The Spirit of QUAD: From Symbolism to Action
"Today, the global devastation wrought by COVID-19, the threat of climate change, and security challenges facing the region summon us with renewed purpose. On this historic occasion of March 12, 2021, the first-ever leader-level Summit of the Quad, we pledge to strengthen our cooperation on the defining challenges of our time."… QUAD Leaders' Joint Statement, March 12, 2021
By Dr. Arpita Basu
During the first-ever virtual Summit on Friday March 12, the QUAD (Quadrilateral Framework) leaders - President Joe Biden of the United States, Japanese Premier Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed regional and global issues of shared interest and exchanged views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Although China was not mentioned even once in the Joint Statement called the "Spirit of the Quad", the reference to prioritizing the role of international law in the maritime domain, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and facilitating collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas was indication enough that one of the major objectives was to counterbalance China's unlawful maritime expansion.
Perceptible about the Quad thus far is that it has resisted openly the idea of identifying China as the primary target it seeks to contain. Although the primary usage of such a platform can be for sharing assessments of Chinese capabilities, intentions, and operations, and suggesting plausible ways to counter such provocations yet, Quad press releases from the respective foreign affairs establishments of each country have never once raised the word "China," nor did the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, while mentioning the Quad, directly link Quad consultations to addressing China. This is perhaps because of apprehensions of how much to push China without impacting other dimensions of bilateral relationships with Beijing. This March 12 Summit and its Joint Statement was also no different in this regard.
However, apart from being a forum to think and develop alternatives to counter unlawful hegemonic activities of the obvious state actor, the Quadrilateral grouping stands pertinent for multiple reasons. This came out strongly through the commitment of the leaders of the four countries on various issues of cooperation. The so-called secondary benefit that can be exploited out of this alignment is maritime security, given the growing cooperation among the Quad and Quad-Plus countries, the need to ensure freedom of navigation, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, energy preservation, and regional capacity building. Territorial connectivity, economic transparency, and the development of financially sustainable alternatives to One Belt One Road (OBOR) policy are potential subjects of shared interests for this alliance.
This virtual summit, therefore in addition to its affirmation of a rule-based maritime order, reaffirmed its commitment to making a tangible contribution to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the region, including overcoming COVID-19. The emphasis was on the Quad Vaccine partnership, Quad Climate Working Group, and the Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group. Combining the four nations' medical, scientific, financing, manufacturing and delivery, and development capabilities and establishing a vaccine expert working group to implement a path-breaking commitment to safe and effective vaccine distribution was indeed a major shift from symbolism to action. The summit adopted a positive vision to address contemporary issues with vaccine cooperation – a non-traditional security issue in the region and beyond. Describing QUAD as a positive vision and a force for global good, Modi emphasized an extension of India's ancient philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which regards the world as one family. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, during a special briefing on the leaders' summit described the focus on the vaccines as the "most pressing". He informed that Japan, U.S. and Australia will finance the vaccine initiative that India has welcomed. Shringla said that during the discussion, there was a wholesome appreciation of the Vaccine Maitri initiative", which indicates positive recognition of India's Vaccine diplomacy.
Regional issues pertaining to the Indo-Pacific region were also discussed during the Quad leaders’ summit, including the coup in Myanmar, and the members affirmed their commitment to democratic transition. An emerging-technology working group to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future and establishing a climate working group to strengthen climate actions globally on mitigation, adaptation, resilience, technology, capacity-building, and climate finance were also some of the positive steps taken during the summit. All this was indicative of the fact that the other humanitarian, environmental and democratic agenda of the region were being worked upon, countering the claim that QUAD was only formed to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
However, remaining soft on China might not be an option for the QUAD grouping for very long as several powers are threatened by Chinese hegemonic designs. Biden mentioned that there was a big agenda ahead, saying "our" region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values and free from coercion, while the Japanese Premier and Australian Prime Minister emphasised the need for an "open" and "free" Indo-Pacific region while Prime Minister Modi, described the Quadrilateral Framework as an "important pillar of stability in the region"
Looking back, an attempt to organize a quadrilateral grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies in 2007 had proved to be short-lived. However, the revival and reinvigoration a decade later of what is termed the Quad was a key foreign policy success of the Trump administration. Sparked by shared concerns about China's rise and its increasingly aggressive foreign and national-security policies, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue existed as a forum for annual meetings among officials from Australia, Japan, India, and the United States and a platform to discuss common challenges and promote greater strategic cooperation.
In 2020, the Quad countries held their first quadrilateral naval exercise in over a decade. Last year also saw the emergence of a Quad-Plus group of seven countries — adding South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand — that organized over regular video-conference calls to coordinate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent remarks from the British High Commissioner to India suggested the United Kingdom is agreeable to joining the Quad if the group ever decides to open its membership. Also, the Australian government has sponsored a new program at the Australian National University to establish a "Quad tech network" to promote collaboration among think tanks and research institutes from the four countries on cybersecurity and critical technology issues. All these are indicators of the rising strength of the QUAD.
The most significant development was the interest and initiative taken by President Biden recently. In its first few weeks in office, the Biden administration arranged a Quad foreign ministers meeting and an unprecedented Quad leaders’ summit to carry forward and build on a format and a mechanism, which the US see as fundamental to building a substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region. In his February 8 phone call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden agreed to promote a "stronger regional architecture through the Quad." That was a new formulation and it is interesting to see how the president intends to use the Quad to strengthen the regional security architecture", says Jeff M. Smith of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center. With India and the Biden administration now firmly on board, QUAD's future is likely to be vibrant.
Dr Arpita Roy Basu is an expert on Afghan Studies and International Relations with a specific focus on Peace and Conflict Studies and has represented her country in several international fora and various track 2 initiatives. She is a Senior Fellow with Usanas Foundation.
Disclaimer:This paper is the author’s individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organisation’s viewpoint.