Quad leaders hold much-awaited summit, but what is different now?

New DelhiEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: Mar 12, 2021, 11:38 PM IST
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Quad summit (representative image). Photograph:(AFP)

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For US President Joe Biden, this was the first high level engagement since he assumed office in January. With him was Vice President Kamala Harris. The meeting was initiated by Washington. That should tell you how much importance the US Attaches to the Quad.  

It was long overdue, and has finally happened. The Quad met today for its first ever summit.
This is an extremely significant geopolitical event. It will shape the strategic alliances of our world.

The Quad has four members: the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Leaders from all four countries came together for a virtual summit.  

Before this, the highest level engagement was that of ministers. Foreign ministers of all four countries have met thrice in the last three years, twice in person and once virtually.

Each time, they failed to issue a joint statement. They came up with separate statements. And they spoke in different tones. This is the first time the Quad is trying to speak in one voice.

We'll decode the first ever Quad summit, what was discussed, what will be done next.

Will the quad become more than a talking shop? And what will this alliance mean for India?

We'll discuss all this and more. First, let's talk about what happened today.  

The meeting was virtual. For US President Joe Biden, this was the first high level engagement since he assumed office in January. With him was Vice President Kamala Harris. The meeting was initiated by Washington. That should tell you how much importance the US Attaches to the Quad.  

Other leaders in attendance were Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Quad has potential. What it lacked so far, is political will.

The alliance failed to spell out specific goals. Tonight, that wasn't the case. Even before the summit began, all four countries had a clear agenda.

Securing free and open access to Indo-Pacific, the supply of vaccines--a priority considering the pandemic-and resilient supply and production chains. The opening remarks touched upon these themes. The focus was the Indo-Pacific.

All four leaders made a mention of it, and for obvious reasons.

The last year saw China's military aggression in the region: The border standoff in Ladakh, the provocations in Taiwan and South China Sea and around the Senkaku Islands near Japan.

Earlier this week, we told you about America's military assessment on the Indo-Pacific. America's top commander called China "the greatest long-term strategic threat to security".

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about a free and open Indo-Pacific.  And India's commitment to democratic values.  

All Quad allies are robust democracies. Upholding a commitment to democracy is a clear message to China. The next issue was vaccines. China is trying to push its vaccines. Even though they're unreliable.  

China says it will donate vaccines to 69 developing countries. And it is exporting vaccines to 43 countries. The Quad needs to balance the scales. Reports say it has planned financing agreements to boost manufacturing in India. Meaning they'll pour in money to make in India.

These are deals for drugmakers to make their shots in India. US President Joe Biden said vaccines will drive global growth this year.

The next issue is supply chains. Remember, China controls supply chains. The pandemic taught us why the world must diversify. The Quad today focused on the supply of rare earths. These four countries plan to build a rare earth procurement chain.

Rare earths are crucial elements. They build in practically everything we use today. And will use in the future. From smartphones to computers and batteries, rare earths are used in all. Right now, China produces nearly 60 per cent of the world's rare earths.

It controls the supply. Which means it can also dictate the international rules for future technologies.

The Quad wants to break the monopoly. So the tone is now set.

While the leaders didn't mention China, the three issues they picked up sent a clear message to Beijing: A free and open Indo-Pacific, vaccines, and global supply chains.

The Quad will confront China on all three fronts.

The timing of this Qad summit is significant. Top officials from the United States and China are meeting next week in Alaska. This is the first bilateral engagement of the Biden administration. The Quad has firmed up its alliance, just before those discussions.

And as we discuss the future of the Quad, we must also take some lessons from its past. The Quad has informally existed for 16 long years. But it has failed to go beyond being a talking shop.

Quad member nations have met in the past. They've made promises. Held naval exercises. But done little to achieve their core strategic purpose. Of containing China's influence in the Indo-Pacific.

How will it be different this time?

It emerged in 2004. It was formalised in 2007. It lay dormant for the next 10 years. Then it was revived in 2017. But it was in 2020 that the Quad arrived at a turning point. And in 2021, it assembled for the first time at the leader level. This historic gathering could change Asian geopolitics.

But does it intend to? The Quad has been toiling for the last 16 years. The principle aim of this body was strategic, to maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

But for 16 years, the Quad has failed to go beyond being a talking shop. Its promises did not translate into action on ground.

Will it be the same this time? Not really. Four clear and specific areas of cooperation have been identified this time. They will be at the centre of the Quad's future operations.

The first is maritime security and cooperation. Considerable headway was made in this area during the Trump administration. All four countries took part in the Malabar Exercise last year. This year, expanded cooperation involving the Quad and non-Quad members is on the cards.

Reports already indicate that France and the UAE will be joining hands with the Quad for naval exercises. This is being seen as a signal to China to adhere to international norms.

The second area of collaboration will be on covid-19 related issues. From the beginning of this pandemic, India's approach has been global. From rescuing foreign expats trapped in distant countries to nursing the world through its vaccine diplomacy, India has contributed immensely in the fight against Covid-19.

Reports say the Quad is looking to launch an expansive vaccine programme where vaccines will be developed in the US manufactured in India, financed by Japan and supported by Australia.

The cooperation will be stepped up to counter China's growing influence in countries hit hard by the pandemic.

The third area of cooperation is climate change. It has been gaining momentum in Joe Biden's domestic and foreign policy agenda.

This is one area where the Quad will try to corner China into delivering more. Working groups for climate change are expected to be announced soon.

The last area of economic and technological cooperation is of special significance. It indirectly recognises China as an economic and technological threat.

China, which produces 60% of the world's rare earths will see tough competition.

As the Quad joins hands to build a rare earth procurement chain and counter China's dominance, the Quad will also look to dent China's technological influence.

With investments in emerging and critical defence technologies, the Global Times has reported that the Quad could further contain Chinese tech giant Huawei.
China will be the central theme of all of Quad's initiatives but the references are oblique. The leaders have met.

Will they put their money where their mouth is? 

Is it just an anti-china coalition?

What does the quad mean for India?

Five things. One: a strategic win. Two: a boost to Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India). Three: a global leadership role. Four: pushing multilateralism. And five: it will help India become a blue economy.

We'll take these one by one. First, it's a step towards India's strategic goals.

India wants a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. India looks at the Indo-Pacific as a single, strategic construct. 

What is the Indo-Pacific? The region linking the waters of the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

In the Quad, India gets a grouping of like-minded nations. A group that is ready to defend the laws of high seas. Second, the Quad will help India rebuild its supply chains, reduce the dependence on China.

Consider this: all the Quad members have one thing in common. They disagree with Chinese military aggression. But no Quad member has been able to drag China to court for militarising the South China Sea.

You know who went to court? The Philippines. Not Japan, not even Australia. Neither the US, nor India.  

Why? Because all these countries, like the rest of the world, rely heavily on China for trade.

And that's dangerous. China can weaponise trade. The pandemic has shown us how. China can weaponise essential drugs, medical equipment, ventilators. So the world wants to break away from China.

India wants to be self-reliant. The Quad can enable that. Third, the Quad is an opportunity for India to shape the emerging world order. And this can only be done with the help of strategic relations. Quad is India's opportunity for cementing ties with the world's most prominent democracies. The US already acknowledges India as a 'major defence partner'.

In 2016, India and the US signed LE MoA, or the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. In 2020, an American military aircraft refuelled at India's strategic base in Andaman and Nicobar islands for the first time.

India has also signed an agreement with Australia on mutual logistics support. The Quad takes these strategic ties a step further.

Fourth: the Quad is India's opportunity to push for multilateralism. Quad meetings have recently been attended by three more Indo-Pacific countries.

New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam.

Countries like New Zealand have long been reluctant to be perceived as anti-China. The pandemic has changed that. The strengthening, expansion and distribution of power works in favour of India.

Fifth: Quad is also a step towards India's dream of becoming a blue economy.

India is accelerating efforts in that direction. Be it cargo, or commerce. India recently hosted a virtual maritime summit. It is improving port facilities at home, developing strategic ports abroad, be it the Chabahar in Iran or the Kaladan project in Myanmar. India is also modernising facilities in the Andaman islands. A plan worth 56.5 billion rupees was finalised in 2019.

It allows for additional warships, troops, aircraft and drones to be stationed in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. India has also commissioned a new naval station- INS Kohassa in the islands.

India wants to be a top maritime economy. But it won't be possible without the cooperation of other maritime powers. This is where the Quad becomes very crucial.

Finally... China.

There is of course, the  need to counter China. Its hard and soft powers.

There is no denying it's China's actions that have brought the Quad closer. The militarising of islands in South China Sea, the creating of artificial ones, the exporting of the Wuhan virus, China's muscle flexing in Ladakh, the death of 20 Indian soldiers.

Chinese aggression against Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia, China's quashing of Hong Kong's autonomy.

The list is long. It took all of these to finally get the four countries to hold joint military exercises, the 2020 Malabar Exercises. They say nothing makes friends like a common enemy. China is of course the binding factor of the Quad. But for India, the Quad is much more than just China.