China for long was successful in preventing other countries from coming together to challenge its behaviour by threatening to disrupt beneficial economic ties with them.
The singular target of the Quad summit was evidently to check the Chinese unilateralism in its political, strategic and economic behaviour.
Run by the Communist Party of China, flushed with wealth and imbibed with a determination to mould the global order to suit its interests, China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has been giving migraines to many countries, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
Its illegal claim of sovereignty over the waters of South China Sea and over disputed islands in South China Sea and East China Sea, its military manoeuvre to grab disputed territory along the long Sino-Indian border, its alleged genocide in Xinjiang Province, its destruction of democracy in Hong Kong, its threatening moves to browbeat Taiwan, its predatory economic practices in vulnerable developing countries through Belt and Road Initiative, its strategic alliances with unsavoury countries like North Korea and Pakistan and its unfair trade practices have alarmed the members of the international community.
China for long was successful in preventing other countries from coming together to challenge its behaviour by threatening to disrupt beneficial economic ties with them. But it has become increasingly visible that China’s theory of “peaceful rise” has become invalid and that China has become the embodiment of the rise of a threatening military/economic power.
The Japanese initiative in 2007 to unite the major democracies in the Indo-Pacific by forming “Diamond of Democracies” consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia was checkmated by China. It opposed naval drill by these countries by issuing a demarche in 2008 and the Malabar Exercises soon gave way to bilateral naval exercises. All four members of Quad have maintained high level of trade and investment relations with China and Xi Jinping used it in full to prevent these four countries from uniting under one grouping.
However, as China’s unilateralism took nastier turn in recent years, Quad became the need of the hour. President Donald Trump was the first US President to act tough on China in recent years and played a proactive role in 2017 to give a stronger lease of life to a dormant Quad. Since Quad forum is not the result of any agreement, treaty, MoU and did not have a secretariat, there were no regular meetings or planning. Many analysts thus refrained from writing a biography of Quad and some attempted to write an obituary after meetings of officials of the Quad member countries.
However, victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 US presidential election and his foreign policy vision have contributed to make Quad a robust grouping of democracies. He realised early that his predecessor’s vision and policies towards the Indo-Pacific in general and more particularly Quad are in the national interest of the United States and are required to protect peace and prosperity of the region.
Biden’s national security team soon got into serious work and the result is a summit level meeting of Quad members—the US, India, Japan and Australia. The Quad summit of 12 March 2021 has made it amply clear that Quad will get a longer and stronger life of its own with regular meetings of officials, annual meetings of Foreign Ministers and a soon to be convened in-person summit of the political leaders.
The joint statement issued after the summit is a bold statement of articulation of threats posed by an over-ambitious China that poses an existential threat to the Indo-Pacific Order. China has not been named, but it is in all important spaces in the statement.
First, the Quad leaders have emphasized that they “support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values and territorial integrity”. Second, the Quad leaders have vowed to “prioritize the role of international law in the maritime domain…and to meet the challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.”
Third, they have announced a commitment to ensure “safe and effective vaccine distribution” by “combining their nations’ medical, scientific, financing, manufacturing and delivery” capabilities. Fourth, the leaders have also pledged to address “shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counter terrorism, quality infrastructure investment” many others.
In all the four issues, one does not require extraordinary talent to identify the source of concerns and threats. India in the past hesitated to take bold steps in concert with major powers in order to address threats in its immediate and extended neighbourhood. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a foreign approach with a difference.
In his opening statement in the summit, Prime Minister Modi stated that India “will work together” with partners “for advancing our shared values and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific”. He underlined that “Quad has come of age” and that it will “now remain an important pillar of stability in the region”.
Prof Chintamani Mahapatra is Professor of American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.