Beyond 'Indo-Pacific Nato'

The first virtual meeting of the four Quad leaders after Joseph Biden took office as American president offers clear signals that the four-nation grouping of the US, Japan, Australia, and India is moving decisively beyond the narrow security partnership to a geo-political grouping that encompasses other areas of cooperation as a means of challenging China’s regional hegemony. This much was clear from a Ministry of External Affairs statement ahead of the summit, referring to maintaining a “free open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” and to building relations to ensure “resilient supply chains, emerging and critical technologies, maritime security and climate change”. Instead of limiting itself, as it has in the past, to a programme of joint naval exercises, the four leaders leveraged the flexible nature of the grouping — there is no explicit treaty that binds it — to address the most urgent global challenge, of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.

The new agenda directly addresses the criticism of “vaccine nationalism”, which has afflicted rich countries and builds on each member country’s individual capabilities to manufacture and distribute one billion doses of vaccine. Under the plan, the US and Japan will fund the expansion of India’s manufacturing capacity and Australia would provide the logistical support to strengthen access and “last-mile” vaccine delivery in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Specifically, the US Development Finance Corporation will work with Hyderabad-based Biological E Ltd to make one billion doses of the single-jab Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This initiative, together with the first joint statement titled “The Spirit of the Quad”, explicitly indicates closer collaboration over a wider range of subjects. Three new working groups have been set up as well, one for vaccine implementation and two other on climate change and critical and emerging technology. Earlier meetings of Quad leaders usually ended with separate read-outs by each member country. All of this skilfully undercuts China’s contemptuous claim that the Quad was little more than an “Indo-Pacific Nato”.

It is clear that the Democrat administration in the United States has chosen to make the Quad a stepping stone towards an Asia-Pacific pivot four years after Donald Trump withdrew the US signature from the Trans Pacific Partnership, forged under the leadership of Barack Obama. A trip to Japan is planned in April. It was Mr Trump’s administration that revived the Quad — titled Quad 2.0 — in 2017, after six years of relative inactivity following Australia’s withdrawal from the grouping on objections from China. The Trump initiative was unambiguously part of his administration’s larger trade war against Beijing and the first official-level meeting took place a year and 10 months after his inauguration. The naval Exercise Malabar involving the four members took place in the Bay of Bengal and the north Arabian Sea November last year. The fact that the Biden administration has moved to take the Quad forward less than two months after he was sworn in reflects his more wide-ranging approach to China’s geo-strategic threats in the region. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out in his opening remarks, “the Quad has come of age. It will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region”. The universal quality of the new engagement also offers India a good opportunity to respond to China’s security threats, whether in the Himalayas or Indian Ocean, with measured pragmatism, and transcend the futile shrill nationalism of the year before.


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