The first-ever leadership level summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – or the ‘Quad’, as it is popularly known – may have taken place virtually, but it nevertheless sends a clear and unambiguous message to China on the grounds that its increasing expansionism and belligerence, particularly in Asia, will not be tolerated and that the four powers that make up the Quad – Australia, Japan, India and the United States – are willing to act in a coordinated manner to take on China’s hegemonistic ambitions.
Ironically, since its inception in 2007, the Quad has, in its official statements at least, been careful in refraining from directly mentioning China. Nevertheless, the core reason for its creation was clear from Day 1. China posed the single biggest threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and it was up to the other leading democratic, economic and military powers of the region to come together to tackle it.
The Quad has hitherto remained largely an informal security dialogue, with barely a couple of ministerial dialogues over the past decade-and-a-half. Indeed, there was a stage when both India and Japan had put the Quad on the backburner, in the face of strident opposition from China, and, in India’s case, its now collapsed bid to build bridges with President Xi’s China. Now, the current top-level summit, coming as it does on the back of three critical regional and global developments, underscores the end of the ‘China hesitancy’ factor.
The first development, of course, is India’s still partly ongoing military face-off with China in Galwan. China’s action in pushing across the LAC and attempt to escalate the military confrontation, sent a message to every potential rival of China that the Asian superpower was willing to go to battle to establish its dominance.
The second global development was the election of Joe Biden as US President. While his predecessor Donald Trump was perhaps more stridently anti-China, Biden has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he prefers a multilateral approach and places a premium on alliances and partnerships over unilateral action. The fact that the Quad summit will be Biden’s first multi-lateral engagement after assuming office underscores just how much importance his administration is attaching to this grouping.
The third development, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s as yet unclear role in the outbreak, and the need to build a coherent and global response to both the disease and the economic chaos unleashed by it.
All members of the Quad have reasons to be concerned with China’s behaviour. China has hit Australia with sanctions and has been making increasingly strident inroads into the southern Indian Ocean and southern Pacific regions, which Australia considers to be its primary sphere of influence. Australia’s participation last year in the Malabar Exercise, an annual joint naval exercise involving India, the US and Japan, has further irked China and strengthened its threat perception of the Quad.
Japanese Premier Yoshihide Suga, in a telephonic meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has raised concerns over China’s new coastguard law, which basically empowers the Chinese coast guard to open fire on any ships it perceives as a threat in waters claimed by China. With large parts of the East and South China seas the scene of escalating conflicts with China’s neighbours who are contesting its claim over their waters, and with China making inroads in the Andaman Sea as well, the new law threatens to be a powder keg which can set off a major conflagration.
And the US, of course, has realised all too clearly that China poses the biggest threat to its status as the world’s superpower. Further, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fault lines in global supply chains, and exposed the dependence of the world’s economies, the US and EU in particular – on Chinese supply lines.
More than anything else, this has prompted the US to search for more holistic solutions to the threat posed by China. India too, needs to look beyond purely strategic and military reasons to building a wider ranging partnership with friendly nations encompassing, trade, technology and defence. It also has to come to terms with the fact that its chosen diplomatic stance of the past – that of careful neutrality – may no longer serve its interest in an increasingly bipolar world.
Whether the Quad is the answer remains to be seen, since China is not without influence in the SAARC region, which India considers its bailiwick, and a closer perceived alignment with the US may make some of its smaller neighbours, who also have to live with China in their backyards, nervous.
Then there is Russia, which is wary of what it sees as US expansionism in Asia. Indo-Russian ties have already been under some strain, with India reducing arms purchases from Russia. India will need to walk the tightrope and balance these various pulls and pressures as it negotiates a broader alliance to stem China’s menacing rise.