First in-person Quad summit clears it’s about economic cooperation not a military apparatus

By Mayank Chhaya

Mayank Chayya

The Quad, or an informal quadrilateral grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia in existence since 2004, got more sharply defined as a broader force for global good at the just concluded first in-person summit of the four countries’ heads in Washington.

While its inherently amorphous nature is a result of the varying individual geopolitical interests and concerns of its members, China is clearly the rallying target adversary of the Quad without any of the four explicitly calling it so. However, rather than positioning itself as a direct militarist alliance against China’s often egregious conduct all over the Indo-Pacific, the Quad leaders President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Prime Minister Scott Morrison came across to be in broad agreement over the grouping’s purpose being more constructive than confrontational.

In this context, a point made by Prime Minister Modi was relevant as it referred to the genesis of the Quad in 2004 as a response to the widely devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and consequent tsunami. Seventeen years hence, a viral tsunami in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic is helping the Quad reengineer its broader role.

President Biden spoke about the importance of global cooperation in vaccine production and equitable distribution. It is here that India’s role, in particular, came into sharp relief since a billion doses of the COVID vaccines will be made in India. It is in a sense riposte to China which had early on weaponized COVID vaccine’s availability by making it not so subtly conditioned upon the recipient countries falling in line with Beijing on global political and diplomatic issues. In sharp contrast, vaccines out of India would never be turned into a political battering ram and the one billion doses would not be made available on outrageous conditions.

The positioning of the Quad as a constructive force within the Indo-Pacific and perhaps even beyond is a wiser approach in the long term since it will starkly contrast China’s predatory engagements across the world. Those who call for turning the Quad into an unambiguous militarist alliance fail to see the force it can be in a world being ravaged by not just pandemics but, far more grievously, by a menacing climate crisis.

Climate crisis is necessarily part of the Quad’s mandate since just within those four countries alone reside 1.8 billion people as well as historically the world’s greatest polluter, namely the United States. Once the 20 other Indo-Pacific countries, apart from the four Quad members, begin to see the larger good that the four countries can offer beyond just ganging up on China, a power they are all so afraid of, they too would begin to feel a sense of ease.

While it may not be part of a conscious plan, AUKUS, the unambiguous security alliance between Australia, the UK and the US, can in a way be a militarist arm of the Quad considering two of its four members, Australia and America, are also part of AUKUS.

During a background briefing for the media, yesterday about the Quad summit a senior Biden administration official insisted that there is a fundamental difference between AUKUS and the Quad, the former being a security alliance and the latter a more informal grouping with a much broader mandate. He did acknowledge that there is some overlap between the two. It is clear that the overlap is in the area of China flexing muscles in the Indo-Pacific, more specifically in the South China sea, making territorial claims against Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan among others.

Contrary to early apprehensions there is a clear path to making AUKUS and the Quad complimentary and Friday’s summit appears to have begun that process more forcefully unlike any time during the last 17 years since its tentative inception.

The fact that the Quad summit followed a bilateral summit between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi gave the latter much more gravitas. Even the bilateral Biden-Modi meeting was characterized by grand global themes such as vaccines, emerging technologies, economy and climate change. These are all these which are multigenerational and beyond the scope of just one current administration, either in New Delhi or in Washington. However, even within that macro outlook, there were relatively micro possibilities such as climate finance for decarbonizing development projects for India and other developing economies to transition a carbon-less or even carbon-free development. President Biden’s announcement during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly nearly doubling climate finance from the current $5.7 billion to $11 billion by 2024 is important. Perhaps some of that money could flow to India.

Then there are technologies such as 5G and fabrication of semiconductors in India. The prime minister’s meeting with Qualcomm CEO Christiano Amon was important in this context. Semiconductors being the heart of a wide diversity of everything that is manufactured now, from jets to instruments, from medical technologies to automobiles and from machine tools to IT, if India could get a major slice of that manufacturing it could fundamentally transform its economy.

There is so much convergence both bilaterally between America and India and multilaterally within the Quad that countries and leaders have their work cut out for decades if they choose to take it seriously.

In the narrower context of an issue such as the looming imposition of sanctions on India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). They relate to India getting ready to take the delivery of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia at the end of 2021. CAATSA, signed into law in 2017, sanctioned Russia for its actions in Ukraine. It is not clear whether Prime Minister Modi and his delegation, which included both External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar as well as National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, made any specific mention of the likely sanction.

As pointed out yesterday, President Biden is in a position to grant India a waiver, but it is not clear yet that he would. With September already ending and the end of 2021 just three months away New Delhi would feel the urgency to preempt any prospective US sanctions. In this context, it is important to remember that Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been known to oppose to the idea of a waiver. He has argued that expanding the waiver process “undermine[s] the very essence of those sanctions against Russia.” In his capacity as chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee President Biden has his work cut out should he choose to consider a waiver for India.

When it comes to India and the US, the issue of Pakistan is a permanent fixture. To many people’s surprise, it was Vice President Kamala Harris who of her own volition made a specific reference to Pakistan in the context of terrorism and how it ought to be held accountable. It was an unexpected but happy surprise for the Indian delegation that will probably leave with the feeling that the Biden administration is focused on Pakistan.

With the US withdrawing from Afghanistan Pakistan’s strategic relevance has diminished considerably. That may be one of the reasons why Vice President Harris said what she did unprompted by the Indian side. Whether this apparent shift leads to anything tangible remains to be seen.

When Biden won there were apprehensions among certain quarters both here and in India that the Democrats’ pivotal global issue of human rights could make relations with the Modi government unpleasant and tense given that New Delhi has had a less than stellar record on that front. But if the bilateral meeting between the two and apparent warmth was anything to go by those apprehensions have turned out to be misplaced. Historically, America has pursued utilitarian and pragmatic foreign relations. Add to that India’s obvious importance as President Biden sharpens China as America’s main adversary and equations become clearer.