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Home / Opinion / Columns /  The Quad’s rebirth as an arc of freedom and prosperity

Suddenly, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known widely as the Quad, has been reborn.

The Quad—an international strategic forum made up of Australia, Japan, India and the United States—was largely somnolent after its creation and initial flurry of activity in 2007. Shinzo Abe, then prime minister of Japan, spotted the accelerating rise of China and wanted to create a club of major democratic powers in the Indo-Pacific. In an article written for the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Abe observed that Japan-India trade could exceed Japan-US and Japan-China trade within a decade. He acted on his conviction by dramatically enhancing Tokyo’s trade and security partnership with India, led back then by Manmohan Singh, covering civil nuclear cooperation as well. In parallel, he persuaded then Australian Prime Minister John Howard and US Vice-President Dick Cheney to join the dialogue. Describing the opportunity with evocative phrases like “confluence of the seas", “Asia’s democratic security diamond" and an “arc of freedom and prosperity", the Quad was born as a four-nation grouping. The Quad conducted its first naval exercise called Malabar shortly thereafter, followed by another one that included Singapore. Strongly voiced protests from China resulted in Australia’s withdrawal from the Quad, and the interest of Japan (under a new prime minister), the US and even India, with increasing bilateral trade with China, fast began to wane.

In the decade since, the four nations signed a variety of bilateral agreements with one another while also pursuing a love-hate relationship with China, mainly from a trade point of view. At the same time, with the arrival of Xi Jinping as president of China, renewed tensions around the Senkaku island, and China’s expansionism, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative, the Quad nations agreed in 2017 to reconvene. The outsized influence of the Chinese economy had held the Quad’s decision to hold a summit in abeyance until now.

The trigger for last week’s virtual meeting of Quad leaders is not known. One major factor would seem an opportunity born of the covid tragedy—you might call this effort “a democratic arc of vaccine protection". As the world’s largest producer of vaccines, a status that sits well with an astronomical scaling up of capacity to produce personal protective equipment and syringes, India has appropriately seized this moment to re-activate the Quad and counter China’s vaccine diplomacy with the financial, intellectual property, manufacturing and logistical capabilities of the four nations. The lead reports on last week’s first Quad summit in the Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times and Nikkei Asia speak of the manufacture and distribution of a billion vaccines. The US is late to this vaccine diplomacy party, but has joined soon after new President Joe Biden took office.

The Quad’s vaccine effort will add muscle to India’s Vaccine Maitri programme, which has already reached faraway countries like the UK and Brazil, and nations in Africa like Nigeria and Ethiopia. In the Indo-Pacific region, it has covered Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Afghanistan, among others. In many of these places, Indian supplies have beaten Chinese ones in scale and efficacy. Indian-made vaccines are much cheaper than others, and also have a more readily available cold-chain set-up for distribution in most emerging markets, which is proving to be a major advantage in all but the wealthiest of nations.

Beyond its opportunistic rebirth based on vaccine diplomacy, the Quad’s summit communique emphasized climate action and cooperation in emerging technologies. These are more problematic areas of cooperation among the four countries because they represent shared as well as competing interests.

One area of shared interest is in rare earths, so far dominated by China. Rare earths, represented by the Lanthanide series of elements on the Periodic Table, are vital for commercial and military applications, and the democratic world’s reliance on Chinese supply is a major vulnerability that will need to be rectified. While climate action is a shared mission, the Quad’s members are in various stages of development and will both agree and differ on action specifics. On other emerging technologies, while there is optimism in the area of alternative technologies (to dominant Chinese ones) in 5G telecommunication and possibly also in biotechnology, there may be more friction on truly emergent military technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles, lethal autonomous weapon systems, hypersonic weapons and quantum technology.

The future of the Quad and its ability to influence stability in the Indo-Pacific region will surely evolve. The four nations are clearly aligned in democratic values and in their desire to rein in a common adversary in a belligerent and expansionist China. Yet, China’s role in international trade and its critical position in global supply chains will complicate any outright geopolitical ostracization of it. The Quad and other democratic countries, including those of the European Union, have a major challenge in balancing a cold war and warm handshake with China at the same time. China’s position and its overt muscle-flexing may also evolve on the basis of other countries’ reactions to its rise and actions. Que sera, sera.

P.S: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading," said Chinese strategist Lao Tzu.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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