Shame China without naming it? Navtej Sarna on the Quad’s diplomatese

Quadrilaterals are generally irregular; the only regular quadrilateral, a square, has all its sides, and all its angles, equal. As in geometry, so in geopolitics, though not with the same exactitude. For the Quad grouping—India, Australia, Japan and the United States—to become a viable and sustainable partnership, it is critical that the four countries should more or less be equally invested in it.

This lack of matching commitment bedevilled Quad 1.0. Crafted by Japan’s Shinzo Abe after the four countries had worked on disaster relief following the 2004 tsunami, the grouping had been virtually scuttled by 2007. Australia, keen to develop closer ties with China, withdrew. Abe resigned from office. The US was distracted by its war on terror, for which it needed Beijing. India, too, retreated after dipping its toes in the Indo-Pacific, putting a premium on better relations with China over an uncertain coalition.

A decade later, in 2017, Quad 2.0 began exploratory meetings, impelled to come together by a rising star over China. The meetings have moved quickly from the level of officials to ministers and now leaders. The first summit—in March this year—was a virtual affair, but the one for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to Washington, DC, this week will be the first to be held in person. The outcomes, too, have evolved—from separate read-outs to a proper joint statement and, in March, even a joint op-ed by the four leaders.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

The strong momentum this time around comes from a more clear-eyed, and more aligned, appreciation of China’s intent by Quad nations, it now being clearly understood that attempts to make China play by international rules have proved futile and only whetted the dragon’s appetite. Japan’s relations with China have soured over the latter’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and human rights clampdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Australia has been the target of Beijing’s economic bullying and crude threats; the once blooming bilateral relationship is in deep freeze. The Trumpian identification of China as America’s main strategic competitor threatening to wrest global leadership continues into the Biden administration, though the response is more through partnerships and alliances rather than through tariff and tantrum.

In Delhi, too, the Ladakh standoff has made it easier for India to shed its earlier caution on the Quad. It also helps that inter-se relations between Quad members are in good shape. While Japan and Australia are treaty partners of the US, our relations with the US and Japan are strong strategic partnerships; recent advances in security and defence cooperation have added ballast to our relations with Australia, too.

The Quad would rather not be called an anti-China club. Sticking to a “civilianised” agenda—vaccine development, climate change and emerging critical technologies—it uses delightful diplomatese to shame China without naming it. For the present, this soft-pedalling provides essential elbow room for India’s multi-vector diplomacy: Quad will not help us solve our continental problem with China and we also need to work with China, however testily, in BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

But Quad’s security face—the full name is Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—is going to be increasingly difficult to disguise. For the second year running, Australia will join our Malabar exercises, thus virtually making it a Quad naval exercise. Two Quad participants, US and Australia, are now joined in the pointedly military AUKUS (security pact between Australia, the UK and the US) alliance, and Japan supports it. China’s aggressive behaviour is set to continue and it will tar AUKUS and Quad with the same brush. The Indo-Pacific is in for turbulence and India’s choices are likely to become sharper.