As Quad organises itself, the heat is on China
India referred to Quad for the first time ever officially in the third India-Australia-Japan-US ministerial meeting. It represents a hardening of stance by the global powers against China.
After the video conference of the third Quad ministerial meeting where the foreign ministers of India, Australia, Japan and the US underlined the commitment to a rules-based international border, India for the very first time officially referred to the grouping as the Quad. While Australia and the US have always referred to it as the Quad first envisaged in 2007 but revived from the cold in 2017 as a potential counterweight to China’s aggressive moves across the world, it signalled India’s renewed conviction in the grouping.
“Just concluded the Quad Foreign Ministerial Meeting with Australia, Japan and the US. Our positive agenda underlines our shared commitment to global good,” India’s external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar tweeted after the meeting. “Exchanged perspectives on regional issues across the Indo-Pacific. Highlighted practical cooperation in different domains to give our agenda a concrete shape.”
Without mentioning China, the four leaders reaffirmed their stressed on the aspect of respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas and peaceful resolution of disputes. The reference to China in this is obvious. While Japan and India have long-standing territorial issues with the dragon, US has been involved in a protracted trade war with the country. Australia, which historically has had good relations with China--its largest trading partner, has also seen its relations sour dramatically last year in the post coronavirus period.
Timing of the meeting is important
More than the content of the meeting itself, the timing was important. It happened less than five months after the last meeting in Tokyo in October 2020--the first meeting had happened in September 2019, and within the first month of the Biden administration taking charge in the US. It lays to rest any notion of the US significantly altering its aggressive strategy adopted by the Trump administration, which may have weakened the resolve of the Quad. The US has already directly warned China over its actions in Ladakh, Taiwan and South China Sea in the last 12 months.
- S. Jaishankar, Indian Minister of External Affairs
"It is very much in keeping with times, and we will find increasingly in a multipolar world, and a more fractured world I would say, these ad hoc combinations of countries who will work together," Jaishankar had said in October last year after the ministerial meeting. “The rise of China is the big geo-political event of our lifetimes. The underlying idea is a consistent India. Independent India will express itself very differently and that is today in an example like Quad. Quad is not the only example where four countries have found it useful to consult on issues which are in the common interests."
Beyond the ministerial meetings, there are other clear signs of the strengthening of Quad. In October, Australia joined India, US and Japan in the Malabar naval exercises in Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean. The country had also participated in these exercises, which Beijing has repeatedly labelled as anti-China, back in 2007 but stayed away from it ever since under pressure from China. In the interim, Japan joined the exercises as a permanent partner in 2015. These exercises are a potent display of strength to China and Australia’s inclusion carried a strong message.
Distancing itself from BRICS
At the same time, India has gradually begun to distance itself from more seemingly “like-minded” groupings of emerging countries like BRICS, which also has China in their midst. In 2019, India was the only country that refused to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement (FTA) between the ASEAN’s 10 members and five of its six FTA partners China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. China, with whom India shares a debilitating trade deficit, was the main reason for it.
It has also taken a back seat at BRICS, focussing its attention instead on reinvigorating IBSA--a defunct grouping with South Africa and Brazil. Its presence in the Quad not only gives it a potent diplomatic tool against China but also as the only developing country in the group, another opportunity at strengthening relations with the bigger powers individually. It is like a seat at the high table.
For a country that likes to fluster others than getting flustered itself, the grouping of the four countries in the larger Asia pacific-region has always bothered Beijing. Its pressure tactic on Australia to prevent it from joining the Quad in the past is an example of it. Similarly, before the ministerial meeting of October 2020, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson had warned against forming exclusive cliques.
“China is a country that doesn’t get ruffled easily and even when it does, it doesnt like to show it to the world. But nothing quite rattles it like Quad,” says Harsh V Pant, director studies and head of strategic studies programme at Observer Research Foundation. “It will not like that the bond is only getting stronger.”
If anything, there were at least two clear outcomes of the third ministerial meeting--US reinforcing its position in the Quad and India steering away from its generic neutral position and making its presence felt in the group. The heat is being turned up on the dragon.