In 2017, after the Trump administration proposed an “Indo-Pacific strategy”, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the QUAD) was re-invented as a security mechanism, directed at combating not just ‘natural disasters’ but mainly containing China in the Indo-Pacific region. Ever since its re-invention, the group, consisting of India, Japan, USA and Australia, have met at least thrice. Top level meetings have been held, and yet no official document has yet been released stating the group’s core objectives, the resources it would have at its disposal or how these countries will actually come together to achieve their supposedly shared goals. The latest meeting held on the side-lines of East Asia Summit in Singapore on November 14 didn’t even produce a joint communique, outlining whatever progress the Quad countries might have made on finalising the group’s functionality and other rules of business. There were only country specific communiques, which, ironically enough, also brought to limelight the differences existing among them. As it stands, little to no progress has been made, and the primary reason for this is not just some lethargy on the part of the group members, but their inability to bring the desired level of interest convergence, necessary for any group to exist and function.
In simple words, there is a clear-cut clash of interests, plaguing Quad, causing it to march towards failure rather than initiation. The ‘allies’ don’t have a common agenda, and they are certainly struggling to even define the basic most parameters of this group, for not all of them are really interested in pursuing a real ‘containment’ agenda vis-à-vis China. For instance, let’s decode India’s position. While India would ideally benefit from such a grouping that tends to ‘contain’ its major regional rival, China, its Singapore communique made no implicit or explicit reference to it. Instead, the communique signified the group’s continuing and unresolved ambivalence, and the Indian statement confined itself to strictly non-military and non-confrontational mode of action, emphasising instead promotion of “a free, open, rules-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific that fosters trust and confidence.”
Clearly, India is eschewing confrontation and emphasising ‘inclusion’, and therefore its vision of the Quad is well-short of and is even contradictory to what the US officials had in mind when they re-invented the group in 2017. Rex Tillerson had then described India as the centre piece of regional security and had hoped that the Quad “will lead to great coordination between the Indian, Japanese and American militaries, including maritime domain awareness, anti-submarine warfare, amphibious warfare, and humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and search and rescue.” Quite obviously, the US and India have differences over potential and even actual militarisation of the group, and thereby of the region.
Another major issue plaguing these countries’ inability to finalise the group’s identity and functions is the question of how, and whether or not, to embrace ASEAN—a question which is also connected to Quad’s inability to define the geography of the region they would be focusing on—- which has a central place in the region the Quad happens to be targeting. As such, while the Quad ostensibly is about containment of China and its Belt and Road Initiative, with countries differing on mechanisms of doing it, ASEAN countries have very much embraced BRI and are opposed to any move that may make the region militarised.
For instance, this opposition to potential militarisation of Indo-Pacific region was clearly highlighted by Vietnam’s ambassador to India, Pham Sanh Chau, when he said that his country opposed any “military alliances”, and that “If any country wants to gang up, use force or trying to use force, then it goes against the position of Vietnam.”
Singapore, too, seems to have a position qualitatively similar to Vietnam. Its foreign minister recently said that that the concept of the BRI, if properly envisioned and carried out, can coexist and benefit all in Southeast Asia. He stressed that “Southeast Asian countries do not want to be forced into making false choices or forced choices.”
Therefore, with ASEAN not actually participating in the Quad in a formal or informal manner, it means that a major Indo-Pacific region will be opposed to the Quad, which would potentially amount to a weakening of its claim to making the region “open” and “free from Chinese domination” since many of the ASEAN countries are actively participating in BRI.
The ASEAN is, until now, out of the Quad game, and so is India; for, in India’s own calculation, participation in and agreement to militarisation of the region would only harm India unless the very definition of the Indo-Pacific region includes Indian Ocean maritime space, including the area off the east coast of Africa, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal. In this light, the Indo-Pacific region described by the Trump administration has a lot more Pacific than it does Indo. According to the definition of the geography of Quad given in the US National Security Strategy document, the region stretches from “the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” Therefore, unless the US can somehow manage to accommodate India’s desire to emerge as the preeminent security provider in the Bay of Bengal within a Quad structure, India would remain a reluctant partner in the overall scheme of the Quad, and unless such a situation changes, the future of the Quad will remain not only questionable, but at best highly uncertain as well.
Therefore, the fact that the Quad isn’t meeting India’s security needs and geo-political interests made India actually dither from jointly developing a naval base with the US and Australia in Papua New Guinea, a decision that potentially comes down to a crude calculation that: if the US and Australia can’t be sensitive to India’s interests, why should India be sensitive to theirs?
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.