Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of Japan and Australia took part in a suddenly convened “Quad Summit” hosted by U.S. President Joseph Biden on Thursday to announce a new mechanism for humanitarian assistance in the Indo-Pacific, and the impact of the Ukraine crisis on the region.
The meeting came even as deep divisions appeared within the Quad grouping, as India has chosen to abstain from every vote at the UN and other organisations that criticised the Russian attacks on Ukraine in the past week, while the U.S., Japan and Australia have been calling for a tough line on Moscow. A U.S. State Department cable that appeared in an online news report on Thursday — that was subsequently retracted as an “error” — said India’s abstentions place it in “Russia’s camp”.
“The Quad leaders discussed the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and assessed its broader implications. They agreed to set up a new humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mechanism which will 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,” a joint statement issued by the White House said.
The Quad summit, that comes after an in-person meeting of leaders of the four countries in Washington in September last year, will be followed by another in-person summit in Tokyo “in the coming months”, the statement said.
Officials said the Quad meeting was held in order to present a united front in the face of the Ukraine crisis, and to underscore that Washington’s new focus on the European conflict would not take away from the grouping’s commitment in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the leaders differed on the emphasis they put on the Ukraine crisis in separate messages.
“The Prime Minister emphasised the need to return to a path of dialogue and diplomacy,” a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office said after the meeting, but “underlined” that the Quad must “remain focused on its core objective of promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region”.
In a slightly different take, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the Quad discussed the need to stop the use of force in the Indo-Pacific region, in a statement appearing to liken China’s aggression in the region to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
“We agreed that we should not allow any unilateral change to the status quo by force in the Indo-Pacific region like the latest case (in Ukraine) and we need to step up efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific in times like this,” Mr. Kishida told reporters at his office in Tokyo after joining the meeting.
Meanwhile U.S. President Biden tweeted that he discussed with PM Modi, PM Kishida and Australian PM Scott Morrison “about Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine”, and the Quad’s “commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific.”
The timing of the Quad meeting was particularly significant as Mr. Modi has held two lengthy conversations with Russian President Putin in the past week, discussing the Ukraine crisis and the need for the safe evacuation of Indian citizens. India and Russia are also in talks about opening a new evacuation route from Eastern Ukraine to the Russian border city of Belgorod, so Indians can travel out of the conflict zone, and return to India from Russia. Mr. Modi and Mr. Putin’s conversations were held just before the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly votes, where India abstained.
According to a report on online site Axios.com, the U.S. State Department spokesperson had admitted that the Department had retracted a cable meant as talking points for U.S. diplomats in India and UAE after the UNSC vote in which both countries had abstained.
“Continuing to call for dialogue, as you [India and the UAE] have been doing in the Security Council, is not a stance of neutrality; it places you in Russia’s camp, the aggressor in this conflict,” said the draft of what U.S. diplomats should tell Indian and UAE diplomats, adding, “We strongly encourage you to take the opportunity to support Ukraine in the HRC [Human Rights Council], an opportunity you failed to seize in the UNSC [United Nations Security Council].”
MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi declined to comment on the report. When asked, the U.S. Embassy spokesperson in New Delhi, said, citing the State Department spokesperson that the “cable included inaccurate language and was released in error.”
The Embassy spokesperson said that the U.S. continues to engage with partners in India and around the world to “discuss the importance of a strong collective response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, adding that India’s own commitment to following the UN charter and respecting international law on territorial integrity and sovereignty should be noted.
(with inputs from Sriram Lakshman in Washington)