The fairly anodyne outcome of the Quad foreign ministers summit in Melbourne on Friday must be read in conjunction with the release on the same day, in Washington, of the Joe Biden administration’s official Indo-Pacific strategy, where it declares that only a narrow window of time remains to prevent China from transforming the region into its own sphere of influence. The US is not only the anchor of the Quad but the driving force behind the key, newly formed Australia, UK, US (AUKUS) security alliance that spans the Indo-Pacific region.
Going by the headlines of some Indian newspapers on Saturday, the Melbourne Quad ministerial meeting was about developments in Ukraine. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a riposte to Russia’s activities around Ukraine, the Quad meeting was a bit of a damp squib. India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, made that obvious when he curtly told a journalist who quizzed him on India’s view of the developments in Europe. He said:
“This meeting [that of the Quad] is focused on the Indo-Pacific, as I’m sure you understand geography … So, I think you should figure out the geography there, and where we stand, our position on Ukraine we have laid it out in public at the U.N. Security Council.”
Quad's Areas of Focus
Not surprisingly, then, though the Ukraine issue figured in the post-meeting press conference remarks of the US, Japan and Australian ministers, it was not visible in the joint statement adopted by the Quad ministers. Neither was China mentioned directly.
The joint statement is a fairly straightforward document that speaks of the Quad’s role in providing 500 million vaccine doses and their pledge to donate more than 1.3 billion doses globally. The vaccine is to be manufactured at the Biological E facilities in India, which has promised 1 billion doses by the end of the year.
The Quad is also working on other areas of its focus – humanitarian relief, maritime security, counter-terrorism, countering disinformation and cybersecurity.
The ASEAN Factor
The only oblique reference to China comes from the reference to maritime security and the importance of UNCLOS in meeting the challenges “to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China seas”. A curious element of the positions of Quad countries, reflected in their joint statement and speeches, is their reference to the centrality of the ASEAN in their approach.
It almost seems that they are speaking on behalf of the ASEAN. Yet, as we know, none of the ASEAN countries is a member of the Quad, neither are they invited as observers.
The ASEAN Outlook for Indo-Pacific referred to by the joint statement notes that there is a need to strengthen ASEAN-led mechanisms that project its foreign policy, like the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), or the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting plus, and so on, also have China as a prominent participant. For good measure, the Quad Joint Statement noted that they would continue to support Cambodia as the ASEAN chair for 2022. Cambodia is China’s closest friend in the organisation and there are reports of the Chinese constructing a base in Ream.
New Delhi's Heft
New Delhi has cause to be happy that the joint statement condemned a smorgasbord of terrorism issues, including the 26/11 attack in Mumbai and the Pathankot attack, and referred to the UN resolution saying that Afghan territory should not be used to threaten or attack any country.
The Quad countries value India’s membership in the body; New Delhi is as much of a linchpin here as Washington is. Australia and Japan are military allies of the US and have a largely common perspective on China and Russia, but minus India, the Quad is hollow. New Delhi has, however, taken care not to get entangled in anti-Chinese or anti-Russian agendas. When pressed to comment on the Ukraine situation at the post-meeting press conference, Jaishankar simply evaded the question and added cryptically that the Quad members “are for something, not against somebody”.
US Goals Against China
That something appears to be the Quad thrust on shared partnerships in areas like critical minerals, new technologies, market expansion and also a shared perspective on issues like climate change and COVID-19. As the joint statement notes, the outfit is committed to developing “responsible and resilient clean energy supply chains”, infrastructure, cyber security, peaceful uses of outer space education and critical and emerging technologies. Already, for example, India and Australia are moving closer towards a free trade agreement.
This agenda looks quite different from that of the one that the US has outlined in its new Indo-Pacific strategy. This squarely takes on China and attacks it for “combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might” to shape a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific “to become the world’s most influential power”.
It notes that the world needed collective efforts to ensure that Beijing is not able to shape the rules and norms of the world to its own advantage. However, the US goal here was “not to change China, but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates”.
Biden & Trump Strategies Are Not Very Different
To this end, the US effort was to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, develop connections within and beyond the region, bolster Indo-Pacific security and build regional resilience to transnational threats.
As part of this, the US would deepen ties with its regional allies like Australia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand, and strengthen ties with regional states like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Pacific Islands.
The Biden strategy of competing with China, rather than engaging it, is not very different from that of the Trump administration, whose declassified version, released just before he left office in early 2021, puts out the US perspective in a straightforward manner. That document bluntly asserted that the challenge was “to maintain U.S. strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region and promote a liberal economic order while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence”.
That document has listed amongst its assumptions that “a strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China”. The US knows that no other country in the Quad or the Indo-Pacific can play that role except India.
So, in line with this, the Trump document declared that it was in US interests to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and major defence partner”.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)