The recently concluded Tokyo summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between India, the US, Japan, and Australia was a moment of reckoning in the new geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese convened for the summit, to “renew” their “steadfast commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient”, the Ukraine crisis hanged like the Sword of Damocles. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised eyebrows over the unity of the Quad countries given India’s studied silence on condemning Moscow directly. However, the joint statement coming out of the Tokyo summit, and the spadework done by all the Quad members, point to a broader strategic convergence that managing an assertive China remains a primary resolve for the grouping. The Ukraine crisis does raise very important questions relating to European security order, but the Quad leaders have done well not to let it overwhelm their growing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The joint statement was bereft of specifics when it said, “we discussed our respective responses to the conflict in Ukraine and the ongoing tragic humanitarian crisis, and assessed its implications for the Indo-Pacific.” In that sense, the Tokyo summit both in optics and substance, is a forward move in the quest for the soul of Quad and its salience for the members and other stakeholders in the evolving power alignment and re-alignments of the Indo-Pacific region.
Even as Beijing called out the Quad as nothing more than “ocean foam” that will dissipate soon, the attention that the grouping has received, despite changes in political leaderships in some of the member countries is nothing less than extraordinary. It shows a much-needed continuity in political support from across the aisles in the Quad countries. Every successive meeting of the Quad leaders, the Tokyo summit being the fourth one, has emitted clearer signals of the grouping taking on a more comprehensive and multifaceted form of cooperation and coordination. The Quad has evolved in a very short time, to cover the military and non-military dimensions of constructing an order in the Indo-Pacific. While the quest for an integrated deterrence against China’s assertive actions in the maritime and continental expanse of the region remains a primary motive whether the Quad countries profess it officially or not, envisioning growing cooperation in non-military dimensions, such as climate change, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) activities, health security and infrastructure is instrumental.
In this aspect, one of the most significant takeaways from the Tokyo summit, was the initiation of the “the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), designed to work with regional partners to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters, and combat illegal fishing.” The establishment of the “Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the Indo-Pacific” evokes the origins of this grouping in a coordinated and joint effort to handle the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami among first responders, which are the four Quad countries now. For this purpose, the IPMDA envisions to create interoperability among Indo-Pacific nations and regional information fusion centres in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In terms of creating a regional network of partnerships and cooperation, it remains to be seen how the Quad will be aligning perceptions and commitments with the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Outlook of the Indo-Pacific and the European Union (EU’s)Joint Communication on the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the Quad leadership resolved to “individually and collectively…further strengthen our cooperation with Pacific Island countries.”
Besides the question of hard-core military balance in the Indo-Pacific that necessitated the grouping in the first place, it is naïve to ignore the growth of the Quad amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, if the Quad as a grouping was to prove that its existence and its purpose to create order and stability in the Indo-Pacific is geared towards providing public goods, showing leadership on helping the world prepare for such global health disasters will be significant. Initiatives like the Quad Vaccine Partnership and other measures taken to “strengthen the global health architecture and pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (PPR)” are welcome steps in this direction. In the light of the ambitious but controversial China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), creating alternatives on the ground, for infrastructure financing and building across the Indo-Pacific remains a major test for the Quad countries. In this vision, the Quad countries have “committed to working closely with partners and the region to drive public and private investment to bridge gaps.” Steps like extending “more than 50 billion USD of infrastructure assistance and investment in the Indo-Pacific over the next five years” and “Quad Debt Management Resource Portal” remains prominent efforts, that needs to translate into tangible outcomes. Then, there is the issue of climate change, and the Quad seems to be putting some meat into the skeleton, by launching the “Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package (Q-CHAMP)” with “mitigation” and “adaptation” as its two themes. Moreover, the Quad’s vision of a “free, open, inclusive and rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific cannot be delinked from efforts to streamline governance challenges in the domain of cybersecurity, the use of 5G technologies and beyond, global semiconductor supply chains, biotechnology, and quantum technologies.
What really caught the eye of the world was President Biden launching the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) in initial partnership with a host of countries such as Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. How this new format plugs into the existing economic system in the region, that includes the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) remains a conjecture at this point.
In the final analysis, the Quad is about China, but not only about China. The new geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific reflects the disruptions primarily brought about by China’s assertive rise, and the uncertain future of American power. In this strategic flux, a number of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral arrangements are going through a dynamic churning. How the Quad can find purpose not only in terms of creating an integrated deterrence against China, but also in providing public goods across the Indo-Pacific, will reveal the soul of Quad, and its claim to be a force for good in the region.
The writer teaches at the Amity Institute of International Studies (AIIS), Amity University, Noida. He is also the Honorary Director of the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS).