Is China’s Aggression ‘Driving Force’ Behind QUAD Dialogue Today?

“But for Chinese muscle-flexing, the QUAD may not have survived,” (Retd) Ambassador Vishnu Prakash explains. 

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image of QUAD leaders at the dialogue in Japan in 2020. Image used for representational purposes. 
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If the QUAD process does come of age and decides to adopt its charter, the preambular paragraph should (though may not) read as follows:

“We, the likeminded democratic states, particularly concerned at the extra-territorial ambitions and belligerence of a country and committed to upholding a rule-based, equitable, stable and peaceful international order, as well as, safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states in the Indo-Pacific region, hereby unanimously resolve to establish a Quadrilateral Security Mechanism (QUAD) in accordance with the framework outlined below.”

Indeed, but for Chinese muscle-flexing and blatant disregard for well-established international norms, the QUAD may not have survived.

Pompeo Didn’t Mince Words On China – But Why Is New Delhi Reluctant To Call China Out?

Briefing the American media on 6 October after the second ministerial QUAD meeting in Tokyo, a senior State Department official did not mince words – “...There’s no avoiding the fact that it’s China and its actions in the region that make the QUAD actually matter and function this time around... When you think of the QUAD, you think of security...”

Secretary Mike Pompeo was the only participant who named China in his brief opening remarks at the conference: “As partners in this QUAD, it is more critical now than ever, that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion.”

Japan and India were bashful about even referring to the event as a ‘QUAD meeting’.

External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr S Jaishankar just about alluded to the elephant in the room – “Our world is significantly different today than it was when we met last year in New York in September… We remain committed to upholding... respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes. Our objective remains advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries...”

And therein lies the rub.

China has been baiting India and most of its maritime neighbours, yet there is an inexplicable reluctance on the part of New Delhi to call China out.

If our discretion had helped in managing ties with Beijing then we should have, by all means, continued doing so. In reality, it had the opposite impact, with China feeling emboldened, and progressively upping the ante.

It is this ambivalence that is the reason behind the chequered history of the QUAD.

Chequered History Of QUAD & PM Shinzo Abe’s Leadership

Its origin was accidental in a manner of speaking. The four protagonists – Australia, India, Japan and the US – intuitively sprung into action, in the aftermath of the Christmas Day tsunami in 2004, to rush disaster relief to the afflicted nations. On the move, they coordinated operations effectively, which sowed the seeds of QUAD.

However, the credit goes to former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, for his vision of the ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ – Indian Ocean and the Pacific – to further freedom and prosperity; and for relentlessly encouraging the US, Australia and India to commence a four-way dialogue.

Senior officials from the countries met in Manila on 25 May 2007, but were at pains immediately thereafter to downplay its significance and deny that it had anything to do with China.

With the change of leadership in Japan and Australia the dialogue came to an abrupt halt, much to the relief of India. Meanwhile, China went about grabbing reefs, shoals and islands belonging to Vietnam, Taiwan and Philippines, laying claim to most of the South China Sea under the dubious ‘Nine-Dash Line’. President Xi Jinping, who assumed office in 2012, unveiled the dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation to the people.

How QUAD Dialogue Came To Be Elevated To Foreign Minister-Level

By 2017, Beijing was at odds with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, the US, many ASEAN nations, and India.

Once again, PM Abe – who returned to power in 2012 – was instrumental in the revival of the QUAD. The second official-level meeting took place after 10 years in November 2017. In the same year, President Trump endorsed the Indo-Pacific construct. By 2018 the geo-economic and geo-strategic contestation between Beijing and Washington had become more pronounced.

QUAD members shed their inhibitions and started meeting regularly, culminating in elevation of the dialogue to the level of foreign ministers in September 2019.

QUAD has a broad agenda of cooperation including in areas such as freedom of navigation and overflights, maritime security, cyber affairs, counter-terrorism, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Presently, combatting the coronavirus pandemic is also a priority.

Need Of The Hour: Collective Pushback Against China

Yet, as noted above, the driving force of the dialogue is the pressing need to deal with Chinese belligerence. Stock denials serve little or no purpose, as it is evident that the primary objective of QUAD is to broaden the membership base adequately, for establishing a viable security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region.

It appears that only a collective pushback may encourage China to reconsider its stance.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, virtual QUAD meetings were hosted by Washington and New Delhi, to which a number of other countries such as South Korea, Israel, Brazil, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, France and Sri Lanka were invited. This author believes that except France, none of the special invitees have the political will to subscribe to the groupings’ agenda. In reality, most countries are hedging their bets till the picture becomes clearer.

It is in this backdrop that Tokyo hosted the second in-person foreign ministerial dialogue. That it was the first such international event after the outbreak of the pandemic is reflective of the importance that Japan attaches to QUAD.

It also enabled Japanese PM Suga to unequivocally signal continuity in policy.

Indications Of QUAD Dialogue Gaining Traction

Notwithstanding the fact that the sides again opted not to have a joint statement, there are enough indications that the forum is gaining traction. The following broad picture(s) can be pieced together from the opening remarks of the ministers, press releases and briefings by officials:

  • Secretary Pompeo called for “more concrete steps with the QUAD going forward” including institutionalisation of the framework. The members have so far agreed to have regular meetings at the ministerial level
  • A senior State Department official conceded that members had “different perspectives”, but that all share “the same values”
  • All four nations emphasised greater focus and cooperation in enhancing maritime security
  • It was agreed to enhance cooperation to promote a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific
  • The ministers affirmed the importance of broadening cooperation with more countries for the realisation of the vision of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ region
  • The ministers also exchanged views on regional affairs such as North Korea, and East and South China Seas

Thus, the QUAD nations are developing a comfort level, even though there are imponderables, such as the outlook of the next American president towards China. An institutional mechanism will evolve gradually, unless a Chinese misadventure hastens the process. In any event, the nations have a straightforward choice – to be governed by rules or be governed by power.

(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @AmbVPrakash. 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.)

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