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Quad: Opportunities, challenges

Leaders of the four Quad nations are meeting in Tokyo today. A look at what's on their plate, from the war in Europe to dealing with China, and their cooperation on non-security initiatives such as tech and infra.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chennai |
Updated: May 24, 2022 3:47:17 pm
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden (left) and Japanese PM Fumio Kishida (centre) in Tokyo on Monday. (Reuters)

As the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping of Australia, Japan, India and the United States — also known as the Quad — meet in Tokyo Tuesday for their second in-person summit, after the last one in Washington in September 2021 (they had met once in a virtual summit in March 2021), here is a look at three major themes that present challenges and opportunities for the grouping.

Distraction of Europe

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken up the old world order, reshaping geopolitics across the world.

As the leader of the Western alliance against Russia, the US is now deeply engaged with the war. It has already committed $54 billion to the war effort. From February 24, the day of the invasion to now, the nature of US involvement has undergone a change, and so have its objectives. “We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign, independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said recently.

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The reinvigoration of Europe and NATO in the wake of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has made new demands on US attention and resources, prompting questions about American appetite to take on two rivals — Russia and China — at the same time, and how this might adversely impact US commitment to the Quad and the Indo-Pacific.

US President Joe Biden seemed to be responding to the sceptics with his reply to a question from a reporter in Tokyo who asked if the US would defend Taiwan militarily if it were attacked by China. “Yes,” he said, “that’s the commitment we made… We agree with a one-China policy. We`ve signed on to it and all the intended agreements made from there. But the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not, is just not appropriate.”

Those who fear that the Biden Administration may lose focus on China, the “real” threat to the US, have been making the case for Europe strategic autonomy and security self-reliance. But there is also a growing view that this is not an “either-or” choice for the US, and that what happens in Europe is not insulated from Asia or the Indo-Pacific.

The war in Ukraine also poses an internal challenge in the Quad. Three members — US, Japan and Australia — have taken an unequivocal stand against Russia’s aggression, while India’s position has been one of studied neutrality that calls for respect of territorial sovereignty and integrity and the UN charter, but does not criticise Russia. On Monday, India’s separateness on the issue was apparent in the the joint statement by Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, affirming that “the rules- based international order is indivisible; threats to international law and the free and fair economic order anywhere constitute a challenge to our values and interests everywhere… the greatest immediate challenge to this order is Russia’s brutal, unprovoked, and unjustified aggression against Ukraine”.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, left, U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are greeted by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, during his arrival to the Quad leaders summit at Kantei Palace, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The threat of China

While China does not find mention in any official statements of the Quad by name, the four nations are joined by the shared interest of creating a strategic balance of power in the region to protect their interests in the Indo-Pacific region from what they see as China’s subversion of the international order and a bid to establish its own set of rules. Every Quad statement has proxy references to China — in the repeated emphasis on a “rules based international order” and a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

But Beijing has not been shy of branding Quad as an “anti-China alliance”. On Sunday Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the US Indo-Pacific strategy “concocted… under the banner of ‘freedom and openness’” by Washington, which was “keen to gang up with ‘small circles’ and change China’s neighbourhood environment”.

In 2008, Australia pulled out of the Quad because it did not wish to antagonise China, with which it has deep economic ties, with membership of a group seen as a mechanism to counter China. But China’s militarisation, aggressive foreign policy and determined push on its territorial claims, from the Ladakh frontier with India to the seas in East Asia, had the effect of bringing the four together again in 2017, in what was called Quad 2.0. The pandemic, its controversial origins in China, and the resulting disruption of the global supply chain have also been instrumental in bringing the four closer.

However, each Quad member views the Chinese threat differently. For the US, it is about trade and Taiwan. For Australia too, trade was the biggest issue until the recent establishment of a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands brought a new dimension. Japan and India are closest to China, and both face belligerent Chinese claims to territory.

PM Narendra Modi speak at the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity launch event at the Izumi Garden Gallery, Monday, May 23, 2022, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

India is the only one with a long “hot” land border with China, full of contested territorial claims, and the only one to have been in a recent military encounter with the People’s Liberation Army, in eastern Ladakh. It also faces challenges from China’s inroads in its neighbours Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. While the Ladakh incursions were one reason for New Delhi to shed its earlier diffidence on Quad, it has hardly wished to provoke Beijing, whose “iron-clad” friendship with Pakistan has additionally brought home the threat of a two-front war.

How to deal with China thus remains the central question for Quad. The grouping has maintained it is not a security alliance, or an “Asian NATO” as some have termed it. In recent months however, the clamour has grown, including from India’s strategic community, for injecting a security component in the grouping. One of the arguments is that this is required to deter Beijing from following friend Putin’s example and pulling a Ukraine on Taiwan or elsewhere, although a case could be equally made that China, with an economy 10 times the size of Russia’s, would be more cautious.

Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, left, President Joe Biden and PM Narendra Modi pose for photos in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Non-security initiatives

Cutting-edge technology, pharmaceuticals and infrastructure have been described as “key battlegrounds” in the contest with China. The last Quad summit threw up an array of proposals intended to leverage the economic, scientific and technological capabilities of the four countries.

Covid vaccine manufacture; climate change initiatives, a Quad infrastructure group, cooperation in cyber-security, use of satellites for information sharing were all listed. An ambitious initiative involves critical technologies, with a working group focusing on technical standards, 5G diversification and deployment, and resilient technology supply chains.

However, over the last year, the procedural difficulties of pulling together on these initiatives have become apparent, and progress has been scant.

“In critical technology, the leaders are saying they want to co-operate so that the world becomes less dependent on China. With India pulling together in different directions from other Quad countries, for example on data management, I’m eager to see if they actually come up with an agreement on how to co-operate. I think it will take detailed work, but if the US and India agree on standards for information security, it would really change the trajectory of the debate. But the jury is out on what they will be able to do,” said Vikram J Singh, senior adviser of the Asia Centre at the United States institute of Peace.

The Biden Administration’s new trade policy, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Partnership, and launched in Tokyo on Monday, appears streamlined with these Quad initiatives. It aims to offer an alternative model to the China-dominated Trans Pacific Partnership, but how it can counter Chinese economic clout and rope in prospective partners without offering guarantees on market access remains to be seen, especially as each of the Quad partners have flourishing bilateral trade with China. Quad partners India, Japan and Australia have joined negotiations with the US to become IPEF partners. New Zealand and eight ASEAN countries have also joined the membership.

“The kickoff of the IPEF is better than many expected, with 1w countries joinig, including all the major allies and partners. It seems like it will be a lot of bilaterals under one umbrella, and in that sense, India, which is signing bilateral trade agreements these days, may find something of value,” said Singh. “The US and India have the same kinds of concerns about multilateral trade agreements as both seek to build domestic industry, including through some protectionist acts and by refusing to join large regional trade agreements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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