The third in-person Quad Summit took place in Hiroshima on the sidelines of the G7 Summit on 20th May, 2023. Originally the Summit was to take place in Sydney on 23rd May under the Chairmanship of Australian PM Anthony Albanese. Just before arriving in Japan on 19th May, US President Joe Biden cancelled his visit to Australia (and Papua New Guinea) to rush back to Washington DC after the G7 deliberations to deal with the debt ceiling negotiations with the Republicans.
It was hence decided to organize the Quad Summit in Hiroshima since the other members of the Quad Grouping would also be present. It is a testament to the importance that the Quad members attach to this grouping that they decided to have the Summit in Hiroshima rather than wait for the next opportunity to travel to Australia for the meeting. It would have sent out a wrong message about the members’ commitment to the activities of the Quad and would have gladdened the heart of China (and Russia) no end if the Summit was postponed.
Evolution of The Quad
US President Donald Trump was the master of ceremonies at the resurrection of the Quad in Manila in November 2017 after a gap of ten years. The previous hesitant attempt by the four countries had occurred at the time of the Tsunami in South and Southeast Asia in December, 2004 when the Quad countries collaborated to provide succor to the devastated countries in the region. The then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe floated the idea of the Indo-Pacific during his address to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament in 2007. The initiative however sputtered to a standstill quickly on vigorous opposition from China which castigated the move as being directed against it.
The decade beginning 2008 witnessed visible evidence of China’s increasing political, military and economic strength as well as its growing assertiveness in its bilateral dealings with its neighbours and in international fora. The two defining events of this period for China were the international financial and economic crisis and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The global economic crisis proved to be a shot in the arm for China as it was able to register a comparatively robust growth by injecting a significant stimulus while the western economies including USA, Europe as well as Japan experienced a precipitous downturn. Moreover, the impressive hosting of the Olympics by Beijing in 2008 imbued it with the confidence that its time had come and it was ready to take on the world.
A few other significant developments took place over this decade. Although Chinese expansionism had started becoming evident during the reign of Hu Jintao, it assumed an entirely different dimension with the advent of Xi Jinping as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. Soon after taking over, he floated the aspirational idea of the ‘Chinese Dream’ of making China a moderately prosperous country by 2021 and taking back all territories that it considered to be its own by that date.
Another significant course of events ensued when China started occupying and militarising islands as also creating artificial ones in the South China Sea (SCS) from 2009 onwards. The unfavourable verdict on China’s claims in the SCS by the Hague based Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016 in the case filed against China by Philippines did not deter it from advancing relentlessly in establishing de-facto control over most of the SCS.
If the former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe can be credited with launching the idea of the Indo-Pacific, and former US President Donald Trump with reviving the Quad and the Indo-Pacific after a hiatus of 10 years in 2017, the current US President Joe Biden deserves all the applause for not only convening the first Quad Summit, albeit in a virtual format in March 2021, but also taking it forward at a rapid pace.
Since the first Quad Summit in March 2021, the grouping has gone from strength to strength. The fact that Biden was willing to travel to Tokyo in May, 2022 when the war in Europe was still raging is proof that Biden and the US have not taken their eyes off the Quad and that countering and balancing China in the Indo-Pacific region and the wider world continues to be the US’ most critical challenge.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict started last year in February, it was thought that the US would not have the mental band-width to give adequate attention to the Quad and the Indo-Pacific and the continuing and growing threat from China. This was proven wrong last year when President Biden attended the 2nd Quad Summit within 3 months of the start of the Conflict, and again by his presence at the 3rd Summit when the Russia-Ukraine war has been raging for the last 15 months.
The 3rd Quad Summit
The 3rd in-person Quad meeting was attended by President Biden, PMs Modi, Albanese and Kishida. The meeting provided an excellent opportunity to the leaders to share their strategic assessment about developments in the region, including in the Indo-Pacific as also, even more importantly, their shared vision of activity-based cooperation among the Quad countries across a whole range of areas. A joint statement and a vision document were issued. Both the documents focus on the positive agenda of cooperation, not just among the Quad countries, but also between the Quad countries bilaterally as also collectively with the members of the Indo-Pacific. It’s very extensive and promising in terms of where Quad has reached since its inception and where it plans to go in months and years ahead. The leaders also took a detailed stock of the areas of engagement which require rationalization, which are doing well, what more needs to be done etc. These included Indo-Pacific Partnership on Maritime Domain Awareness; the Quad Investors Network called QUIN; Clean Energy Supply Chains, principles of software security etc.
Without mentioning China, the Quad Statement contains an unambiguous reference to the activities of China in the Indo-Pacific region. The Statement reaffirms the leaders’ ‘’steadfast commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient.’’ The Statement is clear about ‘’upholding international law, including the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the rules-based international order.’’ It speaks of a ‘’region where no country dominates and no country is dominated – one where all countries are free from coercion, and can exercise their agency to determine their futures.’’ The reference to assertive and belligerent behavior of China in the South and East China Seas is unmistakable. There is also detailed reference to the centrality of ASEAN and cooperation with the Pacific Island nations. The Statement contains references to the Ukraine conflict, situation in Myanmar, condemnation of the 26/11 as well as Pathankot attack in 2016. The Statement unequivocally targets China without mentioning its name and expresses its strong opposition to destabilizing or taking unilateral actions ‘’to change the status quo by force or coercion.’’ The Statement emphasizes the importance of adherence to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, in addressing challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including those in the East and South China Seas.
The positive decisions taken by leaders of the four countries in the previous and current Summits encompass a multitude of areas including evolution of the Quad Vaccine Partnership into a broader Quad Health Security Partnership, promoting maritime domain awareness and security, collaboration in high technology sectors like Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, robotics; establishing trustworthy and resilient supply chains; cooperating to combat the rapidly advancing climate change; enhancing connectivity and infrastructure projects; promoting human rights and democracy in the world etc. This clearly brings out that the grouping has a wide-ranging and positive agenda. In addition to countering and balancing China’s aggressive maneuvers in its neighborhood and through its Belt and Road Initiative, the Quad is committed to promoting peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. As PM Modi said at the first virtual Quad Summit in March, 2021, the ‘’Quad is a force for global good.’’
China has continued to denounce the Indo-Pacific and the Quad since the announcement of its revival in November, 2017. More recently, China appears to have become nervous by its progress and the significant traction it has gained. It has become more strident in its criticism. It termed it as the ‘Asian Nato’ established to contain China. In this criticism, it has been supported by Russia. Just before the September, 2021 Summit, China condemned the gathering as a ‘clique’ and declared that it will not be supported by any country.
It is reassuring that the Quad Summit was organized in Hiroshima after the cancellation of President Biden’s visit to Australia. It is clear that the Quad has been revived to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region and the inroads it has made as a result of its BRI initiative. To emerge as a credible alternative or option to China, the Quad will have to demonstrate that it is able to implement in a quick time frame the decisions it takes during its Summits and deliberations. Otherwise it will stay just as a ‘’talk shop.’’ The fact that the leaders have been meeting annually in-person since the first Summit in Washington DC in September, 2021 is encouraging but now the time has come to deliver on the promises made.
Going forward the Quad will have to work proactively to engage more countries of the Indo-Pacific like ROK, New Zealand as also members of the ASEAN like Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and others in advancing its programs and activities.
(Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is an Executive Council Member at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and President, Institute of Global Studies. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)