New Delhi was abuzz with two key diplomatic rendezvous taking place last week – the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the Raisina Dialogue. On the sidelines, the foreign ministers of the four-nation Quad also met for the sixth time in four years.
The foreign ministers of India, Japan, Australia and the United States met in New Delhi on 3 March 2023 on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial deliberations in New Delhi. Being a regional “minilateral” grouping of like-minded countries, the Quad, which was raised to the summit-level two years ago, focuses almost all of its attention on various issues pertaining to the Indo-Pacific region. The grouping is characterised by flexibility and functionality, devoid of any binding treaty or institutional framework. The four ministers had met twice in 2022, first in Melbourne and then in New York. From September 2019 to March 2023, the Quad ministers have met five times in person and once in virtual mode.
A new Working Group on Counter-Terrorism was announced during the latest New Delhi ministerial, while the grouping’s Maritime Security Working Group is scheduled to meet in Washington DC later this month. Being multi-aligned, India remains as the only Quad member that has not categorically condemned Russia for its actions in Ukraine. Moreover, India’s status of being the only non-ally of the U.S. within the Quad and its simultaneous participation in Russia and China led groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) makes its presence in the Quad very unique in itself.
Going beyond the region
While the Quad’s scope of deliberations is largely positioned in the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific, the ministers chose to make a reference to an ongoing conflict in the Eurasian landmass for the first time – the Ukraine conflict. The joint statement that was released shortly following the discussions between the four foreign ministers in New Delhi called for “a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine in accordance with international law, including the UN Charter” and emphasised that “the rules-based international order must respect sovereignty, territorial integrity, transparency and peaceful resolution of disputes”, in a veiled reference to Russia.
While the joint statement of the previous Quad ministerial held in New York had no mention of Ukraine, there was a clear statement of the bloc’s position on the Ukraine conflict in this year. At the same time, in a parallel event co-hosted by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the Raisina Dialogue, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was given an opportunity to speak on the conflict from a Russian perspective, in an on-the-record interview. The forum also hosted a panel discussion between the Quad foreign ministers on the same day, during which India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar said that the grouping can “make a difference” in the fields of supply chain resilience, digital technology and connectivity through collective effort and reiterated that the Quad is “for the common good” and not “against” anyone.
Veiled references to China
It is not that easy to brush aside the China factor from the Quad deliberations, no matter how the ministers try to do so. Ever since the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) came into existence in its first avatar in 2007, the rise of China has been a constant factor that drove the grouping’s agenda and perceived role as a regional balance of power mechanism. The fact that China successfully managed to persuade Australia to come out of the Quad just a year after its formation says a lot about how Beijing perceive the grouping. Today, Russia and China are perhaps the only two countries that denounce the Quad as part of U.S.-led efforts to give rise to an “Asian NATO”.
Even though the foreign ministers categorically denied any military or “hard security” role for the Quad in their latest meeting in New Delhi, the joint statement had veiled references to China’s belligerent actions in its neighbourhood. It stated, “…We reiterate the importance of adherence to international law, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China Seas. We strongly oppose any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo or increase tensions in the area. We express serious concern at the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities…”
All these would amount to indirectly equipping the concerned regional countries, particularly middle and smaller powers, to face up to China. Showing its disapproval to the Quad joint statement, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing responded by stating that, “We believe that state-to-state cooperation needs to be consistent with the trend of peace and development, rather than be about putting up exclusionary blocs.” Today, the broad range of areas where the Quad countries collaborate with each other happens to be also the arenas for strategic competition with China, even though they don’t wish to acknowledge it explicitly.
Upcoming summit and naval exercise in Australia
There was a time when Australia was the reason for the disbandment of the Quad, but today it is a central pillar of the grouping. The next Quad summit will be hosted by Australia in Sydney later this year. Australia will also be the host the 2023 Malabar naval exercise, with all the four Quad navies to participate for the fourth consecutive year. Australia’s navy took part in the Malabar exercise for the first time in 2007. However, after being pulled out from the grouping in the following year, it took more than a decade for Australia to come back to the exercise in 2020. The war games have its origin in 1992 as an annual bilateral exercise between the Indian and American navies. Later in 2015, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force joined the exercise as a permanent participant.
Looking back at the history of the Quad, the four Indo-Pacific democracies came together to lead humanitarian relief operations following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Later, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a new face to the grouping by promoting the idea of the “Indo-Pacific”, starting with his famous “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech at the Indian Parliament in 2007. Earlier in the same year, the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) was held on the sidelines of the ASEAN and its related summits in Manila.
With Canberra backing off under Chinese pressure and with unfavourable regime changes in Australia and Japan in 2007, the Quad remained in a dormant state for about a decade until it was given a new life in November 2017, when the Trump Administration in the United States took a special interest in reviving it. It was followed by four working-level meetings involving senior diplomatic officials from the four countries between 2017 and 2019. And, the first Quad ministerial was held in September 2019 on the sidelines of that year’s United Nations General Assembly’s annual session in New York. It was followed by meetings in Tokyo (2020), Melbourne (2022) and again in New York (2022), while in 2021 the meeting was held in virtual mode.
The grouping was upgraded to the summit-level in March 2021, when the heads of government of the four countries met in virtual mode, and later in the same year U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the prime ministers of India, Japan and Australia at the White House for the first in-person Quad summit. Tokyo was the venue for the following year’s summit. The Quad has indeed come a long way from when it was conceived to where it has reached today, with its ambit of cooperation spreading across different areas, ranging from the earliest area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to academic cooperation, Covid vaccine distribution, infrastructure, cybersecurity and emerging technologies.
Last year’s Tokyo summit saw the launch of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), a decisive step to deepen engagement with regional partners through information-sharing, capacity-building and technical assistance, including countering illegal fishing. The initiative was aimed at bringing in emerging technologies and promoting innovation to build a faster, wider and accurate maritime picture of real-time activities in the crucial sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific. Like IPMDA, the forthcoming summit in Sydney could be a game changer.
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