The foreign ministers of Australia, India, Japan and the United States met in Tokyo on October 6-7, a second time at the ministerial level, in a group that was christened the “Quad”, or Quadrilateral, at the first meeting in 2007 at the additional secretary level.
Then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the driving force behind that meeting, held on the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) sidelines in mid-2007. He fell months later and his successor Yasuo Fukuda, wishing to engage China, lost interest in the Quad. In December 2007, the Liberal Party lost power in Australia, ushering in Labour PM Kevin Rudd, an acknowledged Chinese-speaking Sinophile.
US President George W. Bush, embroiled in stabilising Iraq and with one year of his presidency remaining, saw China as critical to handling the nuclear and missile proliferation of North Korea. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had in any case been a reluctant participant, as Sino-Indian relations were still in the phase of growing economic engagement, while maintaining peace and stability at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Thus, the Quad went into hibernation.
Its revival over a decade later reflects the changed geopolitical context. Abe was again Prime Minister and moving Japan away from its pacifist postwar constitution. India under Narendra Modi and the United States under Donald Trump now had populist-nationalist leaders. Australia was again under Liberal Party rule.
Moreover, China under President Xi Jinping was brazenly asserting real and imaginary claims on the seas and land, impinging on the sovereignty of neighbours. Despite the 2016 ruling against its claims by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in a case brought by the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas, China proceeded to occupy, militarise and declare its artificially created islands as its territory with vast economic zones.
China was now a revisionist power, scoffing at the rules-based global order and willing to use the threat of force to unilaterally enforce its claims.
Concomitantly, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013 as a benign infrastructure and connectivity project, began to be seen darkly as an instrument for debt traps and neo-colonisation. Meanwhile, chants grew in the developed world, starting with the US, that globalisation had become a Chinese weapon to de-industrialise Western manufacturing powerhouses.
Of course, the European criticism was more calibrated as countries like Germany had a huge market in China. But President Trump made China the main whipping boy in his populist harangue on America’s economic woes.
The Covid-19 pandemic, that spread from Wuhan in China, exacerbated the perception that China was not just a competitor but a strategic rival upending the rules-based post-World War II order. Thus, the Quad was no longer a projection of Abe’s vanity. It was a timely means to rally democratic, liberal nations in the Indo-Pacific to create a network to balance, or even contain, China’s disorderly rise.
This week’s Quad meeting was timely also because Japan had a change of leadership, with the ailing Abe passing the baton to his confidant Yoshihide Suga, who spoke to the leaders of Australia, India and the US before engaging Chinese President Xi Jinping, signalling continuity in the Japanese commitment to the Quad. Chinese foreign minister and state councillor Wang Yi, a former ambassador to Japan, will visit Tokyo later this month.
Xi’s postponed visit to Japan is still up in the air. China may be belatedly realising the dangers of the revived Quad and thus may be trying to neutralise Japan. China should worry over Japan’s $2.27 billion outlay to enable Japanese businesses in China to shift to the homeland or elsewhere. Japan is also critical to the finalisation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), consisting of the 10 Asean nations and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
India has resisted joining that without adequate protection for its domestic industry. With the Sino-Indian confrontation in Ladakh and Chinese intrusions into contested or India-controlled areas, economic and trade issues are now intertwined with the strategic and military ones. The Quad reflects this reality.
There may have been no joint statement but tweets by participants revealed what was discussed. Other than the US, no one else named China, even though China was at the heart of the meeting. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo felt “the Quad shares a vision for peace, security and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar sought “respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes”. All the four ministers supported what is coined as “FOIP”, or Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
More than a group statement, their views were reflected in the bilateral meetings and earlier understandings. For instance, the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative (RSCI), driven by the post-Covid conflation of need to de-couple from China and diversify and secure supply chains for pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, telecommunications and automobiles etc.
Chinese aggressiveness with neighbours, military confrontation with India, forcible occupation of Hong Kong and the threat to invade Taiwan have perforce added a security dimension to trade and economic issues.
Pompeo correctly berated the Chinese Communist Party’s “exploitation, coercion and corruption in the South and East China Seas, the Mekong, the Himalayas and the Taiwan Straits”.
Is the Quad the rough framework of a military alliance, being dubbed as an “Asian Nato”? Can it grow into Quad Plus with the addition of democracies across the region?
Finally, what impact will the US presidential election have on the Quad’s role. While the other three are already allies, India, even under the incumbent government which belittles nonalignment, would not like to be ensnared in a US-led alliance to counter China.
A strategic convergence with specific areas for common action provides more room for manoeuvre. That will also make it easier to lure new entrants. For instance, South Korea avoids openly confronting China as does the Philippines and other Asean members. A non-formal framework of engagement, including military interoperability, may draw Vietnam and the Philippines.
A Joe Biden administration may rebalance relations with China, relaxing trade sanctions in exchange for climate change cooperation. But the overall US distrust of China will persist. Under enlightened American leadership, the Quad can counter China across multiple domains ranging from technology to trade to defence.
The Quad remains a great concept. China fears, above all, the soft power of liberal democracies. But the Quad members must note that majoritarianism at home and liberalism abroad would significantly undercut its success....