Sunday, June 16, 2024

India has shaped the Quad in its own image

The Quad is “a positive, constructive agenda so we don’t target a country or region for that. What we look forward to is that peace and stability in Indo-Pacific region should be adhered to.” So said India’s Ambassador to Japan S. K. Verma ahead of the recent Quad summit in Tokyo. This just reiterated the consistent Indian position that the Quad is not “against someone” (meaning China) but “for something.” 

Since the re-emergence of the Quad in 2017, the grouping has been struggling to identify a foundational philosophy on which to build a sustainable framework. It has been an uphill battle to generate substance, even as the symbolism of the grouping generated curious debates within the strategic community. Recent developments, however, suggest that the Quad may finally be getting the much-needed direction to build a credible and sustainable framework.

From its rebirth in working-level meetings on the sidelines of some other multilateral engagements, the Quad has come a long way. Quad leaders have engaged in two summits this year, with the earlier one in March a virtual meeting occasioned by the Russian military operation of Ukraine and apparently divergent viewpoints on it within the Quad. The recently concluded in-person summit is another indication that Quad countries might have finally identified the “common denominator” in their individual policies in the region, enabling them to take the strategically significant grouping to its logical next level. 

The optics and the substance of the recently concluded summit both suggest that India is playing a major role in normatively ordering the Quad to ensure it becomes an institutionalized framework suitable to address the existing and emerging issues in the Indo-Pacific and is not just limited to responding to one pressing military reality – i.e. the rise and expansionism of China.

India’s keenness to ensure that Quad doesn’t become an alliance-like structure is well recognized. India’s historical hesitations in getting involved with alliance politics notwithstanding, there are other critical Indian sensitivities. First, India is the only country among the Quad members that directly shares a land border with China – a disputed border, at that, with a troubled history. It is therefore reasonable for India to not want to be seen as being part of an arrangement that is overtly against China. Apart from this, India is conscious of the fact that any grouping with undertones of an alliance will invite apprehensions from Southeast Asian nations that have direct stake and responsibility in the stability of the region. 

Also, a standalone military logic for the Quad is not in the long-term interest of the region, which is staring at an array of other concerns, including terrorism, climate change, and other critical issues. Addressing these challenges would require a forum that inspires confidence and cooperation from countries in the region.

Thus, India has always insisted that the Quad becomes an open, constructive forum that ties together the capabilities of member countries to ensure security and stability in the region in a comprehensive way, not limited to security aspects. Making sure the Quad does not overtly identify with “alliance politics” is one reflection of this attitude, which became clear in the way the Quad addressed the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Consistent with the earlier joint statement issued in March after the Quad leaders’ discussion on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the statement this time also eschewed direct mention of Russia. Instead, it focused on the humanitarian aspect of the entire conflict. This was in direct contrast to the joint readouts resulting from the bilateral meetings which United States had with Japan as well as Australia. In case of the Australia-U.S. meeting, the readout was categorical in pointing out “Australia’s strong support for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion,” adding that “the leaders agreed on the importance of continued solidarity, including to ensure that no such event is ever repeated in the Indo-Pacific” – an obvious hint at China’s overtures toward Taiwan. 

The United States’ joint statement with Japan was even more explicit. It maintained that two countries “shared the view that the greatest immediate challenge to this [rules-based international] order is Russia’s brutal, unprovoked, and unjustified aggression against Ukraine. The two leaders condemned Russia’s actions, and called for Russia to be held accountable for its atrocities.”  

Compared to such rhetoric, the joint statement of Quad was extremely toned down when it referred to the developing situation in Ukraine as “tragic humanitarian crisis.”

The conspicuous stress on multilateralism in the Quad joint statement was another example of incorporating core Indian sensitivities. Generally, India has been reluctant to endorse unilateral or plurilateral actions in security and conflict matters and instead has preferred multilateral alternatives, specifically those endorsed by the United Nations. The joint statement was indicative of this trend when it stressed multiple times the Quad’s support for numerous multilateral initiatives. 

New Delhi has also been keen on ensuring that Quad members are sensitive to India’s direct concerns, emanating from its immediate neighbourhood. The concern was concretely reflected with the statement’s emphasis on unequivocally condemning terrorism in all forms. The statement denounced “the use of terrorist proxies” and “emphasized the importance of denying any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups which could be used to launch or plan terror attacks, including cross-border attacks.”

Particularly striking was the mention of the 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot attacks in the statement, alongside the possibility of Afghan soil being used for the perpetration of terror. Considering the complicity of Pakistan in these dastardly attacks and the active support Islamabad continues to accord to the perpetrators, this allusion in the joint statement was a direct reflection of the willingness of the other Quad members to incorporate issues that are core to Indian interests. 

The timing of this mention is even more pertinent with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) having recently noted the apparent “progress” made by Pakistan with regards to an action plan to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, despite extending Pakistan’s classification on the FATF grey list.

The Quad’s increasing bandwidth in terms of interest areas is another example of how it is incorporating core Indian concerns. As noted above, New Delhi does not want to see the Quad assuming the nature of an exclusivist group focused only on security matters. The diversification of the Quad’s areas of focus to include global health, infrastructure, climate change, new and emerging technologies, space, and maritime domain awareness among others informs the evolving nature of the grouping. This diversification is also strategically pragmatic, as cooperation in these functional areas would provide the necessary impetus for cooperation in other defense and security matters alongside providing a forum to comprehensively deal with the emerging issues in the Indo-Pacific, something India has consistently argued for.

The course the Quad has taken so far indicates that India has invested extensive diplomatic capital in normatively ordering the strategically crucial Indo-Pacific grouping. India’s efforts are meant to evolve an acceptable normative framework that will serve as a vision document for the Quad’s future course – a framework which structures the Quad as a forum promoting freedom, transparency, and openness, and aims at sustaining multipolarity in the region. 

One of the effects of China’s rise has been the distortions to the regional order brought about by Beijing’s imperial and revisionist tendencies. The normative framework of the Quad should therefore challenge these distortions by promoting a regional order based on sovereign equality, openness and respect for international law. That would require a strong institutional response, which not only balances China but provides a strong normative response to it. The success of Quad will be determined by its ability to emerge as forum that will shoulder these realities in the Indo-Pacific.

(This is a piece taken with gratitude from The Diplomat)

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