Quad Summit resets lens

Enunciates strategy to deal with an assertive China

Quad Summit resets lens

RESOLUTE: The Tokyo summit has produced far-reaching policy decisions. Reuters

G Parthasarathy

Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan

THE Tokyo Quad Summit has produced some far-reaching policy decisions, to the surprise of many. There has been a widespread belief that Quad is nothing but a talk-shop, confined to a few naval exercises by India, the US and Australia across the Straits of Malacca. Moreover, Quad was beset with serious differences on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. PM Modi made it clear that India would not be party to any resolution, or move, to voice criticism of Russian actions. The organisation, it was felt, would be well advised to focus on the Indo-Pacific Region. More importantly, Quad should have clear goals on issues like regional economic cooperation and climate change.

India, Japan and ASEAN will focus on China’s moves across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while Australia and New Zealand will keep an eye on island states.

New Delhi had wisely avoided joining the larger Asia-Pacific Free Trade Grouping. Its members include China, whose trade practices are mercantilist. These Chinese practices have led India into a growing trade deficit with China, which rose from $72.91 billion to 94.16 billion in the last two years. Moreover, even with ASEAN, India’s initial expectations of having a Free Trade Agreement that would include IT services have not been fulfilled.

It was only appropriate, in this background, that India joined the 13-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Agreement, put together by the US, during the summit. This agreement includes Quad members, together with ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, apart from New Zealand and South Korea. Strategically important ASEAN members are in the group, including notably, the Philippines and Vietnam, which have, for long, borne challenges of Chinese intrusions. While India has endeavoured to promote maritime cooperation with its neighbours across the Bay of Bengal, such efforts will be strengthened when all Quad members plan future joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal. This effort should include participation by Indonesia, Vietnam and others.

The summit took place at an interesting time, with global attention primarily focused on dealing with Russia’s military intervention. Despite all the rhetoric and sabre-rattling, this is an issue which will have to be settled politically, with Russia being fully satisfied that its southern lines of communication to the sea are secure. It is perhaps time to remind the US of the Nixon-Mao honeymoon during the Bangladesh conflict, and, thereafter, their efforts to ‘cap, roll back and eliminate’ India’s nuclear autonomy, particularly by the Carter and Clinton administrations.

The emergence of a growingly assertive and aggressive China has changed strategic equations in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing’s actions have violated international law across virtually all its land and maritime boundaries with sixteen countries. It would, therefore, be useful for ASEAN countries to participate in military exercises across the Straits of Malacca by Quad.

The most important factor which emerged in the Quad meeting was, however, recognition by the US that Quad has to look beyond military power to economic cooperation to promote prosperity and meet challenges posed by China. The summit was accompanied by India joining the US-sponsored Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), together with other Quad members. The IPEF now has 13 members, including the Quad members, together with Asia-Pacific countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The main economic priorities would include supply chain resilience, clean energy and infrastructure. Modi has stated that the IPEF was a ‘declaration of our collective will to make the region an engine of global economic growth’. Substantive discussions are required to make the IPEF a meaningful grouping.

While India, Japan and ASEAN members will focus on China’s moves across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Australia and New Zealand would now have to focus attention on Chinese moves in the small Pacific island states. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi met leaders of a dozen small island states in the South Pacific, offering to provide Chinese infrastructure projects and modernisation of cyber security and training, evidently in return for receiving military bases there. The effort drew a blank. Australia played a key role in undermining this effort by the visit of its recently appointed foreign minister Penny Wong to the Pacific Islands. The visit was timed to coincide with Wang Yi’s visit. Tensions may well arise in an emerging maritime boundary dispute on Pacific waters between China and Japan.

China cannot be pleased with what is happening in the Indo-Pacific Region. Beijing has thus far sulked at providing any significant assistance to Sri Lanka to deal with the most serious economic crisis the island has ever faced. China is not pleased with port facilities India has acquired, with Japanese financing, in Colombo Port. Shortly thereafter, India and Sri Lanka signed a pact on installing three hydel projects off the coast of Jaffna, located close to Tamil Nadu. This was done after Sri Lanka rescinded an earlier decision awarding the projects to China. In the meantime, the Chinese-built Hambantota Port and airport in the constituency of the Rajapaksa family remain virtually unused, and serve as yet another example of Chinese ‘debt trap diplomacy’.

India has the opportunity to balance China’s economic and military power across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood. Concerns about the Indian Ocean Region becoming a virtual ‘Chinese lake’ are being addressed by timely diplomacy. Developments at the summit clear the way for greater maritime defence cooperation with ASEAN neighbours, apart from areas like supply chains, clean energy and infrastructure. The foundation stone has just been laid to expand the role of Quad across the Indo-Pacific Region.

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