Developments over the last few months in the Indo-Pacific as a result of the economic and security fallout of the pandemic and China’s criminal withholding of information about it leading to its spread across geographies were further aggravated by China’s subsequent effort to exploit the vulnerabilities thus created to its advantage.
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh
In a rare departure from the existing precautionary protocols of virtual Summits due to the COVID pandemic, the physical meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the four nations that comprise the QUAD(Australia, India, Japan and the United States of America) over the next two days in Tokyo assumes significance for many reasons. Developments over the last few months in the Indo-Pacific as a result of the economic and security fallout of the pandemic and China’s criminal withholding of information about it leading to its spread across geographies were further aggravated by China’s subsequent effort to exploit the vulnerabilities thus created to its advantage. Its military belligerence across the land border with India in the high Himalayas, ratcheting up the tension with the US in the South China Sea, intimidation of Taiwan and its rabid denouncing of Australia’s and Japan’s attempts to free themselves of Chinese business shackles besides its aggressive actions against some of the ASEAN members have disturbed the fragile security environment in the entire region. This has resulted in a wave of anti-China sentiment across the world and specifically in this region, the vehemence of which has probably even taken China and its megalomanic leader Xi Jinping by surprise.
China, as is its wont, had sought to take advantage of a global vulnerability caused by countries grappling to contain the spread of the pandemic but now finds itself on the back foot and vulnerable. This is perhaps the right opportunity for the Quad countries to wrest back the initiative collectively (in addition to their individual efforts) through an inclusive developmental agenda centred on security and economic capacity building and capability enhancement which can effectively counter the Chinese predatory model of economic support. Countries like France, Germany and the UK have also developed their Indo-Pacific strategy towards supporting the existing rules-based international order and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific for the safe passage of global commerce, a critical imperative in this era of globalisation and trade dependencies.
One of the reasons for the lack of convergence and the ineffectiveness of the Quad in developing a coherent strategy for the region is the underlying perception that it is primarily a security construct with a distinct military connotation aimed at containing China. Most of the interaction amongst the Quad members have been driven by security considerations with the US making no secret of the fact that it is meant to counter the Chinese threat to both, its presence in the western Pacific and to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The hardening of the US stand on China’s claims in the South China Sea has further exacerbated the situation. The hesitation of the other Quad members, particularly, India to view this in a uni-dimensional context of a military threat led the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Command to opine that the Quad is a non-starter a couple of months after his interaction with the other Quad Chiefs at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi. In fact, so pronounced was the military context that at times it almost seems that the survival of the Quad hinges only on whether all four members will participate in Exercise Malabar, the annual India-led multilateral naval exercise.
The elevation of the Quad interaction from mid-level bureaucrats to the level of Foreign Ministers has led to a more mature and nuanced approach to this construct. It has attempted to address the divergences by identifying attainable convergences which include wider security objectives like enhancing interoperability, mutual logistic support to each other, providing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, widening the scope of Maritime Domain Awareness, and collectively addressing transnational threats, amongst others. These ‘low hanging fruit’ have provided the opportunity to build confidence and understand each other better.
In an earlier article, this author had lamented that the Quad had squandered an opportunity in failing to consolidate their collective response capability in supporting this region during the initial months of the COVID pandemic when the smaller and less economically developed nations were struggling to come to terms with this catastrophe.
The meeting in Tokyo is another opportunity for the Quad to become a meaningful and multi-dimensional comprehensive regional strategic construct in the Indo-Pacific region. The world is reeling from the effects of COVID and its economic fallout. The Quad nations, three of which are amongst the world’s five largest economies and Australia the 14th ranked can offer a comprehensive economic revival plan through an inclusive aid and development programme on easy terms which could have long term benefits in countering the ambitious Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which is reeling under the effects of its debt-trap diplomacy.
China is seeking to dominate the region through a combination of hard power, sharp power and economic power. It is threatening Australia with economic sanctions, India and Japan with military belligerence and is smarting from its inability to penetrate national communication networks with Huawei’s 5G technology. China therefore definitely needs to be contained. An alternate network driven by western technological expertise would substantially dent Chinese sharp power capability. Global markets could absorb the loss of business with China. Therefore, containing China without resorting to armed conflict should be the immediate aim.
The Quad comprises three countries from the eastern and southern extremities of the Indo-Pacific and one from the Indo of the Indo-Pacific. Until recently, little attention was paid to the 10 ASEAN nations and it was therefore viewed with scepticism by the central core of the region. This too has begun to change and ASEAN’s centrality, which India has always emphasised, has now also been acknowledged by the US. Perhaps the time has come to expanding the Quad and bringing on board other countries who share the concerns for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Besides ASEAN, France, UK and now even Germany is concerned with the Chinese attempt to replace the existing rules-based international order to one with Chinese characteristics as has been stated by Xi Jinping.
A question often asked is if the Quad should be institutionalised with its own headquarters or secretariat. While this may be the way ahead but to do so right now may be premature and may instead burden this fledgeling construct with a bureaucratic overhang. The attempt instead should be on enhancing multi-sectoral cooperation for mutual and regional benefit.
The Quad Foreign Ministers meeting in Tokyo with trilateral and bilaterals scheduled on the side is the best opportunity to convey the right signals to the entire region and also the world that a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ is inviolate and inclusive for all who are willing to abide by the international norms and conventions that govern the existing international order.
(The author is an Indian Navy Veteran & Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)