Quad vs China: India May Face a Dilemma as Biden's Stand Toughens
The Tokyo summit and the bilateral meetings that preceded it have brought the issue of China up front.
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Ever since it was revived in 2017, the Quad has tip-toed around the issue of China. It has declared itself to be an inclusive grouping of democracies whose aim is to defend the freedom of navigation of the seas, promote economic growth and participate in humanitarian relief.
Like it or not, Tuesday’s Quad summit in Tokyo and the bilateral meetings that preceded it have brought the issue of China up front. And not surprisingly, it has come via another key issue – the invasion of Ukraine, China’s implicit support for it and increasing worries that Beijing may replicate the action in Taiwan.
The host, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, set the tone by declaring in his opening remarks at the summit that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “had fundamentally shaken the rule of law-based international order” and said that “we should never, ever allow a similar incident to happen in the Indo-Pacific”.
He was alluding to the danger of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Earlier this month in London, Kishida had warned that the invasion of Taiwan by China would threaten Japan’s survival and international security.
Tuesday’s Quad summit in Tokyo and the bilateral meetings that preceded it have brought the issue of China up front.
There have been fears that China could do to Taiwan what Russia is doing to Ukraine.
But this tougher stand of the Quad can prove to be a dilemma for India, which has always been somewhat leery of any effort to militarise the Quad as an anti-China grouping.
Biden Walks Back on His Taiwan Comment
In his remarks, US President Joe Biden roundly condemned the Russian invasion and declared that it was not just a European issue, but a global one. He attacked Putin by name for triggering “a human catastrophe”.
A day earlier, in Tokyo itself, Biden had made headlines when he declared that he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. This was, said observers, stretching the limits of the allegedly ambiguous US policy towards the island. By US law, it is committed to providing Taiwan with the means to defend itself, but it has so far explicitly avoided making a military commitment to its defence. On Tuesday, underscoring the ambiguity, Biden walked back on his comment, claiming that the policy “has not changed at all”.
Neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor the newly sworn-in Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese referred to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In fact, both sought to emphasise the Quad’s declared agenda related to vaccines, climate action, supply chain resilience and economic cooperation. Clearly, on a major issue relating to security in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad is not united. Nevertheless, picking through the nuances of the joint statement issued, it is possible to see that there is agreement on some of the basics thrown up by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Indo-Pacific Isn't Just About the South China Sea
The joint statement foregrounded the Ukraine issue, declaring the group’s determination to remain steadfast in the face of “tendencies for unilateral action among states and a tragic conflict raging in Ukraine”. It referred to “the ongoing humanitarian crisis” and its “implications for the Indo-Pacific”. The statement said that the leaders had “discussed our respective responses to the conflict in Ukraine” and agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
In this context, they called for “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”. This was a statement clearly aimed at China, without naming it.
When we think of the Quad and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Policy, we think of freedom of navigation, etc, in the South China Sea. But this is equally germane to the Taiwan Straits and the seas around Taiwan.
In early May, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Mark Miley, reiterated that China plans to build up its military capabilities to invade Taiwan by 2027. This has set off a chain reaction in Japan and the US. The former has decided to double its defence budget, an act that will enable it to overtake India as the third-largest military spender in the world. Meanwhile, the US Congress is considering a plan to provide several billion dollars of financial support to Taiwan to procure weapons.
India Doesn't Want an 'Anti-China' Quad
There is little doubt that the PLA has assumed that the US will indeed intervene in any attempt that is made to capture Taiwan. However, till now, the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” provided a fig-leaf of sorts for the Sino-US interaction. Openly saying that the US would defend Taiwan alters the strategic dynamics of the region in ways that cannot be easily predicted. Some would argue that it could, indeed, enhance the possibility of a Chinese military action. They also pose a challenge to the workings of the Quad.
For India, which has always been somewhat leery of any effort to militarise the Quad as an anti-China grouping, this would be a dilemma. The Prime Minister’s opening remarks were the shortest amongst those of the leaders and he made no point other than to praise the Quad and commend its workings.
The Quad joint statement also repeated the extensive agenda laid out by the group in its March 2021 summit in fighting COVID-19, developing infrastructure, cooperation in space, mitigating climate change, and working on cyber security and critical and emerging technologies. In all these, a lot of the work that the Quad has promised remains in the planning stage.
An important new initiative announced at the meeting is the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). This will offer a near-real-time integrated maritime domain awareness picture.
It will also boost the ability of participant countries in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region to monitor their seas. Mooted as a means of assisting humanitarian relief, it will also help track smuggling and aid in fighting illegal fishing, which is more often than not the handiwork of Chinese fleets.
IPEF: Poor Substitue to a Free Trade Agreement?
A day before the summit, the United States announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), to which, it said, 13 Indo-Pacific countries had signed on. Critics say that this is a poor substitute for a free trade agreement that the US is avoiding.
The Obama administration had mooted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a means of enhancing the US economic engagement in the region. However, former President Donald Trump walked out of the agreement and the remaining countries, which include Japan, Australia, Canada, Vietnam, Singapore and six other Pacific nations, combined to form a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The Biden administration has shown no inclination to join this outfit and has now come up with the IPEF as a substitute.
This is projected as a flexible programme with four pillars to tackle issues such as infrastructure, supply chain resilience, clean energy and digital trade. It has the ambitious agenda of raising labour and environmental standards. Each of its members will be allowed to choose in which of the four areas they could pursue deals without necessarily committing themselves to all of them.
Just how the IPEF will work remains to be seen. But the Americans say the agreement is focused on the needs of US workers and are clear that they will not provide the expanded market access or tariff concessions for its participants like the FTAs do.
India suddenly emerged on the list of 13 countries that have signed up for the IPEF. Along with the US, it has the distinction of being neither with the CPTPP nor the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes Japan, all of ASEAN, China and Australia, among other countries. In essence, an economic policy that would take on Chinese dominance in the region remains to be formulated. The earlier initiatives of the US, such as the Blue Dot network or the Build Back Better plan have so far little to show for themselves. Its Free and Open Indo Pacific policy is, to quote the Financial Times, “all guns and no butter".
(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.)
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