At a time of revised and limited multilateralism, the growing significance of a four-nation informal forum has engaged the interest of international politics observers. Last week of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as Quad.
It was important for continuing a different stream of momentum in the geopolitics of the region. India, US, Japan and Australia – with India represented by external affairs minister S Jaishankar while US was represented by secretary of state Antony J Blinken – reaffirmed a process that’s meant to act as an antidote to Chinese designs of a new normal in trading, maritime and security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region.
While China has anxieties about such a group eventually working as the Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, its immediate concerns were about the focus on maritime space putting brakes on its naval expansion plans. As India’s former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale last year, China had hoped that US distracted with West Asia, Russia, and Afghanistan, might not address the Indo-Pacific as an immediate priority. At the same time, the US assessment of the Chinese hegemonic moves in the South China sea, and posturing in the East China Sea, prodded Washington to rejuvenate the Quad. While India’s apprehensions about China’s string of pearls encirclement strategy weren’t new, it took time for India to see Quad as a long-time strategic front and not short-term tactical pressure forum in the face of its border tensions with China last year.
The shedding of historical hesitations by not only India, as an editorial comment in the noted, but also Australia, has been the real driver of the new impetus that Quad has acquired over the last four years. After former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the initiative of stitching Quad as an informal forum in 2007, the initial American enthusiasm of seeing it as pivot to Asia went missing for a few years before the Donald Trump administration revived interest in it around 2017. The fact that the Biden administration has chosen to persist with a focus on Quad is one of the early bipartisan continuities visible in the foreign policy of the new president.
While the recent spate of rift between China and the countries constituting Quad obviously shaped the renewed focus of the forum, the list of Chinese moves that triggered alarm is long and refuge to slip under the radar: The unilateral nature of Chinese claims on Nine-Dash Line (South China Sea), Chinese military activities in Indian Ocean, the build-up in Djibouti base and, more recently, China’s failure to honour the arbitration verdict in the Philippines case, the unhindered militarisation of the maritime expanse and the scepticism born out of the dubious Chinese handling of information regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
For India, reinvigorating the Quad forum comes amidst border tensions with China. While the Indian defence forces have done well to quell the challenge and military-diplomatic parleys have seen the subsequent de-escalation by both the countries, the ministry of external affairs recognises the long–term utility of Quad.
In the last few years, India decided to stay away from the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region, and in 2020, it refused to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). While India’s geopolitical concerns had made its staying out of BRI quite predictable, the RCEP decision had come had been saying. However, the adverse trading terms and obligations, and more significantly, calculations of not aiding any regional economic arrangement with China as the pivot were the factors guiding the MEA decision. The recent developments within RCEP seem to have validated India’s stand.
Today, RCEP is riven by the mistrust and recurrent diplomatic rows like the one recent one triggered by the Chinese foreign minister’s remarks about Japan-administered Senkaku Islands or the China-Australia trade war. International politics observers like Aswini Mohapatra have identified the group as functional but ‘unsustainable’ at the core because China’s economic offensive against its trading partners makes RCEP unstable. The basic reason, argues Mohapatra, lies in the asymmetric structure of the interdependence in such economic blocs. Digging into theoretical studies on the subject by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, it’s worth remembering that complex interdependence can descend into asymmetric dependence if multilateral blocs are lop-sided in power matrix. “Asymmetrical interdependence as a source of power entails not only the risks of disruption in supply chains and trade flows but also possibility of the dominant partner using asymmetric vulnerabilities as strategic leverage,” in The Statesman.
In the hindsight, India’s difficult decision to opt out of RCEP last November seems to be making sound strategic sense now. At the same time, the recalibration of its Indo-Pacific strategy now hinges on deft navigation of the Quad. The forum itself has found a new lease of life in what foreign policy observers’ term as its “second innings”. The latest ministerial meet struck the right notes, even if perfunctory, about the maritime security, the imperative of combating terrorism effectively and collaborative efforts on fighting the new concerns of Covid-19 pandemic. While the concern for restoring democracy in Myanmar was reflection of an immediate development, there was a generality in the nature of diplomatic parleys of the forum. Perhaps the next step for the informal group would be to get more specific in its diplomatic agenda, though the general purpose of a China-countering regional forum would always be a strong enough imperative for the group.
In addressing the power imbalance in the Indo-Pacific region, the latest Quad ministerial meet reveals the bipartisan continuity in the US foreign policy continuity while India seeks to convert ad-hoc leverage of the group into a strategic multilateralism. Beyond its formative objectives, Quad leaders might now look at extending the turf to include countries like Singapore or even Indonesia. However, the extent and scale of the group should be least of Quad’s concerns till its general purpose of a China-countervailing regional force works without other externalities. That well-defined agenda may itself ensure that it delivers an alternate security architecture in the region.