The relevance of a diminished Quad

The relevance of a diminished Quad

With the chasm between the AUKUS & Paris, India could also conceivably turn to a miffed France for nuclear-propulsion military technologies

After initially choosing not to comment on AUKUS after its announcement on September 15, India later sought to play down concerns that the Quad stood diluted now. Credit: AP File Photo

So, the much anticipated first in-person Quad summit has ended with the four-member countries issuing a lengthy statement, a detailed factsheet and even a separate significant statement on the "Quad Principles on Technology Design, Development, Governance, and Use."

With the first summit being held in the virtual mode in early March, US President Joe Biden, Indian PM Narendra Modi, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga met physically in the East Room of the White House for two hours on September 24.

And therein lies the importance of the meet, with Biden signalling his administration's intent to step up the engagement in the Indo-Pacific in the wake of China's belligerence in the region.

And yet, despite the leaders of four of the world's leading democracies converging in Washington DC for a summit-level meeting within a span of six months, much of its strategic thunder was stolen by the freshly-minted AUKUS.

Announced just days ahead of the Quad summit, Australia, the UK and the US plan to expand their defence capabilities under the rubric of the AUKUS trilateral military pact.

To begin with, Australia will acquire eight nuclear-powered (not nuclear-armed) submarines with assistance from the US and UK. With Australia consequently cancelling a $66 billion contract with France for conventional diesel-electric submarines, Paris is obviously hopping mad.

After initially choosing not to comment on AUKUS after its announcement on September 15, India later sought to play down concerns that the Quad stood diluted now.

Foreign secretary Harshvardhan Shringla has stated that while the Quad is a "plurilateral grouping", AUKUS is a security alliance between three countries. "We are not a party to this alliance. From our perspective, this is neither relevant to the Quad, nor will it have any impact on its functioning," he said.

It was amidst the backdrop of AUKUS taking shape that the second Quad summit was held. The summit's joint statement shows that the Quad will continue to focus on the Covid-19 response, vaccine partnerships, climate change, infrastructure development, and education.

Running into a lengthy 17 paragraphs, as opposed to the five-paragraph joint statement issued after the first summit, it's a mix of old iterations now elaborated upon in greater detail with some new initiatives thrown in. The statement and allied documents, however, do little to disabuse the notion among many that AUKUS is now the strategic partnership to watch out for in the Indo-Pacific.

Of course, the Quad's joint statement made the mandatory reference to a "free and open Indo-Pacific". It affirmed to "recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond." 

With no military heft like AUKUS, the Quad will seek to counter China by other means. An important initiative, detailed in the Quad principles on technology, is clearly aimed at countering China in the technology realm. "Technology should not be misused or abused for malicious activities such as authoritarian surveillance and oppression, for terrorist purposes, or to disseminate disinformation," it said.

The Quad summit also expressed support for 5G deployment and diversification to help member countries to promote a "resilient and secure telecommunication ecosystem." This is important since the Chinese company Huawei with its 5G technology, has been widely perceived as intrusive and a threat to national security by many countries. India too left out Huawei when it announced the commencement of 5G trials in May this year.

Notably, the Quad also focused its attention on critical technologies such as semi-conductors and decided to launch a joint initiative to ensure their supply-chain security.

But the AUKUS has somewhat diluted the Quad's strategic salience in the Indo-Pacific. While some argue that the trilateral security alliance will supplement the Quad's efforts, there are fears it will effectively reduce the Quadrilateral grouping to playing second fiddle in this region.

This, just when the Quad appeared to be coming into its own, having moved from official-level meetings and anodyne statements running into a few sentences when the grouping was revived in 2017, to two summits within just six months this year.

Many in the Indian defence establishment are irked that while the US has consistently rebuffed it over the years even to discuss nuclear propulsion for submarines and aircraft carriers, it had no such qualms when it came to Australia. India, of course, is not a military treaty ally of the US like Australia, Japan and the UK.

There is also the reality that India and Japan, both facing an already aggressive China on their frontiers, do not want a further spike in tensions with their immediate and much larger neighbour through an avowedly military alliance like the AUKUS.

With the huge chasm erupting between the AUKUS and Paris, India could also conceivably turn to a miffed France for nuclear-propulsion military technologies. As part of the robust bilateral partnership, France is already building the Scorpene diesel-electric submarines in India and supplying the Rafale fighter jets to the IAF.

Soon after the announcement of the AUKUS, French president Emmanuel Macron incidentally was on the phone with Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Only time will tell if the military initiatives under AUKUS actually complement the non-military ones under the Quad to take on China in the Indo-Pacific. India, of course, will have to prepare for any eventuality.

(The writer is a senior journalist. Twitter: @ParulChandraP)

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