The QUAD leaders, post their meeting last Friday, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post. It stated, ‘we are striving to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is accessible and dynamic, governed by international law and bedrock principles such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, and that all countries are able to make their own political choices, free from coercion.’The statement released after the meeting read, ‘We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Full of potential, the Quad looks forward to the future; it seeks to uphold peace and prosperity and strengthen democratic resilience, based on universal values.’ The QUAD finally arrived on the global stage.
PM Modi, in his opening remarks stated, ‘We are united by our democratic values and our commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Our agenda today, covering areas of vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies make the QUAD a force for global good.’ Similar views were echoed by other leaders. Indo-Pacific and ASEAN were referred to at regular intervals. The message was clear and unambiguous. The QUAD was pushing back against China in Asia.
This informal grouping of like-minded democratic nations had finally received directions and were now seeking to work towards a common goal, China.Officially, the message was more than just China. As the US NSA, Jake Sullivan, stated after the summit, ‘The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China, but today was not fundamentally about China.’
Every member of the QUAD has some or the other issue with China. The India-China border standoff continues with no end in sight while Japan and China face territorial disputes over Japanese controlled Senkaku Islands, now being claimed by China. Australia and the US have trade disputes with China as also the US sees China as a threat to its power. While the statement discussed multiple issues, seeking to take the fight into spheres of Chinese domination, the crux was pushing back.
For China, the message was that the four major democracies and powers in the region are joining hands, formally at the apex level, to challenge its writ. The challenge would come in every sphere, diplomacy, technology, vaccine diplomacy and military. The Chinese reaction to the summit began even before it commenced. Apart from commenting on the summit, It chose to target India, mainly because India is also a member of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and Russia-India-China (RIC) groupings with China.
The Chinese foreign office spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, stated a day before the QUAD summit that exchanges and cooperation between nations should contribute to mutual understanding and trust among nations, rather than targeting a third party or damaging the interest of a third party. He stated, ‘We hope that relevant countries uphold the principles of openness, inclusiveness and win-win results and refrain from pursuing exclusive blocs and do things that are conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity.’
The Global Times aimed its guns directly at India, when in an article it stated, ‘It seems India has failed to understand China’s goodwill. India takes all support from China for granted. It is, in fact, carrying out a kind of strategic blackmail against China.’ It further stated, ‘BRICS and the SCO have fallen into stagnation since the Doklam standoff in 2017… India has attached more importance to Quad and is very sure about its core demands of the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy-to counterbalance, contain and deter China.’ It also forewarned that India is being exploited by the US. Comments by the Global Times are illogical as India’s relations with all countries have remained on an even key or enhanced, except with China, which by its aggression, has pushed relations back.
The QUAD summit announced its intention of challenging Chinese domination in the ASEAN region, where almost all nations are involved in a dispute with China and an area which China considers as its backyard. Unless nations from ASEAN join the QUAD initiative, China cannot be pushed back. Most ASEAN nations considered the QUAD as an organization seeking to enhance tensions in the region, which could impact their security and development. Hence, a sole military grouping was not the solution.
Therefore, the summit considered additional aspects including vaccine diplomacy, climate change and emerging technologies. India would produce one billion vaccines, funded by US and Japan and distributed to ASEAN, Pacific and Indian island nations.This was the soft power of QUAD, on display for the first time, seeking to win over nations in the region from China. This would challenge Chinese vaccine diplomacy in the region.
The second initiative announced at the summit was concentration on emerging technologies. This is also directly aimed at countering Chinese superiority. A study group being created for this would concentrate on cooperation on telecommunications deployment, diversification of equipment suppliers, and developing future telecommunication technologies through close cooperation with private sectors of the four countries.In short, the aim is to counter Chinese monopoly in this field and provide alternatives to Chinese equipment and technology, which have resulted in many nations, including all members of QUAD facing Chinese launched cyberattacks.
The QUAD, as it currently stands has not proved to be an effective organization as its concentration was solely on military aspects, in a region, dominated by China. It had sought to counter China in the Indo-Pacific but failed to draw in nations from the region into its fold. Even the Philippines and South Korea, both US allies, have stayed away from actively supporting the grouping. Hence, enlarging the scope from its current military perspective and raising interaction levels to that of national leaders, the message has gone strong and clear that the group means business and would support nations of the region in their disagreements with China.
India, by attending this summit, has announced its intentions of being an active member of the US camp and willing to join a coalition seeking to challenge China in its backyard. India’s participation will impact its relations with China and possibly slow down the disengagement process in Ladakh, though not enhance security concerns.
Ultimately, decisions taken in the summit must be implemented at the earliest to convey to ASEAN nations that the QUAD is not aimed at enhancing tensions in the region but to provide them support against Chinese aggressiveness. The message to the globe is that the QUAD has finally got directions, an aim and is here to stay.
(The author is Major General (Retd)