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Home / Opinion / Views /  A Quad’s rise in the Indo-Pacific that’s rich with irony for Beijing

It is in the nature of contemporary diplomacy, conducted under the arc lights of 24/7 media obsessed with the ‘breaking news’ phenomenon, that almost every foreign policy engagement is considered ‘historic’. Yet, if any summit of global leaders has the potential of being truly historic in nature, it is last week’s summit of the ‘Quad’ group of countries involving the United States, Japan, Australia and India. For a platform that was struggling to gain traction even till last year, the momentum it has gained in recent months has been nothing short of dramatic. And its first virtual summit meeting lived up to expectations.

The joint statement—‘The Spirit of the Quad’—committed the four members “to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law, to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond" as well as supporting “the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity." Not only was this the first joint statement ever issued in the Quad context, the mix of values it espouses also made it very clear who the target was. Even if the meeting last week had done nothing else, the chutzpah inherent in issuing such a direct joint statement would have been equally impactful.

The agenda last week, however, was quite expansive and looked way beyond the immediacy of the China challenge. Its focus was on the economic and health impacts of covid-19, climate change, as well as shared challenges in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian- assistance and disaster-relief. Maritime security retained its centrality in this agenda, as the Quad underscored the need to “prioritise 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 facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Sea." Cooperation in critical emerging technologies has also been highlighted as key to a resilient Indo-Pacific region.

In their desire to showcase their commitment to operationalize the Quad, practical steps have been initiated which will provide greater institutionalization as well as credibility to the efforts of the platform.

These include the Quad Vaccine Partnership, the Quad Vaccine Experts Group, the Quad Climate Working Group and the Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group. The four nations have promised to supply up to 1 billion doses of a covid vaccine to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and wider Indo-Pacific countries by the end of 2022 as part of an international exercise that will use Indian manufacturing, American and Japanese funding and Australian logistics. This is a clear sign of their desire to leverage each other’s strengths for the larger regional good.

As the four-nation Quad becomes more substantive and institutionalized, its members also seem ready to work with other regional stakeholders, including ASEAN members as well as European countries, to work towards regional peace, security and prosperity. The reticence of yore is giving way to a greater determination to achieve concrete outcomes, perhaps in recognition of the challenge that is growing by the day.

It has been a long journey for this quadrilateral security grouping from its early avatar in 2007, when it had to be disbanded as most members were not willing to antagonize China.

That China’s aggression has managed to propel this group back together and given it a new sense of purpose is the story of how badly Chinese President Xi Jinping has played his cards on the global stage. As Beijing watched a once-listless grouping regain its mojo, all that it could react with was a request to the Quad’s member states to “follow the principles of openness, inclusiveness and win-win results, refrain from forming closed and exclusive ‘cliques’ and act in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity."

This was US President Joe Biden’s first multilateral leaders’ meeting since taking office less than two months ago, and his administration’s outreach suggests that the strategic flux in the Indo-Pacific has led Washington to conclude that it needs to reassure its allies and partners about its regional policy. In the past, it used to be an outreach to Beijing that was viewed as important in setting the contours of the regional agenda. Now, from Trump to Biden, the signal is clear that Washington is seeking to engage its regional partners along a broad spectrum of issues as it tries to define its new terms of engagement with China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right about how last week’s summit underlined that “Quad has come of age" and “will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region." What he and other leaders at the meeting did not say was that it was the disruptive policies of China that, in the ultimate analysis, made this change possible.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London

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