It is a grouping that includes the world’s oldest and largest democracies and represents a combined GDP of $34 trillion, or 40 per cent of the global total. No wonder, the Quad grouping comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India has made the world sit up and take notice although China has termed it an ‘Asian NATO’. While experts have commented on the grouping’s China focus, here’s a look at how the Quad came together and what it proposes to achieve as the leaders of the four countries gear up for their first in-person summit later this month.
What Is The Quad?
Short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, it’s an informal grouping that first joined hands for the purposes of coordinating relief work in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. There was an attempt for a more accentuated coming together in 2007, but the moves were abandoned reportedly over protests from China. Now, it is the spectre of China that is said to have brought the four countries together.
Commenting on the failure of the Quad to take off initially, Herve Lemahieu of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute told Al Jazeera that “Australia in particular was sceptical of the need for a Quad and it was wary of upsetting diplomatic relations with China… Since then, there has been a hardening of attitudes towards China among all the Quadrilateral partners”.
The Quad picked up where it had left off in 2017 with a meeting in Philippines capital Manila on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, which was attended by the leaders of the Quad countries, including PM Narendra Modi and the then US President Donald Trump.
A Ministry of External Affairs statement on the Quad talks said that “the discussions focussed on cooperation based on… converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected region”. Special mention was made of “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.
But for long, Quad engagements were limited to interactions at the diplomatic and senior ministerial level. The first summit of leaders of the Quad nations took place only in March this year, virtually due to Covid-19. And, now, the members of the grouping are gearing up for the first in-person discussions in US.
Is It All About China?
The Quad leaders would like to say, and believe, that it is not, but the one thing that is clearly common to all the four Quad partners is their strained ties with China. At least where India and Japan are concerned, there is a distinct regional slant to their wariness regarding Beijing while the US and Australia would be more concerned about its big power ambitions and muscle flexing.
A White House statement on the upcoming meet in the US said that “hosting the leaders of the Quad demonstrates the Biden-Harris administration’s priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific… to meet the challenges of the 21st century”. The pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific by India and Japan would put the two countries in a contested space with China. Japan is locked in disputes with China over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim as their own while India and China have been at loggerheads over differing perceptions of their shared border. Further, China has been trying to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean region, where India is the pre-eminent presence, by cosying up to the likes of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Ties between the US and China hit a low during the tenure of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump and saw the two countries engage in a tariff war. Moreover, with its exit from Afghanistan, the US is now working on an Asia-Pacific pivot which, experts say, shows that containing China is the next big goal for Washington.
While Australia has been more circumspect about actions that would rile China, its biggest trade partner, it has nonetheless seen ties become strained following its call for a probe into the Wuhan lab leak theory behind the novel coronavirus pandemic. That saw China slap sanctions on the country earlier this year. Which in turn has seen Australia turn more assertive; after more than 10 years since it first took part in the Malabar naval exercise that was started by the US and India and has regularly featured Japan, it joined in the drill last year.
The Chinese military and the Quad members have crossed paths in recent times. While Indian soldiers were involved in clashes with Chinese troops at Galwan on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China last year, the US and Australia had deployed warships in the South China Sea earlier this year following a standoff involving a Chinese and Malaysian vessel.
What Has The Quad Said Are Its Goals?
The White House statement on the September 24 Quad meet says that the focus for the leaders would also be to advance “practical cooperation on areas such as combatting Covid-19, addressing the climate crisis, partnering on emerging technologies and cyberspace”.
The virtual Quad summit in March this year had seen the members commit to accelerating vaccine production and distribution to bring a speedy end to the pandemic. One of the decisions arrived at was for the US to fund the production of 1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the Hyderabad-based Biological E while Japan said it would extend loans to India for expanding vaccine manufacturing.
A fact sheet released by the White House on the March summit further said that, apart from launching a Quad Vaccine Experts Group to promote its vaccine goals, climate, and critical and emerging technology working groups would also be set up by the Quad to pursue joint engagement in these areas.
For example, it said that the Quad Climate Working Group would focus on cooperation among Quad members and other countries “to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement,” which incidentally the US had quit under Trump only to rejoin it after Biden came to power.
The Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group would seek to “facilitate coordination on technology standards development” and also “convene dialogues on critical technology supply chains”, the fact sheet said.