In the wilder parts of America of the past, there is a practice called ‘corralling’, which involves much riding around, to herd a group of livestock into one confined space. The intention is to control the lot and make life easier for the rancher.
Something of the kind was attempted when the White House announced what can only be called an emergency meeting of the Quad on 3 March, the grouping that includes the US, Japan Australia and India. Since, barring India, these were all countries who had voted against Russia in the General Assembly, it did not take a lot of intelligence to assume that the meeting was meant to ‘persuade’ India to come down heavily on Moscow. Officially, however, it was nothing of the sort.
Differing Readouts at the Quad
In the event, the readouts issued differed widely. The White House‘s “joint readout” (as against a joint statement) noted that the conflict and the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine had been discussed, and that a new humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mechanism had been set up for the Indo-Pacific (only), but which would “also provide a channel for communication as they each address and respond to the crisis in Ukraine”.
Simply put, all of this only obliquely applies to Ukraine. Australia’s publication called it a ‘joint statement’, while Japan’s readout was the most detailed. Prime Minister Kishida not only announced aid to Ukraine and a willingness to take in refugees, but also condemned the Russian attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force. His statement further announced that this “shakes the foundation of the international order”, which “must not be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific region”, and that it is precisely because of this situation that it is critical to further promote efforts toward the realisation of a "free and open Indo-Pacific".
That linking was inevitable given the situation in Taiwan, particularly since Chinese warships were seen for the third time in four days off Orchid Island, bringing them the closest they had been to Taiwan’s territorial waters in recent memory.
Not mentioned in most news reports was that this occurred after China objected a week earlier to the movement of an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, ‘USS Ralph Johnson’, through the Taiwan Strait in what it called ‘routine’ activity, and which Beijing called ‘provocative’. Taiwan is on high alert already, given fears that China could use the West’s focus on Ukraine to act in this part of the world.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs had its own take. Delhi’s readout had Prime Minister Modi pointing to the Quad’s “core objective of promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region”. It admitted that Ukraine was discussed “including its humanitarian implications” and that “the Prime Minister emphasised the need to return to a path of dialogue and diplomacy … [and] the importance of adhering to the UN Charter, international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
There was no reference to our first flight of humanitarian aid that has already reached through Poland, and another one that’s due shortly. One rather wonders if Delhi is trying to play this down or whether it was a genuine omission.
Europe’s 'Watershed' Moment
Clearly, Delhi is still not comfortable with any strong language on Russia. In the earlier Quad meeting of Foreign Ministers in Australia, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had refused to take questions on Ukraine, arguing quite correctly that it was hardly part of the Indo-Pacific. The Foreign Minister has also time and again stressed India’s policy of ‘issue-based’ diplomacy, in which one may cooperate on one issue with a particular or group of countries, while disagreeing on another. This, in fact, is how diplomacy works.
Consider that European countries have not been on the same page as the US with regard to Ukraine. France and Germany were both inclined to give Russia the benefit of doubt, given their considerable economic dependencies. However, once war broke out, the European Union (EU) responded with three waves of heavy sanctions, the largest sanctions package in the Union's history. Cooperation in imposing sanctions also included others like Japan, South Korea and Australia – in total some 30 countries – representing well over half of the world’s economy.
As President von der Leyen pointed out, it was a ‘watershed moment’ demonstrating EU unity despite the inevitable economic costs to the sanctioners. The point is, how long will this last? Europeans are more businessmen than the US. This is going to bite.
Not Quite 'United'
Other parts of the world don’t quite see it the same way. True, a full 141 of 193 member states voted in favour of a UN resolution. The resolution is not legally binding and omitted the most important reference to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows military action against a recalcitrant aggressor. True, the resolution was going to be vetoed by permanent member Russia, anyway. But yet, the language would have been biting.
Besides, just Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria voted against. About one-fifth of the total members abstained, which included India, China and nearly all of South Asia. Saudi Arabia has refused to increase oil production, keeping to previously reached agreements with OPEC + (which includes Russia) after a call with President Putin. Turkey did not close access to the Black Sea as it could under the Montreux Convention, though it recently ‘requested’ Russian warships to turn back. Pakistan has been keeping very quiet ever since Imran Khan’s disastrous visit to Moscow on the very day of the invasion.
Reactions in Southeast Asia have been mixed, with countries like Vietnam heavily dependent on Russian weaponry against its main threat, China.
Malaysia and Indonesia, likewise, are not seeking tensions with Russia either. Clearly, there is no real unity against Russia, possibly due in a large measure to the continuing and ever-present danger from China.
East & West – New Red Lines?
It seems, therefore, that the world is divided into East and West in the matter of Ukraine, in a trend that could have other repercussions, including economic. After all, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is moving at a far faster pace than anything that the US has offered, including the ‘Blue Dot network’ or other infrastructure plans.
President Biden’s recent Indo-Pacific strategy has plans for a huge infrastructure push, but these are as yet on paper in a region where some 31 countries have signed on to BRI. The US has to recognise the underlying fear of Chinese domination and the unsaid need to have a stable Russia as a balance against Beijing as the realities underpinning the Asian perspective.
Despite former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran opining that it was daily becoming more difficult for Russia’s friends to stay neutral or nearly so, the truth has always been out there.
Countries have always acted in self-interest, and few have followed this principle more assiduously than the US itself, which makes ‘American people’ at the front and centre of every policy it espouses.
This is as it should be. An elected leader is only accountable to his people and no one else. It's just that the others can't afford to be so happily open about it. Also, luckily for India, its present Foreign Minister has no compunctions of calling a spade a spade.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)