By Major General S B Asthana
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) Summit held on March 12, 2021 did not name China directly, but Beijing seemed nervous and rattled about the event, as its mouthpiece Global Times speculated US, Japan, India, and Australia to be hyping the “China threat” even before the event. Apparently, China saw a major challenge to its dream of China Centric Asia Pacific, in Quad’s call for a free, open, inclusive, healthy, Indo-Pacific region that is “anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”. China’s hope that the four-country group hasn’t formed a cohesive force from within, may need a revisit, after the Quad leaders agreed to give joint statement, committed to holding an in-person leaders’ summit by the end of 2021 and agreed to pursue important agendas through three focused working groups.
Benign Agenda but clear Messaging
Besides unanimity in need for 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, the key agenda which attracted global attention was collective response to COVID-19 pandemic in terms of synergizing the vaccination efforts for humanity, with India as manufacturing hub, assisted by others to roll out one billion vaccines by 2020. The other two issues of working groups being emerging critical technologies and climate change. The agenda seems benign, but Beijing did not miss the connection of freedom of navigation, overflight and the concerns over “aggression” and “coercion” against members of Quad by China in its first summit meeting. No-one during the Summit called out China directly, but China knows that it challenged rule-based order by junking PCA’s decision in South China Sea (SCS) and continues to coerce countries in Indo-Pacific region. Chinese response of calling Quad meeting as ‘selective multilateralism’ and ‘covid politics’ shows its frustration due to emergence of an alternate global vaccination collaboration, something which China had unilaterally reserved for itself for profiteering.
The list of shared challenges to be addressed also includes cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief (HADR), some of which echo Chinese alleged involvement like cyber attacks and transparency of World Health Organization. Quad’s assertion to support the rule of law, freedom of navigation, overflight, democratic values, and territorial integrity has added to frustration of Beijing, which has started firing salvo of propaganda through its mouthpiece Global Times, calling India (the only Non-NATO partner) as “Negative Asset for BRICS and SCO” failing to understand Chinese goodwill !
China will like the world to believe that there are wide divergences in four democracies getting together, but in the evolution process, Quad seems to be getting over some of them. There is much more acceptability regarding divergent definitions and focus areas within the Indo-Pacific region, with Indian focus on western Indian Ocean touching Africa and Gulf countries along with other areas of Indo-Pacific, which remains the focus of all Quad members. With the series of foundational agreements like COMCASA, BECA signed between US and India, and naval exercises, the operability of India with other Quad members, operating within NATO military alliance framework, has improved.
India is the only country amongst Quad members which has unsettled land border with China. China has done its best to create some apprehension in mind of the other Quad members, by keeping China -India relations fluctuating between tension and harmony with incidents like Doklam, Wuhan, Malappuram and Ladakh. After Doklam and Ladakh standoffs, it’s quite clear to Indians that China can’t be trusted, which has brought relatively better clarity in Indian position. The economic entanglement of each of the Quad members with China necessitates a resilient supply chain, digital and technological eco system, with minimal dependence on China.
There has been consensus regarding support for ASEAN’s centrality as well as the outlook on the Indo-Pacific, but their inclusion into it will be a debatable issue, due to Chinese influence over them. Generally, some of the affected ASEAN countries have occasionally raised a feeble voice against Chinese aggression (Philippines, Vietnam), expecting world powers to check Chinese adventurism, as they find it difficult to stand up against the Chinese might by themselves. This has emboldened China to continue incremental encroachment in SCS and the region. China has always tried to deal with every country on bilateral terms, using its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) to its advantage. In forthcoming bilateral engagements with US, Japan and India, it will continue to aim for weakening the Quad, by some bilateral concessions.
Will the Evolutionary Trend of Quad Continue?
Quad emerged post devastating Tsunami in Indian Ocean in 2004, as Tsunami Core Group, which executed a credible HADR response to it. Series of Malabar exercises gave it a sense of interoperability for anti-piracy, HADR and other maritime missions. The members of Quad project themselves to be committed to an open and transparent network which “will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely”. Quad is therefore yet to acknowledge that it has a role to check the adventurism of China in Indo-Pacific region and could ever operate jointly as a military force for it. In fact, Quad has chosen to be diplomatically correct to say that it is not directed towards any particular country. Quad has finally reached to Summit level meeting.
The ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ of China exhibited in SCS, East China Sea (ECS) and Ladakh is a serious concern not only to the countries directly affected by overlapping EEZ or unsettled borders, but also to rest of the world, as China continues to convert features/atolls into military bases, expect others to accept them as islands and apply ‘Baseline principle’ under UNCLOS-III to claim its 200 nautical miles of EEZ thus converting SCS into ‘Chinese lake’ over a period of time. It poses threat to freedom of navigation (FON) and flight along global Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and may lead to some restrictions like Air Defence Identification Zone in SCS. Any such action by any country to restrict FON/flight or violation of rule of law must be challenged in UN Security Council backed by Quad.
To implement the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific on a “rules-based” legal framework is needed. All members of Quad except US have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III); hence US needs to ratify the same, to have a moral high ground to implement it. China is reasonably confident that US or any other country will not use military force to dismantle their infrastructure constructed in SCS. It is also increasing its naval capability at unprecedented pace. In this context it is necessary that Quad strengthens itself beyond Malabar exercises and gets some teeth in the form of maritime capacity building of its members, further improvement of interoperability and capacity to dominate choke points sensitive to China, as it’s not a military alliance so far. Quad will therefore need a formal structure and a secretariat to take it forward.
Way Ahead for Quad
COVID-19 vaccines will be manufactured in India, financed by the US and Japan with logistical support from Australia. The intention of Quad to synergise medical, scientific, financing, manufacturing, critical emerging-technology and developmental capabilities in future, is a step in right direction. Sharing of innovative technology and capacity building for climatic challenges will serve the interest of humanity. These statements have hyped good optics, but if sincerely implemented will certainly make Quad an effective grouping.
Quad members must continue freedom of navigation exercises and military posturing in Indo-Pacific, as China continues to do so. If the strategic situation worsens there may be a need to position ‘UN Maritime Military Observers Group’, as prevention of accidental triggering of conflict is possible in a region having high density of combat ship on FON missions.
The Summit did not signal expansion, but it needs to have flexibility to incorporate like-minded democratic countries, as many would be keen to join Quad in future, because Indo-Pacific region is becoming the economic centre of gravity and manufacturing hub of the world. Support of other navies like France, UK, Germany and other NATO members will be good deterrence to peace spoilers. Quad in its present form may not be structured to check Chinese adventurism, but it certainly has potential to become one of the most effective instruments to do so. Chinese reactions indicate that it certainly has put China on notice, without even naming it.
(The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years’ experience in national & international fields and UN. He is a globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst authored over 400 publications. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online. He can be reached at email email@example.com and @asthana_shashi on twitter.)