Summit-level meetings among the leaders of the world’s major nations (democracies) crowded the calendar in the latter half of May and India was a special invitee at the G7 deliberations in Hiroshima that concluded on Sunday, 21 May.
The Hiroshima meeting was to be followed by two other summits – one relating to the Pacific Islands and the other to the four-member Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) that Australia was to host. However, domestic compulsions related to a looming fiscal crisis forced US President Joe Biden to cancel the post-Hiroshima leg, though the US was represented at the Secretary of State level in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
However, the Quad nations ( Australia, India, Japan, and the USA) met on the sidelines of the G7, and the joint statement issued on 20 May by the four leaders is a significant indicator of reiterating their collective resolve to uphold international law and ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains a free and open domain.
The subtext here is a reference to China’s revisionist stance in the South China Sea and intimidation of Taiwan. Consequently, the China thread at the Hiroshima deliberations (G7 and Quad) and the US-China bilateral relationship merit preliminary analysis, given the multi-layered implications for India.
Quad: 'China Needs To Play By Rules'
In an unintended overlap, a Chinese fishing vessel with 39 crew members capsized in the Southern Indian Ocean on 16 May and the Quad nations pooled their joint surveillance resources in support of the rescue operation to locate the ill-fated boat – but tragically, the vessel was lost 5,000 km West of Perth and alas, no survivors were found.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi co-chaired the FIPIC (Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation) with his PNG counterpart PM James Marape while the USA concluded a separate bilateral agreement with the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Islands have acquired a new strategic salience with all the major powers seeking to enhance their footprint in that distant region and while China has already acquired a significant presence, both the USA and India are now engaging with the islands in a more robust manner.
The strategic takeaway from these summits is the primacy accorded to the war in Ukraine by the G7 and the manner in which China is dealt with by the leaders at the Hiroshima deliberations. The G7 final document is extensive at over 19,000 words and in the very first paragraph, the leaders assert that they will: “Support Ukraine for as long as it takes in the face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression.”
Castigating Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, the G7 leaders add: “We once again condemn in the strongest possible terms the war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine, which constitutes a serious violation of international law, including the UN Charter. Russia’s brutal war of aggression represents a threat to the whole world in breach of fundamental norms, rules, and principles of the international community.”
It is instructive that the China reference is tucked away towards the end of the G7 document (in paragraph 50 in a total of 66 ) and the semantic choice is persuasive and seeks to encourage Beijing to engage with the US-led G7.
It notes in a conciliatory tone: “We stand prepared to build constructive and stable relations with China, recognizing the importance of engaging candidly with and expressing our concerns directly to China. We act in our national interest. It is necessary to cooperate with China, given its role in the international community and the size of its economy, on global challenges as well as areas of common interest.”
As if to allay Beijing’s anxiety about 'encirclement’ by the US-led coalition, the G7 leaders further added that “Our policy approaches are not designed to harm China nor do we seek to thwart China’s economic progress and development. A growing China that plays by international rules would be of global interest.”
A Dig In Disguise
This reticence not to point a finger at a belligerent Beijing is taken to an extreme level in the Quad document also released in Hiroshima on May 20. The communiqué is a little over 3,000 words– but does not refer to China by name even once.
However, the various transgressions and coercion ascribed to China are mentioned and the allusion would not be lost in Beijing. The relevant section on regional issues is instructive, where the four leaders (Albanese, Modi, Kishida, and Biden) add, “We remain fully resolved to uphold peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain. We strongly oppose destabilising or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo by force or coercion. We emphasise the importance of adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, in addressing challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including those in the East and South China Seas. We express serious concern at the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coastguard and maritime militia vessels, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities. We emphasise that disputes should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, without threat or use of force."
This formulation is not new and the core element, a free and open Indo-Pacific goes back to the Obama-Manmohan Singh-Shinzo Abe period. What is relevant in the current context, is the steady elevation of the Quad to the summit level and the nimble manner in which the disruption of the Biden schedule did not lead to a cancellation of the deliberations. The change of venue was swiftly done and a substantive working meeting was conducted - though the military component of the Quad is being deliberately masked and kept below the radar.
Impact on India
Whether such an approach will encourage Beijing to engage with the US-led coalition in a constructive manner is moot but on 22 May, US President Joe Biden spoke of a possible 'thaw’ in US-China relations and that may be a silver lining. But for the Quad to be effective in 'compelling’ Beijing to act in a manner that is compliant with prevailing international law – a degree of collective military capability needs to be honed and demonstrated.
The Quad effort (Australia and India) in providing surveillance support to locate the small capsized Chinese vessel is illustrative of MDA (Maritime Domain Awareness) efficacy. In this case, the Indian Navy’s P8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft flew to a search area in the Southern Indian Ocean almost 900 nautical miles from their base in Tamil Nadu. Maritime professionals would be more than aware of how this capability can be utilised for suasion – a traditional task for navies in peacetime.
India will host the Quad summit in 2024 and harnessing collective MDA in an innovative way is an area that merits policy focus and action. Encouraging Beijing to comply is challenging but the gauntlet has to be picked up in a calibrated manner.
(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.)