The Tokyo summit of the Quad nations (Australia, India, Japan and the US) that concluded on Tuesday is the second in-person meeting of the leaders of these four nations. It took place against the ongoing war in Ukraine triggered by the Russian invasion on 24 February. Tokyo marks the fourth summit-level deliberations since US President Joe Biden assumed office in January 2020. Two of these meetings were in virtual mode, thereby signalling the priority being accorded to the Quad and the Indo-Pacific by the US and its partners to this relatively nascent platform.
The biggest takeaway from Tokyo, as reflected in the joint statement, is that the Quad, which was earlier disparaged for being neither fish nor fowl (not a security-led group or a trade block), is gradually acquiring focus and cohesion despite its relatively wide-spectrum set of objectives and divergences over major issues, such as Russia’s Ukraine invasion. India, for example, has not joined the US and other Quad members in castigating Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Quad, despite its wide-spectrum set of objectives and divergences over major issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is gradually acquiring focus and cohesion.
There is consensus with regards to the salience of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic construct and the anxiety over China.
The Quad plus IPEF can evolve into a significant presence in the Indo-Pacific if the collective political resolve is sustained. But can democracies act in sync against a common security threat without becoming a military alliance?
Quad Is Careful Not to Pitch Itself as Anti-China
Where there is consensus is with regards to the salience of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic construct and the anxiety over China. Japan, with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the helm, was the prime mover of the concept of the Indo-Pacific, and he had envisioned a confluence of the two oceans (the Indian and the Pacific) in his address to the Indian parliament in 2007.
After a chequered trajectory, buffeted as it was by the domestic political compulsions of individual members, Quad was infused with high-level political resolve under Biden’s watch; the strategic subtext is instructive. The primary concern for the Quad members in relation to the Indo-Pacific was the rise of China and its combination of assertiveness veering towards inflexible belligerence in the transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.
Yet, the Quad, in all its statements, takes great care not to pitch the platform as being anti-China, though in a dialectical manner it highlights issues where Beijing has been a transgressor – whether in relation to the South China Sea dispute, illegal fishing, or the Chinese rejection of international law and customary domain norms. Concurrently, the Quad has sought to be an inclusive, add-on grouping, and defers to the centrality of ASEAN as a block in relation to the Indo-Pacific; it has also cast the net wide to bring onboard European Union (EU) nations in appropriate sectors of engagement.
Not Just 'Sea Foam' Anymore For China
In keeping with this approach, China is not explicitly mentioned in the 3,019-word joint statement issued in Tokyo. But the allusion is more than evident. In its opening section, the statement pledges that the four democratic leaders “renew our steadfast commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient”.
Noting the challenges posed by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the operative part of the document by way of shared objectives is spelt out in some detail. And it’s here that the unstated references that correlate with the actions and orientation of Beijing can be discerned:
“We strongly support the principles of freedom, rule of law, democratic values, sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force, any unilateral attempt to change the status quo, and freedom of navigation and overflight, all of which are essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and to the world. We will continue to act decisively together to advance these principles in the region and beyond. We reaffirm our resolve to uphold the international rules-based order where countries are free from all forms of military, economic and political coercion.”
Predictably, China, which initially scoffed at the Quad as ‘sea foam’ that would soon dissipate, has criticised the Tokyo summit, calling it an attempt to create an Asian NATO and arguing that the emergence of military blocks would be detrimental to regional peace and stability. Thus, the second major takeaway from Tokyo is that despite its wide-spectrum agenda and cautious movement from intent to action, Beijing sees the grouping as a source of concern. The political resolve demonstrated by the Quad-plus has the potential to shape the current geopolitical template that has been jolted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Eight Policy Baskets
The statement contains eight specific policy baskets: peace and stability, COVID and public health, infrastructure, climate change, cyber security, critical and emerging technologies, space, and maritime domain awareness, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (MDA & HADR). These may be termed by and large as ‘motherhood’ and ‘apple pie’ issues, meaning that if realised – including a $50 billion commitment for infrastructure – the credibility of the Quad as an entity that can deliver will be enhanced.
The focus on technology is welcome and together, the Quad-plus cluster (that could bring in South Korea, Taiwan and some ASEAN states) could be an alternative to states that are currently over-dependent on China. That the Tokyo summit has ruffled certain feathers was also evident in the display of military might by China and Russia, when their fighter aircraft closed in on Japanese airspace even as the Quad leaders were in session on Tuesday.
Will the Political Resolve Last?
The next Quad summit will be held in Australia in 2023, and if some of the boxes that have been ticked are translated into sustainable action, say, for instance, MDA and HADR, the credibility and buoyancy of the democratic cluster will be burnished. The Quad will also be complemented by the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF), which plans to bring together the Quad and nine other nations (Brunei, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). But this is still a work in progress.
On current evidence, the Quad plus IPEF can evolve into a significant presence in the Indo-Pacific if the collective political resolve is sustained.
But getting democracies to act in sync against a common security challenge, absent a formal military alliance, is akin to herding cats. So, it is a case of wait-and-watch till the next summit in 2023.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)