Asean and revival of the 'Quad'

In less than a month after the Chinese leadership pleaded to work towards the emergence of China as a "modern society and strong power", the gathering of the world's top leaders in Manila at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit and East Asia Summit assumed huge significance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also on a three-day visit to the Philippines to participate in the 15th Asean-India summit and East Asia Summit. While Modi lauded the completion of 50 years of Asean, the prime minister also expressed his commitment to work with the East Asia Forum to address political, security and economic issues of the Asia-Pacific region.

In fact, in the post-liberalisation era, improving ties with Southeast Asian countries has always been a priority for India and it has become more important under the Modi government's "Act East" policy. This is evident from the fact that India-Asean trade and investment relations have been growing steadily, with Asean being India's fourth largest trading partner. India's trade with Asean has increased to $ 70 billion in 2016-17 from $ 65 billion in 2015-16.

Modi became the first Indian prime minister in the last 30 years to visit the Philippines, with the two countries signing four agreements to enhance cooperation in defence, trade, agriculture and foreign services. He also made a strong pitch for expanding ties with the countries of this region by inviting Asean leaders to be the chief guest at the 2018 Republic Day parade.

Of course, Modi identifying terrorism and extremism as the major challenge facing the Asia-Pacific and calling on Asean member countries to work collectively to eradicate this menace was seen as an attempt to expose the dubious record of China and Pakistan on this issue.

Another highlight of the Asean summit was the meeting of the representatives of the four democratic countries - the US, Japan, Australia and India - which was focused on the promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.

In fact, the idea of the quadrilateral grouping was first launched in 2006. However, during these years this democratic grouping, also known as "Quad", did not see much engagement, except an informal meeting and a joint naval exercise in 2007.

True, in the past India had its own reasons to be apprehensive about the significance of this grouping. While India did not want to antagonise China by becoming a part of any such blocks aimed at containing China, it equally believed that any of the other three countries could also hardly take a tough call against China, given their bilateral economic and other interests with Beijing.

However, in the recent times, things have changed very fast. China's Belt and Road Initiative, its assertive posturing in the South China Sea, the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, China's attempt to intensify the border dispute with India and New Delhi's deepening bilateral engagement with the US, Japan and Australia played a crucial role in the government thinking about reviving the quadrilateral association. One of the first signs was the 2014 Joint Statement issued during Modi's visit to the US.

'Natural partners'

In this, Modi and Obama pledged to work together to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Trump administration has further expressed its earnest desire to invest in its "natural strategic partner," India.

While it is too early to judge the importance of the Quad for India's strategic and economic interests, the meeting of the quadrilateral association and Modi's saying that India will try to "live up to the expectations of the US" soon after his talks with Trump clearly indicated the US' success in making India more venerable vis--vis China.

In this context, it would be appropriate to remind ourselves that while the Trump administration is not forthcoming on several vital issues concerning India, including the H1B visa issue, transfer of dual-technology and others, it also strategically chose to observe silence during the Doklam crisis.

Moreover, the quadrilateral meeting between the US, Japan, India and Australia has not gone unnoticed by China. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, in fact, said that the US, Japan, India and Australia should not target Beijing, the relevant proposal should be open, inclusive and should be conducive to the win-win cooperation and avoid politicising or excluding some relevant parties.

The Asean countries have preferred not to give importance to the reemergence of this grouping. In fact, on the South China issue, China and Asean members signed an agreement on the drafting of a South China Sea code, indicating these countries are not interested in jeopardising their engagement with China.

Thus, while the Modi government's efforts have expanded the engagement with Asean countries, the success of the quadrilateral forum depends on the extent to which these four countries identify not only common objectives but also take comprehensive efforts to achieve them.

(The writer is a research fellow
at Chennai Centre for China Studies
)

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