Quad foreign ministers met in New York for the second time this year and the seventh time since 2019. The four-nation grouping’s ambit of cooperation has clearly expanded and diversified over the years. What were the key talking points this time? I analyse.
The foreign ministers of India, Japan, Australia and the United States – four key maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific – met on the sidelines of the 78th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on September 22. This was their seventh meeting since 2019 and the second of 2023. Notably, exactly four years ago, this four-nation Quad was raised to the foreign ministers’ level amid a UNGA session. Earlier in 2023, the ministers met in March on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial in New Delhi and in May, this year, the Quad leaders’ summit was hosted by Japan on the sidelines of the G7 summit. Having met twice in 2022 as well, the ministers congregated six times in person and virtually once so far.
The previous ministerial in New Delhi saw the four-nation grouping making a reference to an extra-regional geopolitical issue for the first time – Ukraine – and also the initiation of a new Working Group mechanism on counter-terrorism, a key agenda item for India and the United States, among other themes of discussion. Following the seventh meeting, India’s foreign minister Dr S. Jaishankar tweeted, “Always value our collective contribution to doing global good”, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that the grouping is “vital to our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and together we reaffirmed our commitment to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter”.
Diversifying ambit of cooperation
The ministers have clearly doubled down on the commitments taken during their previous deliberations, particularly to improve capacity-building for regional players. The joint statement that followed the meeting read, “The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness is supporting regional partners combat illicit maritime activities and respond to climate-related and humanitarian events.” Similarly, the Working Group on maritime security promised “practical and positive outcomes” for the region. Prior to the recent ministerial, the Working Group on counter-terrorism conducted a Consequence Management Exercise that “explored the capabilities and support Quad countries could offer regional partners in response to a terrorist attack”, the joint readout mentions.
Later this year, the U.S. island state of Hawaii will host the Counter-terrorism Working Group’s meeting and tabletop exercise, which will focus on countering the use of emerging technologies for terrorist activities, while the Working Group on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) will be convened in Australia’s Brisbane for its second tabletop exercise. Earlier in August, this year, all four Quad navies participated in Exercise Malabar for the fourth consecutive year, off Sydney, the first hosted by Australia. However, as in previous meetings, the ministers didn’t specifically mention Russia or China with regard to the situations in Ukraine and maritime east Asia respectively.
On the Ukraine question, the ministers expressed their “deep concern”, taking note of its “terrible and tragic humanitarian consequences” and called for “comprehensive, just, and lasting peace”. In a veiled reference to Russia, the ministers rebuffed the “use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons”, underscoring the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, and called for the resumption of the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows for the export of food grains and fertilizers from Ukraine to world markets via a maritime humanitarian corridor, amid the ongoing conflict with Russia.
Similarly, in another veiled reference to continuing Chinese belligerence and lawfare in maritime east Asia, the ministers stressed upon the need to adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to maintain “freedom of navigation and overflight consistent with UNCLOS”, reiterating their “strong opposition to any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo by force or coercion”, including with respect to maritime claims in the South and East China Seas. Going further ahead, the ministers expressed their concern on “the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore exploitation activities”. The joint readout also had mentions of North Korea and Myanmar.
The evident and the inferred
Today, almost all the areas of cooperation of Quad countries happen to be the areas of strategic competition with China, the rapid rise of which necessitated the coming together of the four nations, even though this is not openly acknowledged. In this new great game unfolding in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S.-led Quad is trying to balance China’s overwhelming initiatives to capture the support of smaller and middle powers in the region and around the world. Placid initiatives such as the Open Radio Access Network, the private sector-led Investors Network, Cybersecurity Partnership, Cable Connectivity Partnership and the Pandemic Preparedness Exercises should be read in this context.
With the rise of Quad in parallel with the rise of China and other minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific such as the AUKUS (a grouping of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), the existing regional framework based on the slow-moving, consensus-based Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was put to test. However, allaying all doubts, Quad deliberations at both the ministerial and summit levels continued to extend their support to ASEAN’s centrality in the region and also for the ASEAN-led regional architecture that also includes the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Despite somewhat differing regional outlooks, the Quad likes to see itself as “complementary” to the ASEAN, rather than an “alternative” to its pan-regional influence.
India, the only non-ally of the U.S. in the Quad, will host the fourth in-person Quad leaders’ summit in 2024. The Asian giant is often dubbed as the weakest link in the grouping, owing to its friendly ties with Russia, but other members intent to keep India’s bilateral equations with other countries away from the interior dynamics of the grouping, signalling an acknowledgement of India’s growing geopolitical heft in the region and beyond. This seems to be subtly reflected in the stance taken by individual Quad members in the recent India-Canada diplomatic row, in which they made sure not to provoke New Delhi or to touch upon sensitive areas, even though a fellow Western partner is involved on the other side.
|Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting||Month & Year||Venue|
|First||September 2019||New York|
|Fifth||September 2022||New York|
|Sixth||March 2023||New Delhi|
|Seventh||September 2023||New York|
NB:- All three Quad ministerials in New York were held on the sidelines of the respective annual sessions of the UN General Assembly i.e., the first, the fifth, and the seventh meetings.
On the multilateral front, the four ministers reaffirmed their support for the UN, the need to uphold “mutually determined rules, norms, and standards, and to deepen Quad’s cooperation in the international system, and also batted for a comprehensive reform of the UN, including the expansion of permanent and non-permanent seats in the Security Council. While China and Russia, two powerful permanent members of the Security Council, continue to denounce the Quad as an “exclusionary bloc”, the Quad ministers and leaders tend to tone down any security role for the grouping.
However, a recent comment made by Vice Admiral Karl Thomas of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet during this year’s Exercise Malabar is noteworthy. He said the war games were “not pointed toward any one country”, rather it would improve the ability of the four forces to work with each other and “the deterrence that our four nations provide as we operate together as a Quad is a foundation for all the other nations operating in this region”. Even in the absence of a security treaty, in a way he hinted at the grouping’s desire to cherish its collective strength across all fronts and to check on hegemonic tendencies that may manifest in the region from time to time.