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Project Quad serves notice to China’s military ambitions

By holding an important meeting, the Quad Grouping has jolted China’s vaunting military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. The Foreign Ministers of India, the US, Japan and Australia met for the third time in the Quad format on February 18, where they nailed the importance of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ as their common vision.

Quad members made it plain that they would unitedly oppose any attempts by China to alter the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region by force, including its use of coastguard fleet to harass foreign fishing ships in the contested waters of the East and the South China Sea. Rejecting China’s repeated muscle flexing targeting Taiwan, all four nations vowed to uphold the sovereignty of partners and friends in the region.

It was the first time the Quad nations had met since the change of the US administration. The consensus reached by all four nations to oppose China’s military moves will almost certainly give Beijing pause for thought about its next moves in the region. More so, as moves are now afoot to elevate the political level of the Quad meetings—from foreign ministers to heads of state and government.

The meeting spotlighted India’s commitment to the Quad and nailed the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity, notwithstanding the on-going military disengagement process with China in eastern Ladakh.

Focusing on the Indo-pacific, India said, “their productive exchange of views on regional issues included a reiteration of their common vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, with clear support for ASEAN cohesion and centrality. It was noted that the Indo-Pacific concept had gathered growing international support, including in Europe. It was important for the international community that the direction of changes remains positive and beneficial to all.” This was the oblique reference to China.

Japan could hardly conceal its irritation with show of muscularity by China in the East and the South China Sea. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told Quad nations that Japan was worried about another round of power play from China in the region.

Beijing’s new law, starting on 1 February, explicitly allows the Chinese coastguard to use weapons against foreign ships that it sees as illegally entering its waters. The Japanese government is concerned that its vessels navigating around the islands could be targeted by China. In its statement, Japan said: “Foreign Minister Motegi expressed serious concern about China’s Coast Guard Law, and the four Ministers concurred to strongly oppose unilateral and forceful attempts to change the status quo in the context of the East and the South China Sea.”

The Japanese are particularly concerned about the use of Chinese coastguard and trying to make the management of the seas a domestic law enforcement issue as opposed to one that involves sovereign states, which is a dangerous precedent.

Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State also repeated Washington’s support for  advancing the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The Chinese analysts voicing concern that the United States wanted to turn the Quad into a “complete anti-China club” and President Joe Biden was turning to multilateralism to declare that “Captain America is back.”

Blinken has said that the Trump administration was right to take a tougher approach to China. The Biden administration has repeated several times that it will follow the previously articulated Indo-Pacific strategy in a manner as a natural progression. The US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pronounced that the Quad would serve as a ‘foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region.’

Launched in 2007, the Quad was an idea of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was eager to find partners to balance a rising China. While Australia and India had been initially cautious about antagonising China, the Quad format has expanded in recent years as both nations’ relationships with Beijing deteriorate, with the four nations holding joint naval exercises in November off India’s shores.

The Quad’s creation is widely considered a united front by democratic nations in response to China’s rise, including its aggression in the East and South China Seas. Another takeaway from the meeting that will raise concerns for China is resolve of the four nations, not only to hold regular Foreign Minister meetings, but laying the groundwork for a first-of-its-kind Quad leaders’ meeting in coming months.