The first standalone Quad ministerial meeting in Tokyo on October 6 holds the promise for something much larger, giving a new direction to Indo-Pacific geopolitics. But what, exactly?
Expectations are high, matched almost word for word by the pessimists. A surfeit of commentary has weighed in on its prospects or their lack. And everybody is waiting to see if India fails at the finish line. The world’s eyes are rightly on India, because whither goes India, will go the Quad, the Indo-Pacific and global rebalancing.
The starting point of the Quad is much like an Indian arranged marriage — the principals have been lined up, horoscopes matched. If Quad succeeds, it will signal the end of the post-Cold War era and the beginning of a new multipolar security architecture in Asia and, gradually, the world.
Balancing China is, of course the current driver for this exercise, notwithstanding foreign minister S Jaishankar’s conspicuous omission of a mention of India’s northern neighbour during his remarks. Pushing back against China’s aggressive expansionism is the immediate goal and, in the longer term, the creation of a multipolar Asia.
In his numerous appearances, Jaishankar has given pointers to what he thinks the Indo-Pacific and the Quad are about — the “rebalance” of global geopolitics is already under way; India is stepping out as never before.
Being an Indo-Pacific power will be a new learning experience, certainly for the US, because it will involve stepping away from the US’s familiar alliance template. The keywords are “independent-minded nations”, “different mind sets” and “convergences”.
Therefore, while it will be important to see Australia finally participating in the upcoming Malabar naval exercises, it will be just as important for India to take the lead on bringing the other three countries together on issues as diverse as critical materials, disruptive technologies, cybersecurity, healthcare etc.
India and Japan should both push to become at the very least informal members of the Five Eyes (an intelligence-sharing alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK) although India might find this a tough one, because of its deep relations with Russia. Connectivity and counterterrorism are other areas where the Quad — and later, Quad Plus groupings — can band together, depending on their interests.
Conspicuous by its absence here is “trade”. India, particularly the Modi government, doesn’t adequately leverage trade in diplomacy. In this case, though, that might be a blessing. Trade should play no part of the Quad — it should instead build linkages for “access” and “resilience”, key concepts in a world that is more about geopolitics and less about globalisation, as one senior Indian diplomat put it.
China is the largest trading partner for all Quad members, and is likely to remain so, even after the tough lessons of the Covid pandemic. If the Quad has to succeed, economics should not play a part. This should be conceived and executed as a security grouping, building strategic linkages and staying out of the business of non-tariff barriers. That will surely be a recipe for disaster, allowing China to pick out its targets and kill the grouping.
Already China is agitated beyond measure. Beijing has been going after Australia on the trade front — cotton being the latest to find itself being restricted by China, after barley getting similar treatment, not to mention arresting Australian journalists.
China is going after what it considers to be the weakest link. It’s not India. India was indeed the reluctant Quad-wala, keeping it at bay for years. Post-Doklam, India signed on to the Indo-Pacific but tentatively.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018 laid out the contours of India’s Indo-Pacific policy — it was inclusive and did not target China. China’s border intrusion by stealth in the summer of 2020 has tipped the balance. A different template is setting in.
The core of the Quad is the security/defence grouping. There is a nod to Asean centrality, but the Quad has moved well beyond that. Asean can now be accommodated in Quad-Plus formations. The Quad Plus is smartly conceived — the first Quad Plus, including South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand, worked well to tackle the myriad issues surrounding the pandemic, supply chains, restarting economies, etc. The second Quad Plus included Israel and Brazil, and concentrated on healthcare technologies, vaccines, etc.
Jaishankar says India is stepping out much more. But India needs to do a lot more — for instance, get into the driving seat of the Quad, because this could be the core of a new security architecture. In fact, the US should not drive this — it has an old template and will attempt to push through an alliance idea which is past its sell-by date. Witness Pompeo’s abortive attempt to rope in South Korea into the Quad — an idea that would irritate Japan, China and complicate North Korea all at once.
India should push against any expansion of the Quad. It would be much better to expand the numbers of Quad Plus groupings, based on convergences in different areas that could bring together new plurilateral groupings. At a future date, some of these could even include China.