Updated: March 15, 2021 8:39:49 am
In widening the forum’s focus away from military security and towards the provision of public goods in the vast Indo-Pacific littoral, the first summit of the Quadrilateral Dialogue involving India, Australia, Japan and the United States has improved its own long-term political prospects. Since the first steps towards the Quad’s construction in 2007, China has sought to define the regional discourse by describing the forum as the “Asian NATO” and the harbinger of a “new Cold War”. The conflation of the Quad with the annual Malabar naval exercises that India conducts with the US and Japan (Australia was invited to join last year) added to the image of the Quad as a military formation and generated much unease across the Indo-Pacific.
The leaders of the four nations, meeting digitally last Friday, were wise to make it clear that the Quad is neither a military alliance nor an anti-China coalition. They also insisted that the Quad is an inclusive forum. The four leaders declared that the Quad is a “flexible group of like-minded partners dedicated to advancing a common vision and to ensuring peace and prosperity”. The challenges posed by the pandemic presented a perfect setting for the Quad nations to demonstrate their commitment to the broader agenda that is in tune with the urgent requirements of the region. The decision to pool their resources — American technology, Japanese finance, Indian production capacity and Australia’s logistics capability — and produce a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine for distribution in the Indo-Pacific helps the four countries develop a new narrative for the Quad. The summit set up a working group on the vaccine partnership that will report on the progress to the four leaders when they meet in-person before the end of the year. So will the two other working groups announced by the summit — one on critical technologies and the other on climate change.
This broad-based practical agenda of the Quad also counters a second Chinese narrative on the forum. When it was not demonising the Quad as “Asian Nato”, the Chinese leadership dismissed it as transient “sea-foam”. The repurposing of the Quad to deal with shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific ensures the forum’s political sustainability over the longer term. It has taken quite a while for the Quad to arrive at this balanced framework; but the summit has gotten it just right. As the Quad finds a new credibility, China might be unwise to continue with its dual policy of condemnation and condescension. All four capitals — Delhi, Canberra, Tokyo and Washington — have huge stakes in a productive, peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with China that has risen to become the world’s second largest economic and military power. It is up to Beijing now to rethink its current aggressive policies and seek cooperative relations with its Asian neighbours and the US. But if China continues to pursue hegemony, the Quad is bound to become an inevitable balancing force.