Udai Bhanu Singh
When the QUAD Foreign Ministers – Penny Wong of Australia, Hayashi Yoshimasa of Japan, S. Jaishankar of India, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken - met in New York on the sidelines of the 77th UN General Assembly, an important joint statement was issued. The four foreign ministers said: “We strongly oppose any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo or increase tensions in the region”. Also, they decided to meet on the sidelines of the UNGA every year besides meeting in the respective Quad capitals.
This is also in tune with the Indian objective of seeking to strengthen the UN-led multilateral system, including the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, comprehensive UN reform agenda, and inclusive expansion of UN Security Council membership to reflect current political realities. The Joint Statement from the Quad Foreign Ministers’ meeting signaled the determination of the signatory nations to advance the vision of a region where the principle of a free and open Indo-Pacific would prevail.
Following the Joint Statement, some concrete steps were also taken. It led to the signing of the Guidelines for the Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the Indo-Pacific, effectively operationalizing the partnership agreed upon in May 2022 by the Quad leaders. A Statement on Ransomware was also issued by the Quad foreign ministers on 23 September calling on states to take corrective measures to address ransomware operations emanating from their territory.
India could not remain unaffected by China’s economic and military rise. The China factor has played an important role in India’s strategic priorities., as seen in its Act East Policy, its Neighbourhood First Policy, and its Indo-Pacific policy. India is surrounded on one side by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)-passing through sovereign Indian territory— thanks to the China-Pakistan nexus. On the other side, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) with the dual (oil and gas) pipeline between Kyaukphyu (Myanmar) and Nanning (China) already functional, poses a potential challenge to India’s maritime interests in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean and its east coast, Northeast and island territories.
Added to this is the ever-present India-China land border dispute which poses a continuing challenge to New Delhi. Sino-Indian relations took a turn for the worse when shots were fired for the first time in 45 years along the Himalayan border in June 2020. Earlier, in 2017 after the Doklam clash at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction, Prime Minster Modi of India had attempted to reach out to President Xi Jinping of China.
However, the 2020 clash was a turning point. The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan and spread globally, turned international opinion against Beijing. The pandemic served to accelerate pre-existing trends. What followed was a growing tide against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the start of a search for new security architecture. Due to the symbiotic relationship between security and economics, there is a genuine need for reliable and regional security architecture. Indo-Pacific as a concept gained increasing traction even as China has stuck to the ‘Asia Pacific’ terminology. ASEAN came out with its ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
Maritime security continues to be a priority for India as its strategic and economic profile has grown. Indian economy relies heavily on maritime trade and would be seriously impacted without the security of sea lanes of communications and freedom of navigation.
To address challenges in the maritime domain, the Indian Navy has stepped up its activities in the Indian Ocean with maritime exercises, port visits, strengthening the Andaman and Nicobar Command, etc. India’s SAGAR doctrine (Security and Growth for All in the Region) takes an integrated view of the maritime space around India. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative ( IPOI) was unfurled by PM Modi in 2019 to complement ASEAN’s own AOIP. India thus continues to proclaim its support for ASEAN centrality even as it emerges as an advocate of the Indo-Pacific idea and a member of the Quad. The region is set to see a mix of bilateral, trilateral, multilateral and multilateral linkages based on pragmatic considerations.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (dubbed ‘Asian Nato’ by China), was revived in November 2017. The soft balancing being attempted by India has meant building closer ties with major powers like the US and Japan and the like-minded ASEAN States such as Vietnam and Thailand. India and the US signed the bilateral LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) which extended the 2002 GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement). This agreement allowed access to supplies and repair facilities for the militaries of the two sides. India signed a similar agreement with France also. India and US signed the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) in 2018 establishing secure communications with the Indian Naval Headquarters and the US Central Command, and US Pacific Naval Command. A close understanding with Australia has also
Indian Navy has sought to regularise Malabar exercises, together with participation by Japan. Japan plans to contribute to infrastructure development in India’s Northeast. There were also plans to counter China’s BRI with India-Japan-led Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC).
Quad seeks to not only coordinate military and strategic policy but also seeks to coordinate its policy at the diplomatic level, especially in the United Nations.
The United Nations has long emerged as “the greatest single diplomatic crossroads in the world” and the Quad countries decided to utilise this organizational setting now is entirely fortuitous. The objectives of the Quad are best served when diplomatic interactions inside the General Assembly and the Security Council (Parliamentary Diplomacy) and outside these (Corridor Diplomacy) are utilised to reach a negotiated settlement. It helps that at least one member of the Quad is a Permanent Member of the Security Council with veto rights. Others (like India) have served from time to time as Non Permanent members of the Security Council.
Not all informal exchanges in UN corridors are chance encounters: many a time these are meticulously arranged. The emergence of groups was not foreseen by the founding fathers of the United Nations and finds no mention in the Charter. ASEAN is one such group. It is interesting that now the Quad has emerged as a nascent caucusing group within the UN system. Groups help in consensus formation and in agreeing with regard not only to procedural matters but substantive issues as well. Groups perform many important functions. Before a resolution is passed formally, Member-States may caucus together informally in groups to exchange in a free and frank atmosphere their views on the items. This is useful in arriving at a common general position on an important agenda item, with or without definite voting commitment. Groups could line up support for or against a proposal.
Groups may also help align country position at the time the General Debate is held. Since these debates are the focus of the media, it offers a unique opportunity to shape public opinion in a certain direction and serve a propaganda function. The decision of the Foreign Ministers of the Quad countries to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly is a very mature one that could play a crucial role in decision-making in a fast-paced world.
Quad is not a rigid structure, and it does not have a permanent Secretariat to assist its work. It is certainly not a military alliance (nor an ‘Asian Nato’). It has been left suitably flexible so that it can evolve with time. But it does have working groups that meet throughout the year. Members may hold exercises together. (For instance, Australia would be hosting a counter-terrorism tabletop exercise later in 2022). This suits India also which likes to maintain its strategic autonomy. There are other initiatives in the pipeline (as mentioned by India’s EAM, such as the STEM fellowship ) economic frameworks, and maritime domain awareness.
By leveraging collective expertise, Quad would be enabled to respond to emerging challenges in areas as diverse as education and disinformation, health security, climate change, infrastructure, the peaceful use of outer space, and critical and emerging technologies In some cases the agents would extend beyond the Quad ( a kind of Quad Plus). It is to be hoped that by the time the Quad Foreign Ministers’ Meeting is organized in New Delhi in early 2023 it would have moved closer to (and not drifted away from) the “Quad’s vision […] for a region where the rules-based international order is upheld, and where the principles of freedom, rule of law, democratic values, peaceful settlement of disputes, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are respected.
Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is a noted Strategic Analyst. He specializes in the Indo-Pacific, India-ASEAN relations, and Myanmar.