Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at Quad Leaders’ Summit. (Twitter/PMO)
By Mukesh Aghi
High profile visits and summits are synonymous with Washington, but there is a first for even the World’s Oldest Democracy as it plays host to the inaugural Quad in-person Summit. This week, President Joe Biden presided over this inaugural meeting with guests Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia.
As I previously wrote in an article for another publication, since its inception in 2007, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the “Quad,” has had a sense of nebulousness about it. In the years before, it was seen as an amorphous loose grouping, almost missing the oomph that it needed. The four had different approaches. Tokyo initially spoke about the democratic identity of the four nations, while New Delhi was happy with its functional cooperation and Canberra was hesitant on an alliance of sorts that would irk its relationship with Beijing.
Enter China, as a more belligerent Beijing has rapidly accelerated the Quad’s functionality. The momentum of the Quad has escalated rapidly from a joint naval exercise last year, the first in a decade, to a foreign ministers meeting, to a virtual meeting of the respective heads of government, to an ambassadorial meet, to this week’s first in person meeting of the four leaders.
In a recent talk, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar highlighted the role of the Indian Ocean, accentuating how the water body is today as important as the Pacific Ocean in the centrality of water bodies in global geopolitics. The Foreign Minister spoke about the Indian Ocean as a region endowed with a rich history of culture, diversity, and coexistence. He emphasized that, to preserve the multipolarity of Asia, one needs to preserve the multipolarity of the Indian Ocean and subsequently the Indo-Pacific.
This can be done through the four democracies, who not only share the salient aspects of democracy and cooperation but have also been at diplomatic crosshairs with Beijing. For Washington, this partnership comes naturally, Canberra and Tokyo are long term treaty allies, and New Delhi is a very important strategic partner. The Obama administration outlined the pivot towards Asia, the Trump administration gave impetus to the Indo-pacific, and the Biden administration is expanding the Quad’s agenda, highlighting the shared bipartisan agenda towards the region.
From maritime cooperation that began between the Quad members shortly after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, to now upholding the sacrosanctity of the UN Conventions on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), all four countries espouse a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Despite the hostility in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the South China Sea, the Quad agenda is far from an Asian NATO. Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Canberra are all committed to working on a broader agenda beyond just security and touching on key economic and health issues.
As of 2021, leaders in all four countries have become more aligned in their shared concerns about China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region and are more willing to define a constructive agenda of cooperation.
The four countries have formed key working groups on COVID-19 vaccines as vaccine diplomacy takes precedence. Today, the race to continue vaccinating millions in developing countries has become priority, with the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant and threat of other emerging variants. Along with vaccines, the importance lies in mitigating the harmful effects of climate change, creating more robust supply chains and more technological investments in the region. All of these topics tie in well with President Biden’s Build Back Better World (B3W), who along with the US’ G7 partners agreed to launch the bold new global infrastructure initiative (B3W), to counter some of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plans, as B3W highlights high-standard and transparency in its infrastructure investments in the emerging market.
The news of the Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) Indo-Pacific grouping last week has raised questions, particularly if the role of the Quad has been mitigated or if the summit will see diminished importance with AUKUS still hot off the press as a new development. The tri-pact of anglophone members constitute three of the Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council (FIORC).
These theories are far from the case. While AUKUS brings Britain more closely into the Indo-Pacific, the trilateral alliance is militaristic in nature, with a key feature of the new grouping being that the U.S. and the U.K. will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, helping Canberra possess a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. What AUKUS will actually do is to grant Australia rights as the member of an exclusive club of only six world powers (the U.S., U.K., France, China, India and Russia)that are able to counter Beijing’s adventurism in the Indo-Pacific.
AUKUS is now dubbed as “the most significant security arrangement between the three nations since World War Two.”
To reiterate, the Quad is far from a military pact and as Dr. Jaishankar himself stated recently, the Quad is a robust partnership of “democratic polities, market economies and pluralistic societies”, that believe in upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific, or as Prime Minister Modi dubbed it,“SAGAR”, the Hindi word for Ocean,also abbreviating the phrase,“Security and Growth for All in the Region.”
Furthermore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin followed up on his successful visit to New Delhi earlier and called his counterpart, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, thanking India for its cooperation throughout the evacuation mission in Afghanistan. He went on to reiterate the U.S.’ commitment to ensuring the Indo-Pacific region remains free and open and highlighted how AUKUS will not detract from either the bilateral cooperation with New Delhi or the multilateral agreement of the Quad.
Ironically, India benefits from AUKUS without being part of it. For one, India also possesses nuclear weapon capabilities and a nuclear submarine program of its own. It also has a robust bilateral Civil-Nuclear agreement in place with the United States, where India receives American assistance for its civilian nuclear energy program and expands U.S.-India cooperation in energy and satellite technology.
Secondly, the Galwan Valley clashes in Ladakh last year epitomized a sense of power posturing redolent of Xi Jinping’s assertiveness. The AUKUS trilateral is a more overt security arrangement by close strategic partners of New Delhi to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, and consequently serves New Delhi’s interests for a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, without having to directly participate.
On the multilateral front, smaller pacts have better outlined vision and mission as compared to a single large NATO umbrella, which may lose its focus with the shifting sands of geopolitics. Lastly, India gets to maintain its strategic autonomy and will not be roped into a security pact. As New Delhi prefers to iron out all border and larger diplomatic disputes bilaterally, membership in a security pact against Beijing could impinge its membership on the Beijing led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
As a security-focused alliance, AUKUS very clearly relieves the Quad of that notion of being an Asian NATO and New Delhi can focus on the economic and health initiatives such as Vaccine Maitri in its global vaccine distribution.
Through the Quad working group, New Delhi can work towards developing critical and emerging technology, particularly the rollout of 5G network in the emerging market world and securing data privacy and strengthening cyber security. Furthermore, New Delhi through the Quad can work towards creating alternate supply chain networks to shift the monopoly away from Beijing. New resilient supply chains are needed to withstand the harmful effects of this pandemic and to withstand other future health crises.
For India, any grouping that enhances the security of the Indo-Pacific region enables New Delhi to focus on its own strategic interests while maintaining complete strategic autonomy.