This series of Quad meetings will go down in history for its exercise in norm-setting, its process of democratization, establishment of a rules-based order, inclusiveness and alignment of interests and goals.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden at the Quad Summit, Tokyo. ANI
The Quad’s fourth meeting of leaders and their second in-person meeting in the past year have rightly been described as “positive and practical.” The Tokyo meeting of the leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia and India took place on May 24.
This series of Quad meetings will go down in history for its norm-setting exercise, democratization process, introduction of a rules-based order, inclusiveness, alignment of interests and goals, concern for small nations in the Southeast Asia region as well as in the Pacific and the evolution of sustainable practices. It should be noted that the Russia factor, which created differences during the third meeting of the Quad, faded in this round of Tokyo.
As at the previous three meetings, the Quad’s statements are devoid of acrimony or rowdy sloganeering, but present a systematic, head-down approach to finding solutions to emerging issues in the Indo-Pacific. Democratic institutions and transparent practices at the national level have contributed to this process of strengthening Quad’s outreach program.
Remarkable, so to speak, in all of Quad’s statements there is no mention of the elephant in the room, even though the signage is clear. China was not mentioned explicitly in any of Quad’s statements. However, the emphasis on the rule of law, the free and open Indo-Pacific, the explicit mention of challenges in the South and East China Seas, island states in the Pacific Ocean, and other issues suggest implicitly Beijing’s actions in the recent past.
The Tokyo meeting reiterated work on vaccines, critical technologies and maritime order, as in the previous three meetings. However, the additional agenda crept into the fourth meeting and suggests recent momentum.
For example, the issue of the fight against terrorism was raised with the explicit mention of the attacks in Mumbai and Pathankot. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267 on the subject was cited, indirectly criticizing China’s support for terrorists based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This comes against the backdrop of China’s continued collaboration with al-Qaeda groups in Afghanistan and its efforts to carve out a “Himalayan quad” in South Asia.
The nimble nature of the Quad discussions can be seen in the mention of growing debts in the region and the proposed efforts to counter economic stress levels among several nations. Against the backdrop of economic collapse in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and other countries, the Quad suggested tackling this problem systematically over China’s recent rapacious policies. The Quad Debt Management Resource Portal proposal at the Tokyo meeting has been the subject of much thought.
The Quad Nations have also pledged to invest $50 billion over the next five years in infrastructure projects in the region. Even though these figures pale in comparison to China’s Belt and Road Initiative spending, the latter is plagued by the dominance of Communist Party-backed state-owned enterprises, lacks transparency in contracts, and is riddled with debt.
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Another surprising Quad decision in this cycle is the focus on climate change. Against the backdrop of the deadlocked November 2021 meeting in Glasgow, where Chinese and Russian leaders were absent, and perhaps reflecting the tension in Indo-Chinese relations over environmental issues, Quad members described mitigation and adaptation measures.
While previous Quad meetings mentioned work to be done on critical technologies, especially quantum and 5G telecommunications technologies, a surprising element is the emerging harmonization among Quad members on cybersecurity issues. As cyber challenges continued to escalate – as evidenced by the Estonian case over a decade ago and the increase in cyber attacks, the Tokyo Declaration announced constructive steps not only for the Quad Cybersecurity Partnership, but also for individual Internet users. An open and secure telecommunications system was also mentioned. The ongoing disruption of the semiconductor supply chain mechanism was also raised by Quad members.
Also, contrary to previous discussions, space applications and technologies entered the Quad discussions in Tokyo with decisions to share Earth observation data for the common good of the region. In light of China’s (and Russia’s) outer space militarization programs and efforts to carve out a place for themselves between the “haves and have-nots” in outer space, efforts of the Quad in Tokyo saw constructive alternatives.
The acceleration in the provision of public goods and services to the international community is also surprising in the current round of talks. Quad members resolved in Tokyo to counter non-traditional security challenges, illegal fishing and suggested efforts to improve maritime domain awareness and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to those affected. Such capacity building in the maritime domain is bound to also deter China, which has recently encroached on the maritime commons in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indeed, it has been reported that while the Tokyo meeting is underway, China (and Russia) has mobilized bombers and other aircraft closer to Japan. Over the past decade, China’s naval and air transgressions on the Senkaku Islands have increased dramatically, such as its incursions into the Bashi Channel (south of Taiwan) and the Miyako Strait (closer to the base of Okinawan). These are clear signals of coercion and highlight the vulnerabilities of Japan and Taiwan.
However, as Sino-Russian coordination increased in the aftermath of the Ukrainian invasion, neither these countries nor Quad members could openly come to blows. With the relative economic decline of China and Russia, Quad members are showing confidence in their institutional capabilities and technological prowess. In these circumstances, the Quad chose to work quietly by setting the agenda positively and concretely.
The author is Dean of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The opinions expressed are personal.
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