The Quad virtual summit has politically consolidated the group. India was earlier cautious about the group because (a) Australia walked out of it in 2008, raising doubts about its commitment,(b) all the other three are military allies and India did not want to be dragged into a de facto military alliance, and (c) India’s threat from China is of a different order because of contiguity and the long unsettled border. India was not in favour of throwing the gauntlet too much at China to not worsen the already complicated relationship. India has, thus, followed an incremental strategy of the first meeting at the official level, then at the Foreign Minister level and now at the summit level.
China’s inexplicable aggression against India in Ladakh explains why India has decided to shed its inhibitions and more openly hedge against China, even as mutual disengagement in Ladakh has not been completed as yet. Clearly, our assessment is that our China ties have been gravely destabilised, and given China’s aggressive policies in all directions, India has to build fences against its expansionism more decisively. Our ability to stand up to China in very difficult conditions in Ladakh has given us the confidence that we can discard our earlier unreciprocated concerns about Chinese sensitivities. China has pursued a policy of containing us under cover of engagement. We have decided to reciprocate. China’s approach, with the difference that China being powerful, can exercise its options unilaterally, whereas we need the support of others who are equally concerned about China’s assertiveness, its violation of international law and repudiation of agreements.
India’s stronger commitment to the Quad comes out clearly in Prime Minister Modi’s statement at the Summit. We are no longer making a distinction between the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad. We were doing this earlier to allay the misgivings of the ASEAN countries that their centrality in developing a regional security architecture was being diluted by the Quad concept. Shri Modi’s remarks at the summit amalgamate the India-Pacific concept and the Quad when he stated that the uniting element of democracy and shared commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific makes the Quad a “force for global good”. He envisages the Quad working together, “closer than ever before” for “advancing our shared values and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific”.
The Quad leaders were able to issue a joint statement, which earlier meetings at the official and Foreign Minister level could not. This shows that there is now a consensus in terms of the Quad’s role and its agenda. The tentativeness about the Quad has ended. It has now a clear joint purpose, the beginnings of a structure and an agenda to work on. China has not been mentioned by name in the joint statement. It was unnecessary to do so, as it would have given a propaganda handle to China to sow dissensions in ASEAN that does not want to choose between the US and China, besides projecting itself as a victim of a renewed Cold War. However, the tenor of the statements made by individual leaders and the joint statement formulations are largely implicitly directed at China. Coercion of Australia, harassment around the Senkakus, border aggression against China figured in the summit discussions. Interestingly, cybersecurity incidents impacting Quad members too figured, including attacks against India’s power sector.
The joint statement states that the four countries are “united in a shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific”…“a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” They commit themselves “to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”. Now, who is threatening freedom of navigation and overflight in the western Pacific, challenging the rules-based order by violating UNCLOS, and repudiating the arbitration award under its aegis. The reference to “peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity”, is squarely addressed at China that has rejected a peaceful settlement of disputes in the East and South China Sea and in Ladakh. It is China that is threatening the territorial integrity of several countries in the Indo-Pacific region. If democratic values are mentioned, clearly, China is the target.
PM Modi has stressed the availability of anti-COVID-19 vaccines to all countries, especially the developing ones, at affordable prices. India’s own vaccine diplomacy has been very pro-active, earning a lot of international goodwill. The joint statement recognises the need for cooperation in health security “to provide safe, affordable, and effective vaccine production and equitable access for the Indo-Pacific”
The reference to the commitment “to work together and with a range of partners” indicates that select partners in ASEAN and Europe will be invited to work together with the Quad in the future. France is an obvious partner as it is both an Indian Ocean and Pacific power. There are already reports of a planned joint Quad/France naval exercise (La Perouse). The leaders have rightly reassured ASEAN by reaffirming“strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”. This is necessary lip service to ASEAN centrality because reaching out to Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines would create internal fissures in ASEAN, which should be avoided.
India has never seen Quad as a security arrangement alone, as its militarisation hampers the larger purpose of a multi-dimensional challenge to China’s expansionism, which is why India refers to a Quadrilateral framework and not a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as the US prefers. In line with Indian thinking and emphasis on a broader agenda, the Quad leaders pledged themselves to“respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains”. Again, on most of these issues concerns about China are on the minds of the leaders.
PM Modi has stressed the availability of anti-COVID-19 vaccines to all countries, especially the developing ones, at affordable prices. India’s own vaccine diplomacy has been very pro-active, earning a lot of international goodwill. The joint statement recognises the need for cooperation in health security “to provide safe, affordable, and effective vaccine production and equitable access for the Indo-Pacific.” An expert group will address this part of the Quad agenda. The decision to manufacture the US vaccine in India in collaboration with Biological E Ltd to provide one billion doses to the Indo-Pacific region is a major step. It advances Shri Modi’s vision of India as the world's pharmacy, besides countering China’s cynical vaccine diplomacy. The other expert group will address Climate Change issues, which are problematic and will need nimble diplomacy by India to ward off western pressure, especially the US, on India to fix a date for achieving a carbon-neutral economy.
Again, with China in mind, the leaders have agreed to “cooperation on the critical technologies of the future”. These will cover AI, 5G, robotics, cooperation in international standards and innovative technologies, resilient supply chains etc., given China’s advances and ambitions in these areas. The three working groups set up is the beginning of a Quad structure, which will be developed further in time. For continuity, it has been agreed that experts and senior officials from the four countries will continue to meet regularly; the Foreign Ministers will converse often and meet at least once a year, and an in-person summit will be held by the end of 2021.All in all, the Quad summit reflects a more confident Indian foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi.
(The writer is former Foreign Secretary)