U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, India's Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, and Foreign Minister of Japan Yoshimasa Hayashi participate in the Quad foreign ministers' press conference in Melbourne, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (AP)
New Delhi: The foreign ministers of the United States, Australia, India and Japan met in Melbourne on Friday at a session of the four-nation Quad that included discussions on the Russia-Ukraine issue, Myanmar, the South and East China Sea as well as Covid-19 vaccine cooperation, after which US secretary of state Antony J. Blinken breathed fire against Russia on the Ukraine issue, warning it of "massive consequences" at a common media briefing of all four ministers. But interestingly, there was not a word on Ukraine in the Quad Joint Statement that was later released, sparking speculation on whether India had any role in blocking adverse references to Russia with which it has a time-tested friendship. While officials in New Delhi were tightlipped on the matter, foreign media reports too highlighted how external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s views on the Ukraine issue and Russian actions were "divergent" at the Quad meeting from that of his other three counterparts, especially Mr Blinken and Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, who also openly warned Russia against aggression on Ukraine. Both Australia and Japan -- represented by its foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi -- are long-time allies of the US. It was also announced that Japan would host the next Quad Leaders’ Summit (to be attended by the top leadership) by June this year.
In response to a media query at another event, when all four ministers called on Australian PM Scott Morrison, on what India’s views on the Russian actions were and whether it thought Moscow had behaved appropriately, Mr Jaishankar was quoted by the US state department as saying: "This meeting (of the Quad foreign ministers) is focused on the Indo-Pacific, so I think you should figure out the geography there. And where we stand, our position on Ukraine, we have laid it out in public at the UN Security Council." The comment was seen as a clear reluctance on the part of India to get involved in anything critical of Russia.
At the joint media briefing in Melbourne soon after the Quad meeting, Mr Jaishankar made it clear that the Quad was "for something and not against anyone". He added that India "does not follow a policy of national sanctions" against anyone, a statement seen as significant not only in the context of Myanmar but also in the wake of the West openly threatening sanctions on Russia if it invaded Ukraine. Mr Jaishankar chose among other issues to flag New Delhi’s concerns on the movement of insurgents in the India-Myanmar border areas, where an Indian Army officer and his family had been killed in an ambush a few months ago, as the Quad expressed grave concern on the developments in Myanmar in the past year after the military junta there had seized power. To India’s satisfaction, the Quad joint statement condemned terrorism, including cross-border attacks and terror attacks in India including the Mumbai 26/11 attack in 2008 and the Pathankot terror attacks. Mr Jaishankar also had a separate bilateral meeting with Mr Blinken.
While there was no direct reference to China, the Quad joint statement mentioned "challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China Seas", which is being seen as a veiled reference to Beijing’s increased economic and military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. The Australian foreign minister said the Quad discussed maritime security support to "Indo-Pacific partners" to maintain freedom of navigation and also safeguard against illegal fishing. With Japan expressing serious concern over unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas -- seen as a thinly-veiled indication towards China -- the situation in the Taiwan Straits was also discussed at the meeting.
Covid-19 vaccine cooperation was also discussed in detail at the meeting including the pledge to donate more than 1.3 billion vaccine doses globally and the vaccine production at the Biological E Ltd facility in Hyderabad, India, of at least one billion vaccines by the end of this year, with the delivery of the first batch of Quad-supported vaccines expected by June. A meeting will also be held on Monday, perhaps at the officials’ level, to work out a Covid Action Plan.
At the common media briefing, Mr Blinken claimed that the "Quad principles have been threatened by Russia’s actions towards Ukraine", further warning Moscow of "massive consequences" if it chose to invade Ukraine. He said the US has a "dual-track approach" of both diplomacy and deterrence, adding that it was addressing issues of both Russian concerns and well as those of America and European nations. Noting that Russia had massed troops on its border with Ukraine, Mr Blinken said one country cannot change the borders of another through force.
Speaking on Myanmar at the briefing, Mr Jaishankar said: "Well, I think we are all agreed on the importance of the democratic transition which was underway in Myanmar. And clearly, the fact that the country has moved in a different direction is something which troubles all of us. We all, I think, also very strongly back the ASEAN position on Myanmar and their efforts to engage. But we are concerned… India is concerned as an immediate land border neighbour. We have some very specific concerns on Myanmar which also guides our thinking, concerns about insurgents operating there who some months ago killed a very senior military officer and his family; concerns about the Covid and the lack of vaccination on our common border; concerns about a humanitarian situation which is arising from food shortages. So, I think those are also concerns which we take into account, and where we are concerned, we don’t follow a policy of national sanctions." He added: "Well, I would just add that as my colleagues have observed, we are for something, not against somebody."