Despite two ministerial meetings held by Japan, Australia, India and the US in Tokyo on October 6, the Quad continues to seem more aspirational than actual. First, the inability of the members to issue a joint statement and second, India’s coyness in giving the organisation symbolically a body through an operational military exercise. India is yet to deliver the long-awaited invitation to Australia to join the Malabar exercise so far held by India, Japan and the US. The key question is how serious is an incipient alliance that cannot even agree on a common statement or hold a joint maritime exercise in support of its stated goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Of course, the reasons for these failings are not hard to fathom. The shortcomings of this month’s Quad meeting in Tokyo reflects in large part the region’s unease and uncertainty about American policy. President Donald Trump has blown hot and cold about China for a long time. For now, casting China as a bogeyman responsible for Trump’s many setbacks from Covid-19 to the trade deficit is an integral part of his election strategy. Given the transactional nature of Trump’s foreign policy, there’s no guarantee he won’t revert to pursuing a deal with his good friend Xi Jinping if he returns to power on November 3. While Quad members’ individual comments left no doubt about their shared concerns about an aggressive China, few seemed ready to publicly endorse the sharp criticism voiced by secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
With US elections barely three weeks away and Trump’s electoral prospects dimming, Quad members have good reason to avoid embracing his virulently anti-Chinese position. Notwithstanding the broad bipartisan consensus on the need to stand up to China, one cannot ignore Joe Biden’s record of a moderate China policy. Given the prospect he could be America’s next leader, the Quad countries are understandably wary of being left high and dry by a domestically focussed Biden administration. The upshot of these public dissonances is an air of tentativeness about the quad. China’s denunciation of the grouping as an ‘Asian Nato’ shows Beijing’s deep concern, but doesn’t move it beyond being an aspirational body.
India dragging its feet to formally deliver the long-awaited invitation to Australia is linked to uncertainty about Canberra’s relations with China too. Not only did Australia once withdraw from the Quad to placate China, Beijing remains Australia’s main trade partner. To underscore its clout, China this week ordered a halt to coal imports from Australia. The opposition Labor Party has accused the government of starting an “economic war with China”. The delay in Indian invitation has added more weight to the decision than it would otherwise have. It’s even more incomprehensible as in July India and Australia signed an important agreement to share facilities and assure interoperability of the two militaries, removing practical obstacles to the exercise. India’s foot dragging provides no tactical advantage, while simultaneously signalling that Beijing has a veto on India’s foreign policy decisions. This timidity is also of a piece with India’s refusal to hold China responsible for the deterioration of the border situation.
India’s hesitancy has fuelled doubts about the body and therefore amplified the risk India incurs from membership. Both supporters and critics tend to view the Quad as an incipient military alliance. Critics fear India will lose its vaunted strategic autonomy by joining what appears to be an anti-China alliance. Such is the concern that last week a senior American official had to publicly declare that the United States respects India’s strategic autonomy while engaging in extensive military cooperation. However valuable, one should recognise the limits of military assistance in times of conflict. Intelligence sharing and supply of critical hardware would be of immense value, but at the end of the day to overcome Chinese military challenge India will have to depend on its own strength and social cohesion.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.