“The Quad cannot be dead since it was never born. At the most it is stillborn.”
When your perceived enemy dismisses you in those words, it can hurt. But the Chinese perception of the Quad, as described in an Op-ed in the English language daily Global Times earlier this week, may reflect an uncomfortable reality.
The article quoted the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as saying that the Quad maybe shelved for now. It also quoted India’s naval chief Admiral Sunil Lanba as saying during the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi in January this year that “there wasn’t immediate potential for a Quad.”
When one looks at it, there’s been a singular lack of movement from the Quad (U.S., Japan, India and Australia) but for two meetings at the joint secretary level in November 2017 and June 2018. There was another meeting in November last year on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit with each Quad member issuing separate statements.
That appears to have been the norm so far. The Quad has never come out with a joint statement as to its intentions and the way forward. It is internally divided with each member pulling in different directions. Thus, India has blocked Australia’s participation in the trilateral Malabar exercise over its suspicions about the inroads China has made in that country; Japan has an understanding with China on the Belt & Road; the United States is seeking to strike a deal with China on trade.
So, it would seem that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s description of the Quad in March last year, as “foam on the sea” that would soon dissipate, was valid. Is the Quad indeed stillborn?
It’s important to understand that the Quad rose in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. This was when the navies of the four member states anchored a massive relief and rescue effort. So the original basis of the Quad was humanitarian and disaster relief, an issue on which national governments generally find it easy to cooperate with other countries.
The security dimension of the Quad is a more recent phenomenon, dating to 2007 when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his vision to the Indian Parliament, of connectivity between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It surfaced again in 2017 when the U.S. called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as an organising principle of its Asia strategy.
But finding a consensus on security is never easy. Although India supported the Quad idea in the wake of the Doklam standoff with China, it is the only member state to share a land border with China, so it cannot afford to needlessly provoke the dragon. Add to that, in the event of a confrontation with China, there is no guarantee that any of the Quad members would come to India’s aid. During the Doklam crisis, India stood alone.
Since then India has moved to mend fences with Beijing. The Wuhan informal summit last July appears to have enabled Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping to arrive at an understanding on the future course of their relations. Note Modi’s words: “I firmly believe Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests”.
India has also underscored that ASEAN (the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations) is at the heart of its Indo-Pacific policy, which suggests that the Quad may have less scope.
There are some who suggest that rather than the existing Quad, India should influence the forming of a new grouping perhaps more relevant to its requirements, with Japan, U.S., Indonesia and Singapore. The last two are ASEAN members and have stakes in the Pacific and Indian oceans. India is yet to articulate its views on such a grouping which given its obvious security outlook, could raise hackles in Beijing.
But it’s no less true that ASEAN has shown itself incapable of defending its regional interests vis a vis the “nine dash line” articulated by China. ASEAN has been a bystander as China went on to claim large swathes of the South China Sea, forcibly take over islands of other ASEAN member states and militarise them. Today, China despite being outside ASEAN is able to manoeuvre successfully through proxies within the group to assert its interests.
So if the Quad is not functional and “ASEAN centrality” is fine as an argument but hard to implement in security terms, what is the alternative?
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