our objective remains advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region”.
Not a NATO
Earlier, there was the talk about New Delhi hosting Quad ‘2+2’ ministerial meeting in September this year. However, that meeting didn’t take place. And India continues to refrain from expanding the Malabar exercises to include Australia. India’s calibrated approach to Quad is understandable and appropriate in the face of the exuberance and aggression of the US to convert it into an Asian NATO of sorts.
The NATO, formed during the Cold War era, had 12 members at the time of its formation in 1949 and expanded later to accommodate 30 countries. It acquired notoriety as the catalyst of wars in Western Europe even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the breakup of Yugoslavia to the downfall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the NATO footprints can be seen all over Europe and its neighbourhood. The Quad members would hardly want such a scenario evolving in the Indo-Pacific region.
On its part, India has always maintained that its disputes with neighbours such as China and Pakistan would be handled on a bilateral basis without precipitating the involvement of any third country. That mature principle could be the reason for it not to fall for the temptation of creating or joining any formation exclusively against any single country. ‘Inclusive’ Indo-Pacific was one of the key points of Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018. It is pertinent to mention here that India continues to be a member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
A coherent agenda
All this leads to the central question about the future of Quad. Will it remain merely a body of ‘consultations’ or evolve into a formal regional institution? It is interesting to note that the Indian External Affairs Minister’s opening comments used the word ‘Consultations’ twice with ‘C’ in capital. Maybe, it will be a small ‘c’ in consultations next year and will gradually lead to Quad’s institutionalisation.
It is undeniable that the ascendence of China is severely impacting the global order. The dexterity with which the Chinese leaders reset their global goals gives them an upper hand in setting the global agenda. It today dominates global institutions and is in a position to challenge the supremacy of the world order led thus far by America. It resents the Quad grouping and describes it as the ‘closed and exclusive small circles’. “We hope that relevant countries will do more to enhance mutual understanding and trust among countries in the region, and promote regional peace, stability and development, and not the opposite,” said the Chinese embassy in Tokyo in response to the Quad meet.
The one thing that rightfully weighs the most in the minds of the Quad member countries is the desire to contain China. Yet, for the Quad to emerge as a major grouping in the world’s most happening region, it has to build on a coherent and inclusive agenda that attracts more and more regional democracies into its orbit. The centrality of the ASEAN nations, many of which have been at the receiving end of China’s aggression, must be upheld in regional interest. That will be possible only if the regional powers in Quad – India, Japan and Australia – get into the driver’s seat and steer it in the direction of what Jaishankar described as “rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes…connectivity and infrastructure development, security including counter-terrorism; cyber and maritime security; and the stability and prosperity in the region”.
(The article was originally published in The Print on October 16, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)