The second foreign ministerial meeting of the Quadrilateral (Quad) at Tokyo on October 6, to build a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, did not result in a joint statement nor was a headquarters established, indicating a delay in the institutionalisation process and the subtle differences on the matter between the members.
Yet, unlike the first meeting at New York in September last year and the previous six meetings at lower levels, several joint initiatives are at the implementation stage, suggesting a successful consensus-building process. These include, firstly, vaccine development for Covid-19. With an R&D base and production capacity to develop and distribute the vaccine, the Quad countries’ initiative in this regard is timely.
Secondly, the spread of Covid-19 resulted in interruption of transportation networks, and in addition to the US-China trade war, has led to critical supply chain disruptions. The Tokyo meeting pondered over how to make resilient the supply chain mechanisms. Despite the last few months’ shutdown in economic activity and falling growth rates, certain efforts like shifting production centres to Vietnam, Indonesia and India are bearing results, albeit slowly.
Thirdly, the Quad has been eyeing opportunities that 5G telecom technologies offer. With China’s Huawei coming under the scanner in many countries for its connections to the Chinese Party-State apparatus, State subsidies and cybersecurity challenges, the Quad – some of whom are part of the Five Eyes programme – have been wary of potential security challenges from China.
Fourthly, several fundamental agendas for the Quad as mentioned at the 2017 Danang meeting in Vietnam -- free and open Indo-Pacific, rule of law, maritime security and connectivity, counter-terrorism, opposing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the like, are bearing results. Ever since China began militarising the South China Sea and defied the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on international maritime law, this issue has become prominent, threatening the free flow of trade and services through the region. China’s cajoling of the South-East Asian countries to sign a ‘Code of Conduct’ before next year has added urgency to the Quad process.
Fifthly, the Quad is attracting attention from a wider community of nations. There is a proposal for Quad Plus – to possibly include Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, in addition to Germany, France and UK. This could make the Quad more inclusive and broadbased to cater to different regions of the world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about inclusivity and ASEAN centrality in his Shangri La dialogue in June 2018. At the Tokyo meeting, ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific was endorsed. ASEAN had earlier endorsed international law in resolving the South China Sea dispute.
Sixthly, while the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was explicit in his criticism of China’s track record, other Quad members could only shore up courage in a multilateral initiative. For instance, on the current border standoff in eastern Ladakh, New Delhi needs to have a comprehensive game plan, in which the Quad has a part to play. The meetings with Myanmar and Afghanistan officials are to shore up support for India in the event of large-scale encirclement designs by Beijing, which is actively roping in Nepal and Sri Lanka, besides provoking Pakistan to open a second front against India.
Likewise, for Australia, which has coming under China’s intense coercive economic and diplomatic pressure after Canberra raised the Covid-19 issue at the World Health Assembly meet, the Quad process provides support. Besides, Australia could bounce back into the Malabar Exercises that it had shunned in September 2007 under Beijing’s pressure.
For Tokyo, which is facing the twin disasters of a Covid-19-induced economic meltdown and China’s pounding pressure on the Senkaku islands, with over 600 transgression in the last year, the Quad could provide security in the longer run. Besides, as one of the main proposers of “free and open Indo-Pacific”, Tokyo would like to see the project come to fruition as a tribute to the ailing Shinzo Abe.
In all these, China’s efforts at “occupying the global centre stage” as unveiled in the 2017 Communist Party Congress, and which resulted in the acute contest in the Indo-Pacific’s continental and maritime domains, appears to have met their match.
China’s position on the Quad changed from Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s comments in 2017 of it being mere “oceanic foam” that would dissipate soon to last week’s foreign ministry spokeswoman’s comment that Beijing is opposed to “organising closed and exclusive cliques.” Many China-led multilateral institutions actually remain exclusive and conditional. With strong opposition from the US and other Quad members, China is expected to take a more strident tone against the Quad in the coming days and weeks in the form of balancing, aiding and expanding its influence.