Quad foreign ministers' meeting proves platform is all set to become stronger; loose structure adds to its strength, not weakness

Sreemoy Talukdar
·12-min read

The second foreign ministers' meeting of the Quadrilateral, or 'Quad', took place on Tuesday in Tokyo. In recent times, no other multilateral framework has received such intense global attention. It is a testament to China's aggressive rise, expansionist policies, economic coercion, and its multi-dimensional strategic and ideological threat to the post-second World War global order that forced a spontaneous formation of Indo-Pacific democracies €" involved originally in coordinating disaster response to the 2004 tsunami €" to redirect their purpose.

Now in its second iteration after the grouping met an inglorious end in 2007 €" possibly because Quad 1.0 arrived as a premature idea ahead of its time when Chinese motivations weren't as clear €" Quad 2.0 was reborn in 2017 "amid mounting shared concerns about Chinese foreign policy and growing trust, comfort, and compatibility among the four democracies" of India, Australia, Japan and the US, writes Jeff Smith of The Heritage Foundation in Quad 2.0: A Foundation for a Free and Open Indo€"Pacific.

In its second avatar, helped along by Chinese belligerence, the Quad has steadily grown in purpose, intention, shape and structure, added new dimensions to its agenda, regular assemblies to its schedule and upgraded the framework even as it remains under intense scrutiny and frequently subjected to criticism that spills over from the failure of its past.

The disapproval of Quad, as Dhruva Jaishankar of ORF notes, falls in two categories €" alarmist and derisive. The alarmist view sees the Quad as a "military alliance to contain China and its very idea" as "provocative, divisive and unnecessary€¦ The second and more common reaction is scorn. For sceptics, the Quad has never amounted to much and is unlikely to, given various countries' hesitations. The accusatory finger is usually pointed at India€¦"

As External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met his counterparts Mike Pompeo, Toshimitsu Motegi and Marise Payne in Tokyo for the quadrilateral meeting (aside of bilateral engagements with each), accusations flew that the meeting prized "symbolism over substance", it was suggested that Jaishankar's failure to name China signified India's capitulation and calls were issued (again) to "quietly" disband the "pointless" Quad.

Diplomacy is not a ping pong game of insults. Naming and shaming of China can't be the Quad's sole agenda, neither is it necessary for the partners to do so in cahoots. It is also shortsighted to argue that the EAM failed in his duty, as it were, by not 'naming' China. When the mere getting together of four powerful Indo-Pacific democracies gets Beijing hot under the collar little more is to be gained by pointed provocations. As for China 'occupying' Indian territory, assuming that is the case, if the minister's mentioning China at the Quad table were all it took to evict the PLA, things would have been simpler. But some of the angst directed against the mechanism is harder to understand.

For instance, in Foreign Policy, Salvatore Babones of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney blames India of "hedging", makes an issue of India's purchase of military hardware from France and Russia and "developing increasingly close defence ties with another nonaligned regional giant, Indonesia." Babones also claims that unless three other regional democracies €" South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan €" are added to the mix, Quad will remain essentially a "rump group". The reasoning behind such criticism is foggy. It is rich to accuse India of "hedging bets" when it remains the only nation to physically push back against Chinese bullying and inflict both military and economic damage on Beijing while suffering some in return.

India's buying of weapons from France or Russia may create interoperability and integrity issues with US systems €" though Washington has been more than enthusiastic about selling high-tech weaponry to India or signing foundational agreements €" but it isn't clear why acquiring Russian weapons will interfere with India's membership of a multilateral engagement platform of like-minded partners that was formed, to quote David Stilwell of US State Department, "to deepen cooperation on sub-regional issues and shape a more closely-aligned Indo-Pacific region" where the members are "heavily focused on concrete collaboration on shared challenges." If this is a case of misrepresenting the idea of Quad, to suggest that the grouping has failed to attract regional democracies is plain uninformed. The strategic consultation framework is not a closed, exclusive club.

The mechanism witnessed a recent, quiet expansion with the addition of South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam primarily to develop a coordinated policy response to the pandemic but during the second round of talks of the extended platform €" that came to be referred to as Quad-Plus €" the seven countries reportedly discussed ways to "facilitate trade, share technologies and movement of people." The telephonic conference between senior officials of the seven countries was typically understated and the word 'Quad' never finds mention but the Indian readout of the meeting held in March 2020 states it to be a weekly arrangement "covering issues like cooperation on vaccine development, challenges of stranded citizens, assistance to countries in need and mitigating the impact on the global economy, etc."

The nascent expansion the mechanism serves to bely claims that the Quad is a fuzzy concept with no clear agenda. The inclusion of New Zealand, a nation that has been wary of antagonizing China despite being a part of the Five Eyes network due to its overwhelming economic dependence on China, speaks volumes about the squeezing of space China has brought about for nations in the Indo-Pacific through its revanchist policies and hard power bullying, and the way the strategic choices of nations at the receiving end are being shaped. While the Quad Plus arrangement has not been even remotely formalized, worth noting that Quad members are open to the idea of expanding the platform, and not just for regional powers.

In Japan's readout of the meeting, we find an interesting reference to "proactive efforts by other countries including those in Europe toward a 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific'," the euphemism to contain the destabilizing influence of China. Speaking to Nikkei Asia newspaper, US secretary of state Pompeo suggested that other countries could become part of that fabric at "the appropriate time." To deduce that Quad puts symbolism above substance by putting too much emphasis on the text of statements issued by the members, pointing towards the lack of joint statement or exclusion of Australia from Malabar exercises is missing the point altogether.

The Quad has so far met eight times at the bureaucratic and ministerial levels but while it has courted intense scrutiny and criticism for its modest agenda, the real action has been happening at the bilateral and trilateral levels between the Quad members in various domains at a blistering pace without courting a fraction of the spotlight. A framework that began with enhancing maritime security has now expanded to include cyber and critical technology, infrastructure, counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, connectivity, health security, Mekong regional cooperation, ASEAN-led regional architecture, among other areas. As Tanvi Madan of Brookings Institution notes in a series of charts exemplifying the evolution of the mechanism, despite the fact that Quad is not an alliance or even an informal security commitment between partners, India's defence ties with Japan, Australia and the US have become more institutionalized through intertwining agreements and exercises that facilitate military interoperability and sharing of information and intelligence.

As the following chart from Madan shows, in September alone the Quad nations have intensified mutual cooperation and activities through interlocking bilaterals, trilaterals and quadrilateral with agreements, dialogues and exercises.

So, at one level, the usefulness of the Quad mechanism lies in taking the heat off the underlying bilateral and trilateral networking that increases convergence between the partner nations (and like-minded ones) across different spheres. This is critically important for a nation like India that needs to rely on like-minded partners to develop its capabilities faced with a belligerent superpower as its neighbour.

At another level, the loose structure of the Quad adds to its strength instead of being a weakness. It adds to the flexibility of the forum and makes room for expansion of agendas that may arise. As can be adjudged from the statements of the four participating nations (MEA readout, US statement, Australian release and Japan's account following the second ministerial meeting, there are a lot of divergences amid the larger convergence on tackling the geopolitical complexities thrown up by the rise of a revisionist China.

For instance, India, Japan and Australia don't directly refer to China or the CCP's malignant actions and influence in the opening remarks unlike the US (Read the transcript of US, India and Australia's opening remarks here, but EAM Jaishankar makes a pointed reference to "respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty" while Australia states that "we believe in the fundamental importance of individual rights and in a region which €" in which disputes are resolved according to international law."

In the individual readouts, Australia pointed out that "states cannot assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)." India referred to the need for "coordinated response to the challenges including financial problems emanating from the pandemic; need to share best practices to combat Covid-19; increasing the resilience of supply chains; and enhancing access to affordable vaccines, medicines and medical equipment." The US statement called for promoting "transparency and counter disinformation" (points also covered by the Australian release, while Japan mentioned that the group "exchanged views on regional affairs such as North Korea and East and South China Seas."

Underlying the commitment of the nations to intensify formalization and greater institutionalization of the framework, these varying accents highlight the sufficient space that exists for individual nations to pursue their self-interest. This structure, where the mechanism is driven by shared interests instead of a binding agreement, works better in the globalized world of 21st century where China remains firmly integrated in global economy and an inalienable trading partner for many nations, including those constituting the Quad.

Expecting the framework to be a sort of Asian NATO and then judging its progress on that parameter won't work. There is no exclusive security alliance on offer at the moment, and none has been sought for. Worth noting here that the US, in at least two recent statements, has dropped hints of such a possibility developing at a not so distant future. On Tuesday, Pompeo told Japanese newspaper Nikkei Asia that "once we've institutionalized what we're doing €" the four of us together €" we can begin to build out a true security framework€¦ and called this network a "fabric" that could "counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us." He also expanded on the definition of "security" to include "economic capacity and the rule of law, the ability to protect intellectual property, trade agreements, diplomatic relationships, all of the elements that form a security framework."

And in August, US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun hinted at formalizing the structure "at some point" and reminded that "even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries chose neutrality over NATO membership in post-World War II Europe."

None of the partners are losing sleep over this, because the stress right now is on building issue-based coalitions and Tuesday's meeting goes a long way in confirming their shared commitment. The fact that an in-person meeting took place in Tokyo, when all interactions are turning virtual, and that too at a time when the US President is down with the virus that is raging across the world forcing Pompeo to cut short his Asia tour, is a signal that China won't miss.

As Madan points out in her article for Brookings, "Delhi's traditional instinct would have been to avoid such a high-profile meeting in the middle of an ongoing crisis lest it provoke China further; its agreement to meet is a sign of change, especially in its perception of approach toward Beijing." We note Jaishankar's opening remark where he said, "The fact that we are meeting here today in person despite a global pandemic is a testimony to the importance that these consultations have gained, particularly in recent times."

It has been said that India's participation is what makes the Quad tick, given the fact that other three actors are bound already by a US-led security framework. If "Quad's viability hinges on India's participation", as Babones argues in his criticism of the platform (https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/05/india-quad-alliance-china-containment/), it ought to be good news for the grouping instead of being a weakness. Given India's fundamentally adversarial relationship with China €" where the elements of competition is all set to grow at the cost of coordination as both nations seek to balance each other in a squeezed South Asian theatre €" the Quad's future is secure.

Also See: S Jaishankar to meet Mike Pompeo in Tokyo today; first such meet after border incursions by China

S Jaishankar holds talks with Mike Pompeo in Tokyo; first such meet after border incursions by China

Quad meet in Tokyo: Advancing key security, economic interests in Indo-Pacific a priority, says S Jaishankar

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