The Return of the Quad

From left to right: Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono at the ASEAN Summit in Manila on August 7 2017. It was during this gathering that Kono proposed the quad to his counterparts. Image Credit: US State Department

The idea of the ‘quad’, a quadrilateral grouping consisting of India, the US, Japan and Australia, is gaining some traction once again, even as China looks on warily, .

As this blog had noted on October 27, Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono told The Nikkei that his country would propose a high-level dialogue between the four countries.

‘The idea is for the leaders of the four nations to promote free trade and defense cooperation across a stretch of ocean from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean and all the way to Africa,’ according to the story in The Nikkei.

It would also ‘be aimed at counteracting China’s aggressive maritime expansion under its Belt and Road initiative.’

Kono told The Nikkei he had already discussed the idea with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop.

While Kono does not appear to have reached out to his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, initial indications are that India wants to hear out Japan.

When asked about the ‘quad’ proposal at a weekly press conference, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said India was ready to cooperate with other countries ‘on issues that advance our interests and promote our viewpoint’.

‘As far as we are concerned, we have an open mind to cooperate with countries with convergence but obviously on an agenda which is relevant to us,’ Kumar said, according to The Wire.

While there seems to be no agreed agenda, representatives from the four countries are expected to meet during the East Asia Summit in Manila on November 13-14.

Needless to say, China will be closely watching what happens. In an official statement, its foreign ministry said it hoped the proposed grouping ‘would not target or damage’ a ‘third party interest’.

The quad’s struggle for relevance  

The idea of the quad was first mooted a decade ago by the Japanese. In May of 2007, a modest ‘exploratory meeting’ between senior officials from the four countries provoked Beijing into issuing diplomatic demarches to each country.

Later that year, India hosted a Malabar exercise in the Indian Ocean that included the three potential quad countries and Singapore. The exercise prompted large-scale protests by India’s communist parties, causing the government of the day to scrap plans for future exercises of this nature.

In December 2007, Kevin Rudd, widely regarded as a Sinophile, became Australia’s prime minister, and two months later, announced his country’s withdrawal from the quadrilateral dialogue at a joint press conference in Beijing with China’s foreign minister. The quad appeared to be dead before it even got started.

While some in India believe there is enough blame to go around for the death of the quad, much of the country’s foreign policy and strategic community point fingers at Rudd in particular and Australia in general.

Australians have sought to refute this belief and assure Indians they are committed to serious cooperation. But while it’s likely India will get over its misgivings about Australia in the coming years, other concerns are likely to inhibit its participation in the quad.

For instance, India is likely to keep Australia out of the annual Malabar exercises for the time being. Earlier this year, it did not respond to an Australian request to join the trilateral exercise in the Bay of Bengal between the navies of India, the US, and Japan. This may be partly because of residual doubts about Australia. But as former Naval officer Abhijit Singh points out, any such Indian decision would primarily be driven by concerns that the Chinese could step up submarine patrols in the region.

There will also be concerns about the quad’s involvement in infrastructure projects in the subcontinent as it tries to provide some alternative options to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In a new column, The Hindu’s diplomatic affairs editor Suhasini Haidar argues that involving the quad countries in development projects in the subcontinent could reduce India’s leverage with its neighbours.

Bhutan could be a prime example of this loss of influence, according to Haidar.

‘India’s counter to China’s persistent demand for a diplomatic mission in Thimphu, for example, could be to help the U.S. set up a parallel mission there — but once those floodgates open, they will be hard to shut,’ she writes.

Deepening cooperation with the quad could also mean more foreign warships making regular port calls in India’s backyard.

‘In Sri Lanka, the U.S. and Japan will now partner in India’s efforts to counter China’s influence, but whereas India objected to Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, it will not be able to object to an increase in U.S. naval warships and Japanese presence there.’

These dilemmas will trouble India’s politicians and diplomats even as they explore the possibilities of the quad in Manila next week.

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