The resurgence of the Quad in recent years[i] has reflected the larger quest of regional geopolitics that its members seek in the Indo-Pacific region: restoring the balance of power through resilient partnerships. The most compulsive dimension of the dynamic of powerplay within the Quad is a set of countries coming together to rebalance China’s asymmetric rise in the Indo-Pacific. However, this presumably obvious agenda has been garbed in the group members’ admission[ii] that the Quad is not directed against any one country, insinuating that nation states have right to form partnerships, friendships, alliances and indulge in a fair play of competitiveness. Yet, China remains the most assured benchmark against which the Quad’s effectiveness is measured. As such, stark positions on issues against China within the Quad has remained a strong variable for assessing each member countries’ commitment to the Quad and its agenda. Within this metric, the US has led by its strongly antagonistic steps and stance against China, while India has sometimes been portrayed as the Quad’s weakest link.[iii] These assessments, however, may be changing in the wake of gradually shifting stance of the Quad countries, particularly through sharper positions of member countries vis-à-vis China since the pandemic began. China's growing great power competitiveness[iv], its narrowing power gap with the US, increasing hostility with Australia[v], persistent threat perception from Japan[vi], an ongoing border clash with India[vii] and unanimous global calls for fixing accountability for the spread of the coronavirus have collectively sharpened the urgency for the Quad’s goals and broadened the spectrum of the group’s agendas. If anything, the Quad has only strengthened since the pandemic began.
The Quad’s evolution over the years has translated into addition of further nuance to the most apparent purpose of the Quad, to balance China. Most of the growing channels of intra-member sub-groupings in the form of various bilateral and trilateral mechanisms within the Quad have further consolidated partnerships between the Quad members. Apart from the bilateral meetings within the Quad, the group’s strong trilateral mechanisms such as the India-Japan-US; Japan-Australia-India; US-Japan-Australia infrastructure trilateral; etc. have provided strong groundings for strengthening and expanding the Quad consensus. For instance, there is an effort to create space for other like-minded partners outside the Quad to be associated with the group’s agenda. When the foreign ministers of India, France and Australia held their first ever trilateral in London[viii], it signalled an effort to broaden the democratic consensus of the Quad outside the group. Furthermore, the cooperative needs created by the raging COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020, in the areas of raw material, critical equipment, scientific collaborations leading to vaccine manufacturing and diplomatic cooperation between countries to restore mobility of people between countries, have necessitated that assured and predictable channels of diplomatic, political and trade interdependence be kept strong. It is in these areas that the Quad countries have depicted intra-group solidarity, resilience and improved commitment, particularly during the pandemic. Led by the US, the Quad members have shown a renewed vigour to increase intra-group cooperative activities during the pandemic, even as the spectrum of cooperation between the Quad members is perhaps at its widest. Assessments have also led to the belief that the Quad may have found a ‘mission’ during the pandemic.[ix]
The Quad is now central to all the four members of the group and their regional policies in the Indo-Pacific. More importantly, the early engagement of the Quad countries by the Biden administration suggests that the Quad is a central part of the US’ Asia policy. With the ongoing troop pull-out from Afghanistan, the US has strategic reasons to divert focus to its Indo-Pacific policy to tackle China more effectively, as well as to complement other Quad members’ interests in the region. The Biden administration’s willingness to continue momentum from his predecessor on US’ Indo-Pacific policy also signals the importance of the Indo-Pacific for the US from a grand strategy perspective.
For other members of the Quad too, the group has assumed increased significance. During the pandemic, one broad and common trend that has emerged in the Quad members’ relations with China has been deterioration of ties with Beijing. Australia’s complicated relations with China, which has sharply declined in recent years, particularly since 2017, has only worsened since the pandemic began, with retaliatory steps from both sides.[x] In 2018, Australia blocked Chinese company Huawei from its 5G network. More recently, a series of steps between the two countries culminated in the suspension of all activities under the framework called the ‘China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue’.[xi] Since the pandemic began, Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus, pointing to China, has resulted in trade sanctions from China on Australian exports such as wine, coal and barley.[xii] Japan had to postpone the much anticipated visit of Xi Jinping to the country in April 2020.[xiii] China and Japan have witnessed a rocky relationship historically, but particularly so since 2008 with China upping the ante in the South and East China Seas. The tension between China and Japan continues over the Senkaku Islands, with China entering Japanese controlled waters for the 20th time this year.[xiv] The disruptions caused by the pandemic in trade and supply lines of Japan, affecting its global supplies led the country to chalk out a ¥23.5 billion plan to shift production to third countries outside China.[xv]
For India, the supposed weakest link of the Quad, the period since March 2020 when the pandemic forced a nation-wide lockdown almost coincided with Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh near the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Despite the tension at the LAC, India refrained from pointing fingers at China regarding accountability for the virus spread. However, fatal clashes between the troops of both countries on June 15-16, 2020 pushed India over the cliff in so far as reservations against stirring China’s ire were concerned. A series of gradual steps that India was already taking to strengthen the Quad, for instance, raising the level of Quad meetings to the Ministerial level and approving Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar exercises, were further reinforced with the elevation of the Quad’s meeting to the heads of state level. Furthermore, India’s stand vis-à-vis China hardened bilaterally with the assertion that developments at the border has to be perceived in the context of the larger bilateral compact between the two countries. India continues to assert that peace at the border has to precede normalisation of ties between the two countries. Some of India’s steps taken domestically during the pandemic also signalled a desire to gradually decrease India’s trade and supply chain reliance on China. The changes brought in India’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) rules in March 2020 as well as its efforts with other partners of the Quad to diversify supply chains were hastened, if not ushered, by China’s continued aggressive posture at the LAC.
India’s growing partnership with the US has also been assessed in consonance with a not so harmonious relationship with China. The bilateral relationship between the US and India was further reinforced during the pandemic, even as dealing with the challenges and necessities created by the pandemic became a joint priority. These efforts were buttressed by the Biden administration’s primacy given to the Quad and its embrace of its members early on in his administration by participating in the first heads of state meet. The first heads of the state meeting under the Quad affirmed President Biden’s seriousness towards the Indo-Pacific and by inference the US’ Asia policy (read China strategy).
First Quad Leaders’ Summit
One of the most important steps in the history of the Quad has been its elevation to the leader-level summit earlier this year. The four leaders of the Quad met virtually for the first time on 12 March 2021 where the heads of the state from the four-member countries were present together in the forum for the first time. The summit was proposed by US in the first week of President Biden coming to power. The step to convene a meeting at the topmost level not just imparted seriousness to the US’ Indo-Pacific resolve but also sought to consolidate partnerships within the Quad.
Among important steps, the group of like-minded democracies discussed the impact of COVID-19 and pledged to manufacture and deliver 1 billion vaccines by 2022 to the Asia-Pacific nations. According to the agreed roadmap of the division of labour, funding for this ambitious project, production and distribution will be divided between the four members. The four leaders also discussed their “shared challenges” across the Indo-Pacific expanse in areas such as the maritime domain, cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief. Besides, the Quad members also underscored partnerships in strengthening democratic alliance, climate-change, and cyber security. Perhaps most importantly, the leaders came out with a Joint Statement called, “The Spirit of Quad” outlining some of the key responsibilities and areas of focus that all four members committed to. Interestingly, apart from collaboration in ensuring a rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas, the ‘Spirit of Quad’ points to an array of expanding mandates including tackling challenges of the pandemic, climate change, as well as the Quad’s commitment towards denuclearisation of North Korea. In this regard, three key policy partnership initiatives of the Quad were announced during the leaders’ summit on vaccine partnerships, climate working group and a working group on critical and emerging technology. Each of these groups have emphasised their priorities in the near term to strengthen cooperation on specific issues. The stated purpose of these groups is to strengthen the Quad’s overall efficiency in coordination across an expanding spectrum of issues.
The Road Ahead
These renewed efforts are in the direction of making the Quad central to the matters of the Indo-Pacific. The steps taken by Quad members during the pandemic have further consolidated the Quad’s purpose. However, the actual strength of the Quad lies in its flexibility. Even as the group’s agendas grow, there is a growing possibility of more outside members working with the core group of the four Quad countries through mechanisms like the Quad Plus and growing consensus on ASEAN Centrality. The initial hesitation of its members apropos China is also dwindling. In India’s case, the border conflict with China since 2020 is being seen as turning point for its waning cautiousness vis-à-vis China. As such, the Quad’s promise about ensuring a rules-based order is pivoted around building a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region and limiting China’s influence over the long term. The Quad is buttressed by the rise of a Middle Power consensus including European partners such as France, UK and Pacific countries like South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam. Even as it evolves, the Quad seeks to be a group of multi-aligned countries in quest of Quad-led values across the greater Indo-Pacific from the east African coast to the Far East.
The evolution in strategic conception of the Quad is very much part of the grouping’s overall increasing strategic significance. For a long time, the Quad has been conceptualised as a group with objectives primarily in the maritime domain. However, that might be up for a change, as the Quad has been witnessing a gradual change in its agendas and exploration of partnership expansion beyond the core group of four countries with engagement of other partners through the ‘Quad Plus’ mechanism. Perhaps, the expansion of Quad’s agenda to include continental issues more persuasively may be a new beginning.
Dr. Vivek Mishra, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
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[ii]April 29, 2021. URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/33828/Remarks_by_Shri_V_Muraleedharan_Minister_of_State_for_External_Affairs_at_International_Workshop_on_Quad_in_the_IndoPacific (Accessed July 09, 2021).
[iii]Grossman, D (2018). “India Is the Weakest Link in the Quad”. Foreign Policy. July 23. URL: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/23/india-is-the-weakest-link-in-the-quad/ (Accessed June 27, 2021).
[iv]Jones, B (2020). “China and the Return of Great Power Strategic Competition”. Brookings Institution. February. URL: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/FP_202002_china_power_competition_jones.pdf (Accessed June 27, 2020).
[vi]Oren, E. & Brummer, M (2020). “How Japan Talks About Security Threats”. The Diplomat. August 14. URL: https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/how-japan-talks-about-security-threats/ (Accessed June 27, 2021).
[vii]Chan, M (2021). “China-India border row: a year after Galwan clash mistrust clouds peace prospects”. South China Morning Post.June 20. URL: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3138054/china-india-border-row-year-after-galwan-clash-and-mistrust (Accessed June 27, 2021).
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[xix]Kegelman, M (2020). “The U.S.-India Relationship Has a New Top Priority”. Foreign Policy. May 27. URL: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/05/27/india-us-relationship-priority-covid-jaishankar-visit/ (Accessed June 27, 2021).
[xx]“. March 09, 2021. URL: https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/33601/First+Quad+Leaders+Virtual+Summit (Accessed June 27, 2021).
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