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EFSAS Commentary

In spite of India’s ambivalence on Ukraine, it has creditably also retained its salience in the Quad


Leaders of the Quad nations, United States (US) President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australia’s newly-elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, met in Tokyo on 24 May for the Quad summit. The BBC termed this summit as one of the most important meetings relevant to the geopolitics and security of the Indo-Pacific region to take place in recent years. Prior to the summit, however, there had been some suggestion that India may come under pressure by the US on its carefully crafted position of neutrality on the Ukraine conflict. However, walking down such a path would not only have been myopic of the US, it would also have detracted from the primary goal of the Quad of countering a belligerent China. After all, the steady decline in each Quad nation’s bilateral ties with China in the past few years seems to have given the grouping the burst of impetus that is visible today. By all accounts, it seems that good sense prevailed at the summit, and from India’s perspective Tokyo proved to be the “most productive” Quad summit so far, and a major “diplomatic accomplishment”.

Many pundits had predicted the rapid unraveling of the bonhomie that India had evolved with the West, especially the US, after the former categorically chose to honour old friendships and repay old debts by repeatedly abstaining at the many recent motions that were introduced in the United Nations (UN) against Russia over its brutal invasion of Ukraine. It is not that India has not recognized and denounced the gruesome violence that is playing out in Ukraine; it is just that it believes it has strong reasons that prevent it from forsaking Russia. The close historical relations that were forged by successive generations of Indian and Soviet leaders throughout the Cold War evolved with time into a deep, formalized, strategic partnership, which other than a brief loosening during the chaotic Yeltsin years in Russia, has withstood the test of time. India also recognizes that it would be remiss of it to forget the assistance it had received from the Soviet Union and Russia at the UN Security Council at times when it needed it the most, including over Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). But India’s arguments go beyond the historical and into present day realpolitik. The bulk of India’s military equipment is Russian, a reality that it could not have afforded to gloss over particularly at a time when tensions are high along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, and weapon systems, ammunition and spares could potentially become priority requirements.

The US, quite pragmatically to its credit, in the run-up to the Quad summit acknowledged that India’s heavy dependence on Russia for its defence imports was a reality that could not be overlooked. Furthermore, responding to a question on “India not being on board when it comes to condemning Russia”, a senior White House official had this to say: “The President is very aware that countries have their own histories; they have their own interests, they have their own outlooks”. Subsequently, Biden, setting aside whatever doubts he may have had over India’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, announced both at the Quad summit and in his bilateral meeting with Modi in Tokyo his bright vision for future relations with India. The US President made a direct reference to Modi’s leadership in his opening remarks at the Quad summit, framing it in terms of democracy versus autocracy. He said, “Prime Minister Modi, it’s wonderful to see you again in person… I thank you for your continuing commitment to making sure democracies deliver, because that’s what this is about: democracies versus autocracies. And we have to make sure we deliver”. Biden followed this up by choosing lofty words at his bilateral engagement with Modi – “There’s so much that our countries can and will do together, and I am committed to making the US-India partnership among the closest we have on Earth”, he assured.

Opening the summit, Modi averred that the Quad had gained world prominence as the grouping’s efforts were encouraging a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. He added that mutual trust and determination were giving new hope to democratic principles. He said, “At the Quad level, with our mutual cooperation, a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region is being encouraged – it is the shared goal of all of us. Quad has made an important place for itself before the world in such a short span of time. Today, Quad's scope has become extensive, its form effective. Our mutual trust and our determination are giving new energy and enthusiasm to democratic powers”. In his opening remarks at the bilateral with Biden, Modi said, “Our shared values, and our common interests in many areas, including security, have strengthened the bonds of this trust...I am confident that the friendship between India and USA will continue to be a force for good for global peace and stability, for the sustainability of the planet, and for the well-being of mankind”. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said the meeting “resulted in substantive outcomes” which will “add depth and momentum” to the bilateral partnership. The two sides launched a slew of initiatives in a range of areas, from critical and emerging technologies to vaccines and defence, from artificial intelligence to data science.

The fact that the US has remained invested in the Quad despite the war in Ukraine, and the US and India have not let their differences over Russia affect the Quad, speaks of the grouping’s political resilience. Since last March the grouping has already had four leader-level summits, two virtual and two in-person. With a range of other countries keen to join it, the political appeal of the Quad is only growing, much to the consternation of China. Beijing’s disquiet is evident in its evolving response to the grouping. Its initial reaction to the Quad was to dismiss it as a group that would “dissipate like sea foam”. This later sharpened into terming the Quad an “Asian NATO”. Eventually, last Sunday, a worried Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi alleged that the Quad had been formed specifically “to contain China”.

The Tokyo summit, without directly naming China, launched a number of well thought out initiatives which could prove invaluable for the Quad’s aims in the Indo-Pacific. As Prashant Jha underlined in his 24 May article in The Hindustan Times, the Quad’s affirmative agenda in Tokyo stemmed from the recognition that China’s advantage in the region came from its ability to invest resources and make promises, often false, of economic development. By pooling in resources and comparative advantages, and then providing vaccines, giving scholarships, investing in infrastructure, deepening climate initiatives, and offering humanitarian and disaster relief, the Quad has the ability to make a tangible difference in the lives of people in the Indo-Pacific without forcing the States in the region to choose between the US and China, a scenario that Southeast Asian countries want to avoid. Further, Quad countries recognize that the battles of the future are in the maritime and technological domain. That is why they launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) in Tokyo, an initiative designed to work with regional partners to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters and combat illegal fishing. By establishing its presence in the maritime realm, and taking the technological battle right to China’s doorstep, the Quad has sent a clear signal it will not be bullied. Importantly, the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is a signal to China that its economic dominance in the region will not go uncontested. The IPEF is the beginning of a conversation on a new economic architecture, one that Beijing will not be pleased about. The Quad will seek to extend more than $50 billion in infrastructure assistance and investment in the Indo-Pacific over the next five years to bridge infrastructure gaps.

As Susannah Patton, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, pointed out, the Quad had already exceeded many analysts’ expectations. She said, “The Quad is a vehicle for its members to present a different vision of how the region should work, and to signal to Beijing that it won’t have things its own way all the time. As for the future, how it evolves will in large part depend on China’s behavior. If China continues to undermine regional norms and coerce other countries, the Quad will respond”. Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, similarly believes that “The biggest driver of the Quad’s revival is the growing assertiveness and aggressiveness of China. Its behavior not only in the East and South China Seas but also in the Indian Ocean all the way down around the Pacific island area resulted in bringing Quad countries’ perception of China closer together”. Tatsumi also pointed out that “Beijing’s backing of Moscow reconfirmed the image of China as the disrupter of the existing international order that the countries in this region all have benefited – and continue to benefit – from”.

The perspective from the Quad summit that was relevant to South Asia in general, and India in particular, was articulated by India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar in an op-ed in The Hindustan Times on 26 May. Jaishankar stressed that India’s participation in the Quad grouping was meant to ensure that other countries did not have a “veto” on India’s choices. He wrote that for India, much of the process of joining the Quad involved “overcoming” the “hesitations of history”. He added, “Equally, it has meant not giving other countries a veto on our choices”. Jaishankar was buoyant about the achievements of the summit. He asserted that “The Tokyo Summit is the most productive to date, underlining both the distance that Quad has travelled and its potential for future growth”. He also outlined the new collaborations the Quad was working on in the areas of technology, climate action, disaster prevention, counter-terrorism and preventing “illegal fishing”. He pointed out that “Counter-terrorism and cyber security are also prominent in their expanding scope”. On education, the minister spoke highly of the STEM fellowship, a first-of-its-kind scholarship programme launched by the Quad at the Tokyo Summit and which seeks to fund 100 American, Australian, Indian and Japanese students in their pursuit of advanced courses in science and technology at US universities.

On illegal fishing, Jaishankar wrote, “The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness will bring together regional information fusion centers to address challenges like natural disasters and illegal fishing”. China is reportedly the source of 80-95 per cent of illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific. The IPMDA plans to use satellite imagery and technology to combat illegal fishing and “dubious operations” of the Chinese maritime militia. Jaishankar concluded that “These are truly contemporary concepts that reflect the rise of Asia, the repositioning of big powers, their changed capabilities and approaches, the nature of supply chains and the criticality of technology and connectivity. From an Indian perspective, it is also a statement of its growing interests beyond the Indian Ocean. What began as a solution for an economic crisis in 1992 has developed into a strategic correction”. The EAM emphasized that “the firm establishment of Quad” is one of the major diplomatic accomplishments of the Modi government.

As for the other gains specific to India at the summit, a number of influential voices in the West have been critical of India for fence-sitting when as a democracy, they felt it had the moral responsibility to condemn Russia’s Ukraine invasion. Despite these voices, India’s MEA has claimed publicly that the country’s stance on Ukraine is well-appreciated and well-understood by India’s partners. The Quad summit in Tokyo helped lay this debate to rest, and this would be considered by India as one of the significant achievements of its diplomacy.

Further, the joint statement issued after the summit contained a paragraph on terrorism that could also be claimed by Indian mandarins as an important success against Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism into India. The paragraph reflected the core of India’s position, with its denunciation of terrorist proxies, call for denial of any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups which could be used to launch or plan terror attacks, including cross-border attacks, condemnation of the Mumbai and Pathankot terrorist attacks, and reaffirmation of UNSC Resolution 2593 (2021) that demands that Afghan territory must never again be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists or to plan or finance terrorist attacks. The importance of upholding international standards on anti-money laundering consistent with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations and combating the financing of terrorism by all countries was also affirmed.

While the Quad initiative has come a long way since it was first proposed in 2007, and the Tokyo summit was witness to this, the absence of any initiative at the summit that took China to task for its role in the origination and the spread of COVID-19, the deadly disease that China saddled on the world and which till date has already claimed over 6 million human lives worldwide, was conspicuous.