India should assume a proactive role to formalize the QUAD Security Dialogue mechanism. Some have viewed India as the “weakest link” in this emerging grouping of Asian powers and others consider Indian position ambiguous and role inadequate.
Quadrilateral dialogue among India, Australia, Japan and the United States began in 2007. It was inspired by Tokyo, but was literally in a limbo for ten years until it was revived in Manila in 2017. QUAD’s resurgence, in addition, was as lacklustre as the aftermath of its birth when it was quietly shelved probably due to underlying Chinese opposition to this very idea.
When the top political leaders of the above four countries went to Manila to participate in East Asia Summit in November 2017, officials of the four countries met and discussed security situation, especially terrorism and nuclear proliferation, on the side lines of the summit, the word spread that the quadrilateral security dialogue was resuscitated.
No agreement was signed, no MOU was considered, no treaty was envisaged and no joint statement was issued after this meeting. But the media reports and opinion pieces and strategic speculations in the region and outside of it mushroomed. Had there been no independent announcements on this dialogue from four different capitals, which had no coherence or coordination of ideas, conjectures on the future of QUAD in the global strategic community perhaps could have been avoided.
Was it just preliminary bid to restart the QUAD and the four countries refrained from announcing any new plans or initiatives, before the details were worked out? Was it a serious endeavour to create a new strategic platform of democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific that failed to take off due to lack of strategic convergences? Why did the security dialogue among the four not pick up steam after the Manila meet? Why has there been no concerted effort to formalise a dialogue process at second track diplomatic level or top bureaucratic level or foreign/defence minister level?
There has, in fact, been no major progress of QUAD since then until Admiral Phil Davidson, head of the US Pacific Command, dropped a bombshell by saying the QUAD might be shelved reportedly due to India’s disinterest. He referred to Indian navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba who apparently said that there was no “immediate potential for Quad”. Fate of QUAD suddenly appeared to have hung in balance. No death, yet no credible signs of life either. Without much delay, Asia spokesman of the Pentagon, Col Dave Eastburn, soon clarified that the US was not walking away from the evolving Quad Security Dialogue.
QUAD has been an enigma at best. Is it an anti-China group emerging in Indo-Pacific? Why should there be only four members to discuss the security issues in a large region like the Indo-Pacific? If the goal is to manage the Chinese challenge, why not include all those countries interested in preventing Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific? Is it really a grouping of democratic countries? Why are then several other democratic countries not part of it? Is it a diplomatic body? What is the need of it when there are ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and other forums to conduct diplomatic dialogues? Why did the four countries start giving it a shape by holding naval exercises then? If there are trilateral forums, such as Japan, America and India (JAI), the US, Japan and South Korea, the US, Japan and Australia, what is the need to have this QUAD?
All these questions and speculations need to be set at rest. India should take the initiative to strengthen and concretize this forum. It would serve India’s interest as well the interests of other members.
China, that opined that QUAD would dissipate like “sea foam”, should not be allowed to wield a veto over formalization of QUAD. All members of the QUAD have deeper economic cooperation with China and thus interpreting QUAD as an anti-China forum would be outright illogical. However, it is important to persuade China that QUAD has no containment strategy. India is a member of a trilateral forum with Russia and China for years now and RCI has no containment strategy either.
The forum can best be explained as an initiative aimed at realising common goals of the four member countries. The common goal is clearly upholding the rule-based order currently existing in the region. While the QUAD should not seek to contain China, it has to inhibit China from unilaterally making its own rule and enforcing a Sino-centric order. Genuine growth and expansion of Chinese trade and economic activities can be welcome, but the way China has been asserting its sovereignty over disputed land and maritime territories are clearly causing instability and require deft handling.
Besides China, ASEAN is another body that is apprehensive of getting marginalized in playing its central role in Asian security affairs. QUAD is surely not anti-ASEAN and its role is not going to replicate what ASEAN’s is. All the member countries have cordial and constructive ties with ASEAN and QUAD will most likely complement and not replace ASEAN’s security role in the region.
India’s role is crucial in shaping the QUAD, as other three members are part of bilateral alliances, whereas India has maintained strategic partnership with them.