President Joe Biden’s decision to hold the first-ever “leaders’ summit” of the Quadrilateral, or “Quad”, hosted “virtually” with the Prime Ministers of India, Japan and Australia, early in his tenure on March 12, days before his secretary of state Antony Blinken visits Japan, South Korea and China, sent a clear and unmistakable message to Beijing. Mr Biden wanted the group, with a nebulous agenda so far, to get more focused on meeting a number of contemporary challenges, many emanating from China.
The Quad has a chequered history, shaped by political developments in each country, amid unsettled debate in each nation on whether China was best managed through engagement or containment or a subtle mix of the two. The group was born in May 2007, on the sidelines of an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in the Philippines. The then leaders of the four nations favoured closer engagement between the major democracies of the Indo-Pacific. Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe was a strong proponent; Australia had a right-wing Liberal Party government and US President George W. Bush was in the penultimate year of his second term. It was only in India that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faced resistance from the Communists, who were giving “outside support” to the ruling UPA.
Thus, the preponderance of opinion favoured a low-profile meeting at the additional or assistant secretary level. I had the privilege to represent India at that historic meeting, which built on a rudimentary engagement between the four nations for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief during the deadly 2004 tsunami. China immediately understood that the criteria for membership being a democracy, it stood excluded, if not targeted. It made strong demarches in all the capitals opposing it.
But the favourable domestic factors altered when Prime Minister Abe lost power in September 2007 and the Labour Party won in Australia in the following December. New Australian PM Kevin Rudd, former diplomat and Sinologist, chose engagement with China over light containment or regional balancing. Chinese assertiveness is generally traced to the 2008 financial crisis which rattled the Western financial markets. China saw itself as the bulwark that stabilised the global economy. The Chinese leadership began its power grab in a world in which the United States seemed weakened and distracted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, it took another decade before the four nations again had their domestic politics align in the hands of right-wing parties. Prime Minister Narendra Modi won power in May 2014, President Donald Trump took charge in January 2017, Liberals trounced the Labour Party in Australia in 2013 and Mr Abe was back in the office in Tokyo in 2012, to rule till 2020. The scenario was thus ripe and the Quad reincarnated in 2017. It matured gradually with meetings elevated to the ministerial level, including one hosted by Japan in person in 2020 despite the pandemic. Moreover, the China problem became clear after four years of Trumpian trade sanctions and fist-waving. Despite Chinese responsibility in letting the Covid-19 virus spread abroad, it was silent in the crucial initial phase, and after its quick economic rebound turned more aggressively to gain strategic advantage. Both its maritime ambitions and its continental territorial claims, such as the Ladakh intrusions into Indian territory in mid-2020, were pursued ruthlessly.
All that remained to be seen, before the Quad could be rallied to reach the next level, was the China policy of President Joe Biden. He showed early that with decades of experience as a senator and later as vice-president, he was for continuity with smarter calibration. The Quad leaders’ summit last week displays this new China policy. The US realises the European powers are unwilling to rock the Chinese boat as they are dependent on the Chinese market, especially the Germans and French. The British, having detached from the European Union, have little leverage to rouse their erstwhile partners and risk Chinese ire by taking up its clear violations of the Hong Kong handover agreement, contemptuously abandoning treaty obligations.
The Quad leaders delivered their statements and then interacted. The joint statement, poetically titled “The Spirit of Quad”, spells out the immediate agenda in five paras. It opens by stating two nostrums: the desirability of “free and open Indo-Pacific”; and the region “anchored by democratic values”. The first addresses the core anxiety of most ASEAN nations on whose maritime space China has unilaterally encroached. The second was always the raison d’etre for the Quad, including at its birth in 2007. Both send a powerful signal to the region as indeed China that, unlike President Trump who used rough instruments like trade sanctions, Mr Biden will use an eclectic mix of moves to corral and undercut China.
Three working groups are to cover vaccinations, which posits the Quad as the saviour of the region from what Mr Trump called “China flu”, climate change and critical technologies. It is realised that developed nations can’t or will not decouple from China by cutting off all trade. The strategy now is to undermine what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls “dual circulation”, a version of self-dependence on itself for markets and critical technologies.
China controls over 58 per cent of the global supply of rare earths like neodymium and lithium, needed for batteries of electric vehicles or wind turbines for clean power generation. Four years ago, China controlled 90 per cent of that supply. On February 24, Mr Biden issued an executive order for a 100-day review of critical product supply chains. China continues to be critically dependent on imported advanced chips.
Therefore, in para 3 of the joint statement, the common goals and global challenges adumbrated are: economic and health impacts of Covid-19, climate change, cyberspace, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure development and disaster relief. The need for a Quad plan for infrastructure development is a recognition that China has managed to embed its influence all across Eurasia by its Belt and Road Initiative, which need to be countered. India’s prowess in vaccine manufacturing has been recognised and financing and knowhow promised to multiply India’s vaccine exports.
But as soft power is at the root of the Quad, even Mr Modi conceded that the Quad members were “united by democratic values”. President Biden echoed that strongly. Will the BJP government finally realise, as foreign parliaments debate whether democracy is degrading in India, that denial and anger is not the answer. Nor is an agitated media counterattack or new laws to control independent news platforms. Self-correction is the answer. Otherwise, the Quad will merely be a limping Triad-plus....