The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, popularly known as the Quad is becoming more vibrant and vocal to achieve shared vision of liberal international order – nurturing democratic political governance, strengthening market driven economies, and cherishing societal pluralism and diversity. The 4th Quad Foreign Ministerial level meeting held on 10-11 February 2022 in Australia has reinforced this commitment for strengthening the rules-based international order through advancing bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the region. The thrust of this meeting has been consolidating cooperation on “Covid-19 vaccination delivery, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief [HADR], maritime security, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, countering disinformation, climate change, and critical and emerging technologies” as stated by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while departing for the meeting and trip to the Indo-Pacific region.
Novelty in Agenda and Approach
A cursory survey of previously held foreign ministerial level meetings indicates that the Quad partners have been constantly devising mechanism to addresses non-military security threats from a human security centric approach. In fact, the origin of the Quad is grounded in tackling the non-traditional security threats. They have been equipping and preparing the Quad partners and the weaker states of the Indo-Pacific region to combat against the emerging threats ranging from the 2004 tsunami to the Covid-19 pandemic. The first-ever Quad Foreign Ministerial level meeting was held in September 2019 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Though, they have not issued a joint statement, but the individual statements of ministers reflects similarity in content and intent – institutionalizing network of like-minded Indo-Pacific partners for building shared values of open, prosperous and inclusive region.
The 2nd meeting of foreign ministers of the quad partners was held on 6 October 2020 in Tokyo to follow up the earlier discussions and to outline a coordinated response strategy to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemics and its socio-economic and political fallouts. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ statement underlines that they have discussed issues of mutual interest pertaining to regional connectivity, HADR, maritime security, and counter terrorism. They have reiterated their commitment to uphold the centrality of the ASEAN for building free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Similarly, during the 3rd Quad foreign ministerial level meeting held on 18 February 2021, the Ministers have reaffirmed the Quad’s motto “upholdong a rules-based international order, underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas and peaceful resolution of disputes”.
The regular annual meetings of foreign ministerial level have naturally elevated and institutionalized the role of the Quad partners to deliberate over the long-term as well as immediate security and strategic concerns. It has also given prominence to issues of so-called “low politics”. The agenda also reflects concern of the Quad members towards real and substantial problems of the small islands and the ASEAN countries of the Indo-Pacific region. The focus on these issues is also vital to bolster collective persona to vast and diverse Indo-Pacific. In short, continuity of these dialogues is indicative of the seriousness of the superpower (the US) and major powers (Japan, India, Australia) to deliver their global responsibilities and duties towards the international community. Thus, the reprioritization of the issues and approach of the Quad is certainly novel and necessary to counter the unpredictable and uncertain threats. However, some of military security concerns demands immediate attention.
Heart of the Problem
The shifting balance of power certainly relocates the epicenter of global politics from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. The emerging great power rivalry between China and the US has been steering this churn since the global financial crisis of 2008. Despite this, the US-led Quad has remained relatively implicit and ambiguous to contain China, rather they focuses on engaging China to socialize and integrate into the rules-based liberal international order. On the contrary, China has been explicitly alleging that the Quad is creating ‘exclusive blocs’ as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian states, “We oppose exclusive blocs to create bloc confrontation” that reinforce the Cold War mentality and wedges between regional countries.
However, a reading of the agenda of the Quad meetings suggests they have refrained and reluctant to address collectively the military threats posed by China. Simply put, some of the pertinent traditional security questions remain either undercover or intentionally kept of out of the agenda. Consider the following: Have the Quad pondered on the issues of aggressive military Threats from China? Then, how would the Quad constrain and undermines the military power of China through the existing Indo-Pacific strategy? How would the US facilitate its key allies, namely Japan, India, and Australia to catch up with China’s growing military capabilities and strategies?
Why these concerns are critical? First, the geographical proximity and historical legacies of Japan and India vis-à-vis China increases possibility of direct military threat from China. The ongoing border skirmishes between India and China are early symptoms and constantly haunt India in multiple ways. Strategically, it limits India’s alignment with the West and Indo-Pacific. Economically, it complicates India’s commitments to invest and aid the countries of the Indo-Pacific. Politically, it resurfaces the territorial insecurity and threat to India’s relatively peaceful borderlands. To counter this, India needs firm political support and high-end military wherewithal/technology from the US and others, at concessional rate, if not free. As Brahma Chellaney puts it “China’s military buildup against India surpasses Russia’s buildup against Ukraine”. Similarly, the growing Chinese aggressive military strategies underline Japan’s strategic autonomy and poses existential threats. But, the 4th Quad ministerial meeting remains mum on China’s aggressive military build-up.
Second, China uses “salami-slicing” strategy to control the territories and islands of the neighboring countries. It is China’s subtle, patient, and gradual approach to alter the status quo of the contested maritime waters and disputed territories. Through using this strategy China has controlled and started administrating more than 80 archipelagos and islands in the South China Sea and beyond. The PLA aircrafts have violated airspace of multiple countries ranging from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and India. In the Himalayan region, China has upped the ante using the “salami-slicing” to derail the border dispute settlement negotiations and alter the existing status. In recent past, Beijing has promulgated assertive and provocative “Land Border Law (LBL)” to legitimize its “salami-slicing” strategy. The LBL rejuvenates the “Civil-Military Integration (CMI)” to empower the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese paramilitary forces to prevent the development of connectivity and infrastructure. This would lead to precarious military tensions along the Himalayan borderlands – not limited to China-India, but also threatens Nepal and Bhutan.
Third, on 4 February 2022 at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, “China has just entered the Year of the Tiger according to the lunar calendar. Tiger is a symbol of strength, courage and fearlessness”. This reflects the geo-psychology the Chinese leadership to transfer its Wolf-warrior diplomacy towards Tiger-warrior diplomacy. It would endanger the agency and sovereignty of the weak and small countries of the Indo-Pacific regions. As China’s shifting approach, not only dictates neighbours through its economic robustness, rather becoming a political and military dictator in the region. This makes India and other partners more vulnerable vis-à-vis China. Therefore, the US soft balancing strategy through the Quad against China reflects certain limitations and lacunas on traditional security front.