It is reported that the second Ministerial meeting of the four countries under the Quad will be held in Japan. Sadly, the person who conceived this idea, Shinzō Abe, has stepped down as the Prime Minister of Japan. Mr. Abe was a strategic thinker who thought beyond the limited timeframe of Japanese revolving-door politics. In 2007, the Quad (the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) was an idea whose time had not yet come. That was a different world.
The global financial crisis was still lurking in the shadows as America continued to enjoy its ‘unipolar moment’. The American establishment still believed that it could, somehow, persuade China to become a ‘responsible stake-holder’ and, in any case, required Chinese goodwill in dealing with America’s priorities — the nuclear issue with North Korea and Iran, and the War on Terror. Japan and Australia were riding the China Boom to prosperity. If India was ambivalent at the time, it was because this mirrored the uncertainties of others.
China’s shrill reaction to the idea of four like-minded countries establishing a plurilateral platform was, prima facie, intriguing. The idea was barely on the table; there was no clearly enunciated concept or proposed structures, much less joint understandings. The Chinese, however, labelled it as an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It became evident years later that the real reason for China’s hyperreaction was out of concern that such a grouping would “out” China’s plans for naval expansion by focusing on the Indo-Pacific maritime space. China was hoping that its naval build-up might slip under the radar because the Americans were distracted by continental challenges including Russia, Afghanistan and Iran, and would not look sea-ward.
Once the idea of Quad 1.0 had died down, China gained in confidence to reveal its hand. It advanced a new claim — the Nine-Dash Line — in the South China Sea; it undertook the rapid kind of warship building activity reminiscent of Wilhelmine Germany before 1914; it built its first overseas base in Djibouti; and it started systematically to explore the surface and sub-surface environment in the Indian Ocean beyond the Malacca Straits. This entire activity was coordinated by a Central Leading Small Group for Protecting Maritime Rights and Interests, established in 2012. The manner of China’s dismissal of the Arbitral Award in the dispute with the Philippines on the South China Sea and its brazen militarisation of the islands after its President had publicly pronounced to the contrary, has once again brought the four countries onto the same page and given a second chance to the Quad.
The Chinese are skilled at obfuscation. They will, perhaps, endeavour to conflate the Quad with the Indo-Pacific vision, and link both to the so-called China Containment Theory. The Quad nations need to better explain that the Indo-Pacific Vision is an overarching framework that is being discussed in a transparent manner, with the objective of advancing everyone’s economic and security interests. The Quad, on the other hand, is a plurilateral mechanism between countries that share interest on specific matters.
There are other such mechanisms in the region. In 2016, China itself established a Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan and, more recently earlier this year, another one with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal. The Quad is no exception.
This time around, the four countries are navigating through more turbulent waters. The global pandemic and the faltering global economy are taking a toll on the region’s growth and prosperity. The two major Pacific powers (China and America), are moving into a more adversarial phase of their relationship. Public opinion about China in all four countries is different from what it used to be in 2007. The fact of the meeting itself will signal to China that assertive or aggressive behaviour is not going to derail this mechanism. The forthcoming Ministerial meeting will be an opportunity to define the idea and chart a future path. Needless provocation of China should be avoided. There is no gain in actions that anger the Chinese with no commensurate benefit to the others.
In a recent address to the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) on August 31, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, spoke about making sure that all the countries were moving at the same speed. This is an important statement because a plurilateral mechanism should also serve national interest. He also suggested that other countries might be invited to join in the future. This too is welcome; India has many other partners in the Indo-Pacific.
A positive agenda built around collective action in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, monitoring shipping for search and rescue or anti-piracy operations, infrastructure assistance to climatically vulnerable states, connectivity initiatives and similar activities, will re-assure the littoral States that the Quad will be a factor for regional benefit, and a far cry from Chinese allegations that it is some sort of a military alliance.
Time to shift focus to the maritime sphere
An outreach to the Indian Ocean littoral states is especially important since there are motivated reports from some quarters suggesting that India is, somehow, seeking to deny access, or to create infrastructure that impedes the legitimate movement of some extra-regional countries through the Indian Ocean. Prime Minister Abe had presciently said in the Central Hall of the Parliament of India on August 22, 2007 (https://bit.ly/2HFYS45) - “A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form.” It is the right time to realise Mr. Abe’s dreams.
Vijay Gokhale is a former Foreign Secretary of India and a former Ambassador to Germany and to China
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