The Fourth Meeting of the Quad Leaders held in-person in Tokyo was significant more for what the leaders did not state than what was stated. This tongue twister is easily explained in terms of the Joint Statement (24 May 2022) that was simultaneously released by all the participating nations, the US, Japan, Australia and India. The striking thing about this document is that it does not mention either Russia or China, but reading between the lines makes it clear that the QUAD is today actually serious about creating an alternative “force for good” vis-à-vis China. The messaging could not have been clearer!
The Quad was originally termed as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, but never really kicked off in that direction. China, of course, used this formulation to dub it as the ‘Asian NATO’. That said, the Quad has come a long way since former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed it in 2007. Fact of the matter is that the Quad gives Japan the means to promote democracy and the rule of law in East Asia. The combined efforts of four countries have thus moved ahead of theorising a concept and into the realm of practical action. The Fourth Quad leaders meeting should be analysed in this context.
The discussion in the Quad on their respective responses to the conflict in Ukraine and ongoing humanitarian crisis, is a meeting of minds of diverse opinions on the Russian invasion. The respect for international law and sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states is an essential pre-requisite for any action by a nation-state. This is directed at Russia undoubtedly, but applies equally to China. How succinctly the Joint Statement weaves this narrative is seen in references to cooperation with partners in the region, who share the vision of free and open Indo-Pacific region. Up to a point the leaders are expressing an intent, but when they state that they strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions, is the clearest indication that China is the target audience for this statement.
More concrete action follows in the announcement of the US$ 50 billion infrastructure assistance to the region by the Quad leaders through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Notably, this grouping has 13 member countries and reflects a shared concern over China’s increasing assertiveness politically and economically in the region. Over the next five years, the Quad partners will extend this funding to catalyse infrastructure delivery. China, by the way, is already in the act, by announcing the Global Development Initiative and signing security pacts with the Solomon Islands. Extending the argument that mere investment is not enough, the Quad leaders also sought to find ways for countries to cope with debt. This is an important announcement given the fact that many countries in South, South-East Asia and the Pacific are in debt trap of China and require the financial wherewithal to move away from this situation.
Linked to the statements of intent on the Indo-Pacific is the new Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative, designed to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters and illegal fishing. Further, following the virtual meeting of Quad partners (3 March 2022), a Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief has been established. Thus, vision in the Indo-Pacific is translating to steps on the ground, which will see fruition in the coming days and months. This is particularly important given that the region is prone to natural disasters of increasing severity. The Quad, in its first iteration, took shape in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean region.
Vaccine diplomacy has underpinned efforts of the Quad to counter China’s global outreach. Recall that during the First Quad Leader’s Summit in Washington (March 2021), the objective was for them to produce at least one billion doses by the end of 2022. By focusing attention away from virus originator China and concentrating towards positive contributions on health security, the Quad has taken steps to be ahead of virus. The collective pledge by Quad partners of approximately US$ 5.2 billion to the COVAX AMC and delivery of over 670 million doses globally is a measure of the success of combined efforts of leading democratic nations. That India finds mention for progress on expansion of the J&J vaccine production at an e-facility in India, is a polite way of reminding the world of India’s lead and commitment in this matter. President Joe Biden, reportedly, contrasted India’s successful handling of the Covid pandemic with China’s failure to tackle the crisis during his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Modi.
Quad has truly moved beyond China or is that rhetoric? Actually, no better than to quote Sanjay Verma, India’s Ambassador to Japan who said, “Quad is a positive, constructive agenda so we don’t target a country or region for that. What we look forward to is that peace and stability in Indo-Pacific region should be adhered to”. China’s stance on Quad has been and remains a hope that it will fail. China knows that the US, Japan and Australia are allies in any case, the joining of the fourth ally, India is what concerns them the most. A recent post on twitter questioned the logic of India being a Quad partner when India and China had ties going back a long time! The Chinese blithely ignore the fact that their actions in 2020 in eastern Ladakh, which subsequently changed the character of ties forever.
The way forward for Quad is clear. Positive messaging and action on the ground is the easiest path to follow if China is to be countered. The pillars of cooperation have been identified. Detailing of the funding and mechanisms of delivery must be determined ahead. Time is of the essence. As long as “fundamental values and principles” are adhered to, the Quad can work effectively. Today and tomorrow, the Quad’s focus should remain a non-traditional security framework. Building on the respective strengths of member countries, a long-term view can be taken on security cooperation in the Quad format. Such a perspective will benefit the Indo-Pacific region and serve as a reminder to China that every grouping in the world does not have to be another NATO!