Quad’s lack of focus may render it feckless

To adapt the immortal philosophical query — What is truth? — the jesting Pontius Pilate is believed to have asked, we may as well lob the query: What is Quad? And like Pilate who would not wait for an answer, we too cannot afford a wishy-washy explanation now that new life has been infused into the snoozy alliance of the four frontline Pacific powers  — Japan, U.S., Australia, and Bharat.

What can Quad realistically achieve? The four-letter charmer is a short and sweet shrinking of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, but only in name. Judged by the congenial, ruffle-no-feathers joint declaration of March 12 issued after the virtual meet of the four heads of state: Messieurs Joseph Biden, Yoshihide Suga, Scott Morrison and Narendra Modi, there is virtually nothing under the geopolitical sun which it does not propose to encompass.

Lofty words define the Q agenda: “…We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion…a free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific …freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity…ASEAN unity…economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change…challenges in cyberspace, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance… disaster-relief as well as maritime domains.” Whew!

Missing, predictably enough, is  mention of He Who Cannot be Named, the Lord Voldermort stalking the real world: communist China. The Dragon’s asphyxiating grip over the world economy, expansionist maritime designs in the South China Sea and its sinister Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the sole raison d’etre behind the alliance’s evolution. But the Quadrists did not dare allude to the threat which in reality is no different to the German menace to world peace before Hitler’s tanks rolled into Poland in 1939.

Q’s current iteration is its third. Born of Japan’s excruciating labor pains caused by the Tsunami of 2004, its growth remained stunted once the need for regional aid dried up. The quadrilateral template, however, engendered in Shinzo Abe, Quad’s sprightly architect, picturesque visions of an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”, a veritable “Confluence of the Seas” so to speak. Tokyo’s diplomatic push, he said, would rope in a network of states like Vietnam and Ukraine covering the Eurasian continent to promote freedom and the rule of law.

The arc’s geopolitical prospects aroused interest in Washington, Canberra and New Delhi, paving the way for the first Quad dialogue dubbed the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at Manila in May 2007. Disaster relief rather than regional security topped the agenda. Quad’s decision four months later to showcase its naval muscle in the Bay of Bengal along with Singapore’s navy  stumped many. The so-called Malabar maneuvers involved exchange of personnel, sea control and multi-carrier operations among other naval war games.

Beijing was itching to drive a wedge between the members. The Malabar exercise was just the provocation it was looking for. Official demarches were filed with the four groupies. Circulated was the word that Quad was an Asian NATO in the making — which is what it ought to have been. South Korea was the first to raise guard. Though not a Quad member, Seoul felt the alliance would compel it to choose between the U.S., its ally, and China with whom its trade interests were burgeoning. Picking either was unfeasible. Australia demurred and so did Bharat. Lily-livered Manmohan Singh went so far as to openly state that Quad was not a security pact.

A succession of events in the latter half of 2007 left Quad gasping for breath. Abe’s resignation deprived the alliance of its arch proponent and backbone. With the election of Kevin Rudd, the western world’s first Mandarin speaking head of government and the CCP’s roving ambassador Down Under, the alliance was a dead duck awaiting formal burial.

What then resuscitated the Q? Geopolitically, nothing has drastically changed since 2007. Only the atmospherics have gotten worse with the emergence of Xi Jinping as CCP dictator and China’s continued dominance of the global supply chain. Australia realized the outer limits of compromising its national honour at the altar of trade. Slavishness to China kept it out of the Malabar drill between 2014-19. Beijing’s decision to slice $6 billion worth of Australian exports — barley, coal, copper, cotton, lobster, sugar, timber, and wine — stung it to the quick. This was in retaliation to Canberra’s advocacy of an inquiry into the Chinese origins of the novel coronavirus.

Bharat was a reluctant participant in the early days of Quad. The power of vaccine diplomacy, however, has changed the dynamics between members. Mao’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thoughts contend” campaign in the late 1950s proved short lived. But Modi’s “Vaccine for millions” drive is proving to be more potent than Chinese military prowess in a post-pandemic world. Reasonably priced ‘Made In Bharat’ vaccines have penetrated remote corners of U.K., Brazil, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Afghanistan, among others.

Quad Reloaded has another lesser known driving force: Rare Earth Elements (REEs), the Lanthanide series on the Periodic Table used widely in commercial and military applications. Without them iPhones, Rafales, TV screens, industrial machinery and the most advanced ballistic systems would be reduced to museum pieces.

REEs are also used in synthetic gems, crystals for lasers, microwave equipment, superconductors, sensors, nuclear control rods, and cryo-coolers. Potential new uses include nanofilters and in memory devices, power converters, optical clocks, infrared decoy flares, and fusion energy. China accounts for 90 per cent of global REE output. Bharat has the world’s fifth largest reserves worth $200 billion but relies on China for the finished product.

Quad’s real problems lie in its diffused agenda. None of the four members have betrayed the slightest intention of confronting the elephant in the room. A blueprint to loosen Beijing’s stranglehold over the world economy is still not in the works. Contagement cannot be an effective tool against an enemy hellbent on world dominance. This China knows and exploits to the hilt. None in Q fraternity have the stomach to tell it: thus far and no further, whatever the consequences.

Bharat is the least positioned to adopt a carrot and stick policy given the overwhelming superiority of China’s military and import dependence of economic essentials like fertilizers, organic chemicals, and electronic components. That 70 percent of our Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) supplies come from China should have rung the alarm bells long ago. Availability of essential drugs like paracetamol, amoxicillin and ibuprofen would ground to a halt should Beijing pull the plug as it did on Australia.

This is why it’s mostly been carrots all the way, with the stick reserved for emergencies like Galwan. Courting Xi on swing or in the vicinity of the Bay of Bengal generated no warmth, much less passion. The CCP genuflects to power alone. It cannot be sweet-talked into putting its geopolitical interests on the backburner.

Bharat is clearly Quad’s odd man, economically the weakest link in the chain. Notions of its self-worth are largely misplaced, and largely determined by its geographical placement between two trouble-making nations. Bolstering its claim is its thickish tail jutting into the Indian Ocean. Time was when the diaspora was an asset. It is now a liability. They do a better job of disparaging the government back home than Pakistan. Ghar ka bhedi lanka dhaye, as they say.

Post-2014 much of the bad press which the country has been getting in the western liberal press is substantially due to dissing from NRIs unreconciled to the changed narrative. Culturally bereft Hindu Americans compete with whites in wokery. The country’s abysmally short-staffed embassies are a diplomatic disaster. Its inmates are more keen on enjoying a foreign posting than inculcating pride in the new Bharat and its ancient civilizational values.

Contrast this with Japan which even today is the only one with the guts to stick its neck out and look Beijing in the eye. This too China knows and takes comfort that America will never allow it to revive its military might. Releasing Tokyo from the post-WW2 Constitutional compulsion outlawing force to settle international disputes, however, may be the only way to restore the balance of power in East Asia, and put China on notice.

America’s commitment to defending Quad’s interests are suspect despite the Biden administration’s assertion that the focus on the Indo-Pacific is no fad. Obama chickened out from helping Japan in the dispute with China over Senkaku islands in 2014 while mouthing platitudes that “our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and Article Five of the US-Japan bilateral security treaty covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands.

That most foreign policy wonks in influential think-tanks oppose U.S. involvement in an Indo-Pacific alliance beyond the basics cannot but be a damper. It is difficult to assess whether their views are genuinely theirs or China influenced given Beijing’s influence in varsities the world over.

Writes Van Jackson, a Distinguished Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, and a professor of International Relations at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand: “…Widening the regional aperture …encourages military overstretch by positioning the U.S. for commitments that will be difficult to defend and distracts policy-maker attention from other parts of Asia where decades of hard-won peace hinges much more directly on American words and deeds…”

The sole factor that may compel the U.S. to become serious about the Indo-Pacific is the Chinese fear of falling into what foreign policy experts call a “Thucidides trap” ie. the ancient Greek historian’s belief that Sparta’s fear of rising Athenian power caused the Peleponnesian war. This is clearly an exaggeration. With America’s power in perceptible decline, there is no rising Athens in Asia. China, if anything, is both Sparta and Athens. It will self-destruct when Armageddon happens.

Quad’s future, opine defense experts, rests primarily as an Indo-Pacific naval alliance. Bharat’s Nau Sena scrapes the bottom of our defense imperatives. The Navy currently has 134 ships and 200 planes, helicopters and drones. Warns Commodore Ranjit Rai (retd.): “We suffer from sea blindness. Sixty-five per cent of our land-locked population have never seen the sea let alone understood its importance. New Delhi, the seat of power, is 800 kms removed from the vast expanse of waters.”

In 1981 Bharat’s defence budget was Rs 4,200 crore with the Navy’s share a mere nine percent at Rs 400 crore. It doubled to 18 percent in 2014 but dipped five points in 2017 despite Doklam and the recent Chinese incursions in Ladakh.

The money, says the veteran commodore, is just enough to sustain the Navy’s operations and pay bills for committed orders for ships and submarines. The Navy’s 14 larger ships and seven of its 15 conventional submarines are 20-years-old. Replacements have to be found. The Navy’s 2027 plan for 200 ships and submarines and 400 aircraft has been pruned; order for four LPDs (amphibious transport dock ships) cancelled; and that of a third aircraft carrier stalled.

Regional security is the bulwark on which Quad’s future rests. Selling vaccines to the world can win hearts but pumping up Naval power will fortify Bharat’s place in the alliance and discourage China from messing with the waves.


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.