China’s heightened aggression and the Changing Indo-Pacific landscape: What does it mean for the Quad?

Born in 2004 as a collective response to the Tsunami, shelved in 2007 and revived in 2017, the Quad –a loose combination of like-minded democracies consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia have been increasing cooperation on common issues of concern incrementally.

By Ambassador Anil Wadhwa

Even as the COVID 19 Pandemic has unleashed a miserable health crisis, social disruption and economic devastation on the world, it has accelerated the combination of forces that were already transforming international order. One of these trends has been that contrary to expectations, China’s rise and transformation has not been peaceful.

Born in 2004 as a collective response to the Tsunami, shelved in 2007 and revived in 2017, the Quad –a loose combination of like-minded democracies consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia have been increasing cooperation on common issues of concern incrementally. The Quad is not an alliance or a militarized grouping. The areas of cooperation have ranged from maritime domain awareness, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, information sharing, connectivity and infrastructure.

A primary focus for the Quad has been the ability to use the global commons for trade, prosperity and access to resources for development in an unfettered manner. However, the past few years have seen China’s heightened aggression in the South China Sea, naval and air incursions around the Senkakusand Taiwan, and transgressions of the line of actual control of the border with India. Chinese efforts to establish a presence in ports in the Indian ocean and mapping of the waters has increased. It has brazenly pursued predatory policies for cornering natural resources in the Indian Ocean and the Southern Pacific and unleashed punitive economic steps against Australia. This can only galvanize the Quad nations, and invoke a sense of urgency in dealing with the problem of dealing with China individually and collectively.

Despite their differing military capabilities, strategic outlook and risk-taking ability, and the enormous economic linkages with China, cooperation among the Quad, countries is set to deepen as long as it continues to challenge the liberal rules-based order. It can be expected that the Quad will now work even more closely with countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, so that they are able to assert their legitimate maritime rights consistently in all the zones contested, occupied, and militarized by China on the basis of an illegal “Nine dash Line” which violates international law, and the principles of UNCLOS.

In future, the Quad countries can be expected to build on the gains in maritime domain awareness within themselves and also with ASEAN countries facing the brunt of Chinese aggression. Quad states have already stepped up efforts to improve joint interoperability, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. The next steps could be sharing of logistics, joint development of defence technologies, and pooling of space capabilities into this effort.

The Quad needs to undertake frequent and regular naval exercises between two or three if not all partners and clearly and jointly articulate their faith in the freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea. The Quad should pay attention to redesigning of the China centred supply chains in the region, thus helping in the Indo Pacific economic recovery and creating alternate dependencies. The dominance of China in rare earth minerals, processing of lithium and key components in electronics and power equipment all point to the need for diversification. The Quad needs to take concerted action in dealing with the pandemic, cooperation in health and vaccines, as well as equipment, logistics, movement of their nationals and creating value chains in essentials like pharmaceuticals. The developments in the region have opened up possibilities of enlarging the grouping to involve other like-minded countries on specific cooperation and discussions like the Quad plus three groupings which includes Republic of Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam on dealing with the pandemic. The possibility of a Trade and Investment Agreement between the Quad countries should be explored.

China, however, should not become the focus of all efforts for the Quad. The grouping should be ready to go beyond discussions on traditional security threats and enhance its role in multilateral institutions and reform of the global system. It should cooperate on standard-setting, and create a pool of their funds which they, in any case, have at their disposal for the region. This includes coming together on the blue dot initiative and upholding the voluntary quality Infrastructure Initiative standards advocated by the G20 and offer that as a viable alternative for the ASEAN and other small and vulnerable states in the Indo – Pacific. This also requires that a few pilot projects be chosen and quickly implemented for bilateral or trilateral cooperation at the earliest. Finally, the Quad needs to meet in the immediate future at the ministerial level and soon thereafter at the Summit level to signal its continued intent to work together.

(The author is a former Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs and is currently a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)

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