Updated: February 19, 2021 2:40:44 pm
SIGNALLING A closer alignment with other partners, India Thursday officially used the term “Quad” for the first time to describe its grouping with the US, Australia and Japan, which is increasingly being seen as a possible counterweight to China‘s aggressive moves in the region.
India’s reference to “Quad” came in its official statement after a video conference of the group’s Foreign Ministers where New Delhi underlined its “commitment to upholding a rules-based international order, underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas and peaceful resolution of disputes” — a line seen as a reference to China’s moves.
While the US and Australia have always termed the grouping as “Quad”, the Ministry of External Affairs had so far been reluctant to use the term, referring instead to such interactions as a “meeting of the four countries”.
In a statement that reflected the group’s concern over China, the MEA said that the Ministers highlighted their “shared attributes as political democracies, market economies and pluralistic societies”.
Thursday’s meeting was also significant because it was the first involving the new US administration under President Joe Biden and signalled continuity in its approach on dealing with an assertive China. It was attended by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marine Payne and Japan’s Toshimitsu Motegi.
Good news for India
With the Biden administration yet to complete even a month in office, the first Quad meeting reflects continuity in Washington’s approach towards China. For Delhi, it’s a reassuring signal amid the border standoff in eastern Ladakh, although disengagement has started at one of the flashpoints.
Hours before the meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, and said that he looked forward to “working together for peace, prosperity and security in the Indo-Pacific”.
The MEA said that their productive exchange of views on regional issues included a reiteration of their common vision for a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, with clear support for ASEAN cohesion and centrality”. “It was noted that the Indo-Pacific concept had gathered growing international support, including in Europe”, it said, referring to France, Germany and the UK.
“Noting that regular Quad consultations hold value, the Ministers agreed to continue these useful discussions,” MEA said while the US and Japan spoke about “annual” meetings.
The US, too, flagged a “free and open Indo-Pacific region, including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity” in a statement similar to Delhi’s but less elaborate.
“They reiterated their commitment to the Quad meeting at least annually at the Ministerial level and on a regular basis at senior and working levels to strengthen cooperation on advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
Japan’s Foreign Minister Motegi expressed “serious concern with regard to the China’s Coast Guard Law” and said that “the four Ministers concurred to strongly oppose unilateral and forceful attempts to change the status quo in the context of the East and South China Sea”.
But apart from thinly-veiled references to China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad Foreign Ministers also spoke about the situation in Myanmar.
While Jaishankar reiterated “upholding of rule of law and the democratic transition”, Blinken spoke about “the urgent need to restore the democratically elected government in Burma”, and Motegi “expressed grave concern for deteriorating situation” in Myanmar.
The Japanese Minister explained that Japan was “strongly urging the Myanmar military to immediately stop violence against citizens including shootings, release those who have been detained including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and swiftly restore Myanmar’s democratic political system”.
Besides, India said, the Ministers discussed ongoing efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, including vaccination programmes. It said that the group reiterated its commitment to cooperate in addressing this challenge, and enhancing access to affordable vaccines, medicines and medical equipment. “India’s efforts at providing vaccines to 74 countries was recognized and appreciated,” the MEA said.
India also said that the Ministers exchanged views on responding to climate change and furthering cooperation in areas such as maritime security, HADR, supply chain resilience and counter-terrorism. The US said that Ministers discussed countering disinformation as well, and the priority of strengthening democratic resilience in the broader region. And Japan said the four Ministers also exchanged views on regional issues such as North Korea.
After the meeting, Jaishankar tweeted: “Just concluded the Quad Foreign Ministerial Meeting with Australia, Japan and US. Our positive agenda underlines our shared commitment to global good. Discussed contemporary challenges, especially the impact of Covid19.”
“Exchanged perspectives on regional issues across the Indo-Pacific. Highlighted practical cooperation in different domains to give our agenda a concrete shape,” he said.
Blinken tweeted: “I had the pleasure to speak with my Quad counterparts. I look forward to deepening our cooperation on climate change and COVID-19, supporting ASEAN centrality, and advancing our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
This is the third meeting of Quad Foreign Ministers, after September 2019 and October 2020, since the mechanism at the level of officials was revived in 2017.
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