Friday, March 12, 2021, marked an important day in the geopolitics of Asia with the leaders of the countries in the ‘QUAD’ meeting for the first time albeit virtually. This meeting ended with the first-ever joint statement, titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’. Interestingly, the leaders penned an op-ed in The Washington Post, a skimmed version of the joint statement. The statement also said that the leaders will meet in person ‘before the end of 2021’.
Quad or QSD stands for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It is an inter-governmental security forum between the USA, Japan, Australia, and India.
The idea of establishing a joint forum came up in 2004 in the wake of the major Tsunami that hit South and Southeast Asia badly. Initially, an ad hoc Tsunami core group was established to provide assistance and co-operate in the relief measures.
In 2007, the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initiated talks with then Australian Prime Minister John Howard, former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to establish a joint forum to co-operate and tackle the issues like growing Chinese influence in the region. The inaugural meet was held in Manila in May 2007. It was accompanied by a joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007.
In 2008, former PM Manmohan Singh travelled to China and had several meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao. He distanced India from any such mechanism to ‘contain China effort’. The Quad went into what can be called hibernation.
In 2017, with the rise of Chinese hostility especially in the Indo-Pacific region or what China calls ‘South China sea’, an effort was made by Shinzo Abe to revive the forum. Following that, in 2018, Navy chiefs of the four countries met in New Delhi at the Raisina Dialogue. This marked the era of the reboot of the forum. Since then, three ministerial meetings have been concluded, in New York (September 2018), Tokyo (October 2020), and Virtually (February 2021). Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar represented India in all three meetings.
The first-ever summit meeting took place on March 12, 2021, virtually. The idea of the meet was initiated by the new POTUS Joe Biden. That the meeting has taken place in the first fifty days of his presidency, itself indicates the authority that the forum now carries in the American foreign policy. The meet intriguingly was conducted just before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s four-day visit to South Korea and Japan. Also, Antony Blinken along with his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska later this week.
The leaders released a joint statement for the first time in the history of the forum, which needs to be paid more attention to.
The first reason for that is the absence of the word: ‘China’. The statement as well as the op-ed eludes calling out China directly. The document doesn’t mention China at all, not even once. Instead, more subtle hints have been dropped. Such as, in the Indo-Pacific region the leaders want ‘peaceful resolution of disputes and that all countries can make their own political choices, free from coercion. In recent years, that vision has increasingly been tested.’ The tussle between Japan and China related to the Senkaku Islands in recent years is no news. Neither is the coercion by China towards smaller countries like Indonesia.
The second reason is the focus on Climate Change and to ‘strengthen the Paris Agreement’. Former POTUS Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement pointing fingers at the Asian countries especially China and India for carbon emissions. The return of the US is a positive step to fight the global menace of climate change.
The third reason, perhaps the most important one for India right now, is that the leaders pledged to ‘expand and accelerate production in India of safe, accessible and effective vaccines’. This will be financed by the USA and Japan, and Australia will provide logistical support. This provides India with a great opportunity to further expand its already large footprint in the production of global pharmaceutical products. A Quad Vaccine Experts Working Group has been proposed to be set up to help the Indo-Pacific and African region in getting vaccinated at the earliest.
The relatively soft statement also counters the claims that Quad is the ‘Asian NATO’.
Understandably, the meet has caused some uneasiness in the Chinese government. It released a sharp statement just after the summit calling India ‘a negative asset of BRICS and SCO’. More recently, China released a harsher statement saying that small cliques will destroy global order. This undoubtedly shows its apprehensions towards the Quad and the trips of American diplomats to Asia. American Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit India from March 19 to March 21, 2021.
With the meet, the forum has given India, an opportunity to establish itself as a global leader in the post-COVID vaccination efforts and to boost its diplomatic relations with the four ‘like-minded’ countries. Although whether the vision materializes or not, remains to be seen.