In international relations, a common potential threat often leads to hurriedly pulled-up alliances. These alliances may or may not hold for long as they have a short-term and specific purpose to serve i.e. circumvent a growing power from becoming overbearing and thereby cut short its imperialist aspirations.
Such short term alliances can be in the nature of military, economic, or even cultural treaties. China has done exactly that when it pushed four countries into an ensemble. Quad, as it is being called, has brought four countries – the US, Australia, Japan, and India – on a common platform. Formed with an avowed purpose of developing the Indo-pacific region, but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out its real purpose. It is, in fact, a beginning of a strategic alliance to contain China.
China over the years has earned the notoriety of a regional bully by claiming the South China Sea as its own and having skirmishes with neighbouring countries all along in the region pushing them into alliances.
The recently held Quad summit was the formalisation of this arrangement though it shied away from declaring itself a strategic alliance. It confined its objectives to containment of Coronavirus and environmental conservation. Perturbed by the development, a sulking China described the Quad as an effort directed against a third party. It, however, did not specify which third party it meant.
Harsh Wardhan Shringla, foreign secretary of India, responded to China’s comment with a retort: “The Quad does not stand against anything, it stands for something.” Nevertheless, the issue of the military takeover in Myanmar coming up for discussion during the deliberations of the Quad leaders indicates that the alliance will not remain confined to its self-avowed objectives. And that could be the beginning of Quad stepping into the geopolitics of the region.
The summit, however, was cautious against giving it away in its declaration or deliberations. It deliberately chose to focus on issues like the corona pandemic and climate change. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear that the members of the Quad will become “closer than ever before” and cooperate.
Addressing the virtual (online) summit, the Indian Prime Minister along with US President Joe Biden, Japanese Premier Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasised the need for cooperation to tackle pressing issues confronting the alliance. In this context, they reiterated their stand on the Indo-Pacific region saying an “open” and “free” Indo-Pacific region was the need of the hour. Prime Minister Modi described the Quadrilateral Framework as an “important pillar of stability in the region.”
The virtual Quad summit was more or less focused on the efforts to prevent spread of Corona infection. The members agreed to ensure “equitable” access to vaccines to counter the pandemic. A joint statement titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’ said: “We will join forces to expand safe, affordable, and effective vaccine production and equitable access to speed economic recovery and benefit global health.”
However, the subtext of politics was there albeit in a subtle form. President Biden emphasised that the Indo-Pacific region should be governed by human rights. “We're renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law. We are committed to upholding universal values and free from coercion. We’ve got a big agenda ahead of us,” he said.
The summit also made some efforts at giving it a practical shape to the alliance. The vaccine expert working group, an emerging critical technology group, and a climate working group for technology, capacity building, and climate finance would be set up. The Quad leaders have agreed to meet in person during the coming months to take the Quad initiative to the next level. China, for a change, would have much to figure out.
The most important takeaway from the Quad summit is its unconditional cooperation among the member nations and beyond. At a moment it has limited itself to health and the environment for now, but it can extend its scope when time comes. But will it also extend its cooperation in the military sphere is a million-dollar question. A decision in this regard could alter the geopolitical reality of the Indo Pacific region. Given the interest of the US in the framework, it looks rather a natural progression. But, much would depend upon Indian stand. So far, India has been averse to military cooperation. And it has solid reasons for it.
In 2018, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had categorically stated that India saw the Indo-Pacific framework as a “geographical concept” and not a “strategy" one. India has an ongoing border dispute with China, and militarisation of the Quad will only complicate matters. While the US, Japan, and Australia already have military alliances, India does not. India is a member of many other forums, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRICS, and RIC. These could be at cross purposes with Quad. They need to be aligned with the Quad alliance before making any headway.
Interestingly, India is at the core of Quad. The Quad was born in the wake of the crisis in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. The country not only could be able to manage its rescue operations, but also extended help to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Indonesia. This cooperation in times of crises laid the foundation for Quad. Yet, India refused to take part in the joint military exercises and limited its cooperation to civilian areas.
New Delhi is yet to accept Australia’s request for a joint exercise that has been pending for over four years now. It is yet to make its stand clear on joining the annual Malabar exercises with the US, Australia, and Japan. The decision isn't an easy one given China’s fierce opposition to the militarisation of the Indian Ocean. India has also been wary of joining any exercise that could be construed as a military alliance.
But, things have changed now. China’s aggression in the South China Sea and deadly clashes across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) may force India to change its mind and join the military alliance which will have far-reaching implications for the region.