By Dr Rahul Mishra
The much-awaited second Quad in-person summit is all set to be held tomorrow in Tokyo. The meeting assumes significance amidst the intensifying China-US competition, Russia-Ukraine conflict, and apprehensions about Washington’s so-called abstracted presence in the Indo-Pacific as argued by some after the recently-held US-ASEAN summit. Amidst the rapidly changing scenario, some even fancied a rift among Quad members on issues including but not confined to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Defying critics who tried to dismiss it as nothing more than a China containment club, Quad 2.0 is working towards greater institutionalization in several areas of Indo-Pacific regional order.
That the Quad 2.0 is moving onward and upward is manifested in the fact that this would be the second meeting of Quad members, held within a six-month time (the first being held virtually in March 2022). Members’ commitment and willingness to keep the grouping afloat, are manifested in their resolve to provide an institutional pillar to the Indo-Pacific order. The launch of the Indo Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) is a case in point.
One key aspect of the IPEF is that in addition to the four Quad members, it also has South Korea, New Zealand, and 7 ASEAN member countries onboard (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam). In terms of membership, thus, it is quite similar to the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) except, of course, IPEF replaces China with the US, and adds India.
Contrary to a flurry of (unwarranted) speculations that India and Quad might not work together, New Delhi has established itself as an indispensable member of the Quad. Not only does the February 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy of the US put India at the centre-stage of its Indo-Pacific strategy, recent bilateral consultations with Japan, Australia, and the US also demonstrate the sincerity with which Quad members are working with India to fortify their bilateral and mini-lateral equations.
India’s strategic positioning and growing role as a swing state in the Indo-Pacific make it a crucial stakeholder in the region. No other country in the region is as well-positioned as India to equipoise China. It is India’s growing bonhomie with the US, Japan, Australia, and Europe which is likely to change the balance of power equations in the Indo-Pacific region, causing strategic discomfort among some. It is worth reiterating that the Quad was resurrected in response to China’s escalating assertiveness, which remains a driving force even today.
The unprecedented financial crisis in Sri Lanka owing to predatory investment practices and unsustainable loan utilization policies have thrown open several challenges before the country, and by extension to small and middle powers in the Indo-Pacific region that rely on Chinese investments. IPEF’s focus on a connected, resilient, clean, and fair economy, is aimed at addressing such challenges and ensuring that smaller and middle powers of the region do not fall prey to the debt-trap practices.
With its IPEF, SCRI (Supply Chain Resilience Initiative), B3W (Build Back Better World), Indo-Pacific Fund, SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), IPOI (Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative), EPQI (Enhanced Partnership for Quality Infrastructure) etc., Quad members have tried to catch the imagination of countries of the region, particularly those that are trying to find an alternative to China’s BRI.
To ensure a seamless rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, it is pertinent to strike a balance between security considerations and economic needs of the Indo-Pacific region. Adding a well-articulated and inclusive economic agenda to the Quad vision is critical in that regard. Signing IPEF does not automatically translate into entering an economic pact; rather, it provides a framework – a rulebook of sorts – for the Quad members and nine other countries in the region which have joined the IPEF.
Dealing with the China challenge is one of its most significant goals. Despite the fact that Quad is based on security compulsions, there is a deliberate endeavor to not portray it as such. That said, Quad will be forced to resuscitate the security avatar if China becomes more belligerent in the Indo-Pacific in the future, particularly against its member states.
The border standoff between India and China is only getting worse. China’s ties with Australia, Japan, and the US are also in freefall. Furthermore, China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands not only puts Australia’s security at danger, but it also makes China an actor in the South Pacific region posing challenges to France and the US interests as well.
China’s assertiveness is not limited to the Quad countries; the US allies, and partners, including important Southeast Asian countries, and Taiwan are also at the receiving end of China’s growing belligerence. China is unlikely to take a conciliatory stance in any of its continuing disputes in the run-up to the forthcoming 20thParty Congress when Xi Jinping would seek a third presidential term. The Quad may establish itself as a security provider, an economic leader, and a norm protector in the Indo-Pacific region in such a scenario.
(Author is a Senior Lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia, where he heads the European Studies programme. He is also associated with the University’s Centre for ASEAN Regionalism. His latest publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021) and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He Tweets@rahulmishr_Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).