Leaders of four countries — India, the United States, Australia, and Japan, are scheduled to meet for the second-in person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad in Tokyo on Tuesday, May 24. Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Japan on May 23 ahead of the meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and the new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Since the first in-person meeting of the Quad in September last year, a lot has changed.
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis has triggered geopolitical shifts, driven up global inflation, and affected supply chains amid a slew of Western sanctions on Moscow. In March this year, Quad leaders discussed the situation in Ukraine in an unscheduled virtual meeting called by Mr. Biden.
What is the Quad and why was it formed?
The Quad is an informal multilateral grouping of India, the U.S., Australia, and Japan aimed at cooperation for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The region, composed of two oceans and spanning multiple continents is a hub of maritime trade and naval establishments. While not stated explicitly by the leaders, one of the major basis for the grouping is to check China’s growing influence in the region.
After the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 wreaked havoc in the region now called the Indo-Pacific, India stepped up its rescue efforts not just in Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar islands but also provided swift assistance to its maritime neighbours: Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia. Soon, the disaster relief effort was joined by three other naval powers — the U.S., Australia and Japan, with then U.S. President George W. Bush announcing that the four countries would set up an international coalition to coordinate the massive effort required.
While the charge of the rescue operations was handed over to the United Nations shortly after, and the immediate mission of the four countries had ended, it led to the birth of a new framework: the Quadrilateral or Quad. Then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had been promoting the idea of an “arc of prosperity and freedom” that brought the Quad countries closer together, developed the concept, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed it with him during a summit in December 2006. The grouping held a meeting in May 2007 but did not release an official statement. The 2007 Indo-U.S Malabar naval exercises also saw the partial involvement of Japan, Australia and Singapore. The exercises and coordination were seen by China as an attempt to encircle it, which termed the grouping as trying to build “an Asian NATO”.
The Quad lost momentum post the 2007 meeting as the effort “dissipated amidst member leadership transitions, concerns about economic repercussions from China, and attention to other national interests,” according to the U.S Congressional Research Service.
The grouping was only revived an entire decade later in 2017, at a time when all four countries had revised their assessment of the China challenge; and India had witnessed the Doklam standoff. Leaders of all four countries met in the Philippines for the ‘India-Australia-Japan-U.S.’ dialogue, not referred to as a Quad dialogue to avoid the notion of a “gang-up”. Even to this point, a set of objectives, areas of cooperation, and even the definition of Indo-Pacific were not fixed among Quad members.
March 2021 was the first time, Mr. Biden, Mr. Modi, Australia’s outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and then Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga met virtually for an official Quad summit, releasing for the first time a set of objectives for the grouping in a joint statement called the ‘The Spirit of the Quad’.
What has happened in the Quad meetings so far?
The March 2021 virtual summit gave rise to the main objectives of the Quad, outlined actionable goals, and formed expert working groups in multiple areas.
Coming together to foster a free and open Indo-Pacific formed the bedrock of cooperation. “We 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," the joint statement said. Emphasis was laid on “rule of law, territorial integrity, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, and democratic values” in the region.
The other areas of immediate focus were the pandemic through strengthening equitable vaccine access for the Indo-Pacific, combating climate change, sharing critical technologies, cyber security, supply chain resilience, and infrastructure and connectivity projects.
Quad leaders launched the Quad Vaccine Initiative (QVI) with the aim of manufacturing and distributing at least a billion COVID-19 vaccines for the Asia region by the end of 2022. The plan was to manufacture U.S. developed vaccines in India with, financing provided by the U.S. and Japan, and delivery undertaken by Australia and Japan to countries in Southeast Asia. The plan, however, has had trouble taking off for multiple reasons including legal indemnity issues with Indian law, safety concerns around the vaccine, and lower demand for vaccines in South East Asia.
As for emerging technologies, the four countries aimed to work on the development and diversification of 5G telecommunications and the creation of supply chains for critical minerals and technologies for making semiconductors used in smartphones, another area where China is a leader.
Quad nations had also agreed to build joint connectivity projects and transparent infrastructure funding for countries in the region. The emphasis on connectivity saw the Quad challenge China in another sphere: a coordinated effort to provide financing and sustainable alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has led many nations to take loans and accept infrastructure bids from Beijing.
The Quad also created a working group for combatting climate change which would oversee efforts to foster green shipping by decarbonising maritime supply chains and promoting the use of clean hydrogen.
While the in-person meeting in September last year was focused on the formalisation of cooperation areas laid down in the March summit, the unscheduled meeting called by Mr. Biden this March showed deep divisions within the Quad grouping, as India had chosen to abstain from every vote at the UN and other organisations that criticised the Russian attacks on Ukraine.
Nations discussed the setting up of new humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mechanism which would enable the Quad to meet future humanitarian challenges in the Indo-Pacific and provide a channel for communication as they each address and respond to the crisis in Ukraine.
What’s on the table at the current summit?
According to a statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs about the agenda of the May 24 summit, “The Leaders will review the progress of Quad initiatives and Working Groups, identify new areas of cooperation and provide strategic guidance and vision for future collaboration”.
The Quad summit is expected to discuss the Russian war in Ukraine, and the impact of three months of Western sanctions. India is the only member of the Quad that has not joined sanctions against Russia, while also ramping up its intake of Russian oil, buying more oil in March and April, an estimated 40 million barrels more than it had in all of 2021.
President Joseph Biden would also be unveiling the ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’ (IPEF) in Tokyo on May 23, which, according to Reuters is a programme to bind countries in the region more closely through common standards in areas including supply-chain resilience, clean energy, infrastructure and digital trade.
Mr. Modi would be attending the launch of the plan, seen as a significant step towards building economic ties amongst Quad countries, but India is likely to be cautious about its participation in IPEF as it could be seen as a counter to the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the 17-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that China is a member of.
Besides, the Financial Times reported that Quad members would be launching a plan to curb illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific region. Several countries have objected to Chinese fishing vessels often violating their exclusive economic zones resulting in economic losses, while also engaging in deep-sea trawling, which causes environmental damage.