As tensions mount with China and polarization widens the gap between Beijing and the four members of the Quad, the Foreign Ministers of Australia, India and Japan and the Secretary of State of the United States met in Melbourne on Friday, 11 February 2022, for their Fourth Ministerial meeting, which precedes a larger summit to be held in Japan later this year.
The Quad arguably moves toward increased institutionalization as discontent with China grows and diffidence is being increasingly replaced by an outcome oriented approach in the Indo-Pacific region. The timing of the meeting was also consequential as a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine looms, and the Biden administration releases its Indo-Pacific policy. U.S Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned allies that a war in Ukraine could jeopardize Indo-Pacific stability. The meeting also may well have formed the ground for further discussions on bridging the Euro-Atlantic with the Indo-Pacific under the umbrella of the Quad.
For India, EAM Jaishankar’s visit to Australia provided a hands-on opportunity to assess the progress as well as expand the spectrum of India-Australia ties by pushing cooperation in more recent areas. As such, discussions ranging from the strengthening of India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and the Foreign Ministers’ Cyber Framework Dialogue (FMCFD) proved important platforms for the implementation of the India-Australia Framework Arrangement on Cyber and Cyber-Enabled Critical Technology Cooperation.
The Quad ministerial meeting also represented a microcosm of the broader nuances between member states’ positions on various issues in the Indo-Pacific. A closer look at the issues discussed and outlined positions, both in the Quad meeting as well during the rest of the visit, shows that while each of the four members may have pointed to their own interests as individual countries, as a group, the Quad has made significant progress on reflecting harmony on stated positions and prioritizing shared interests over individual ones—evidence of institutional strengthening in the Quad’s progress.
The Quad’s joint statement depicts this maturity particularly through India’s stand on Myanmar, North Korea, and China. While in a separate meeting, Jaishankar laid down India’s unique circumstances than other Quad partners, which he claimed necessitated a more nuanced approach towards Myanmar, yet the joint statement issued by the Quad ministers is unequivocal in demanding humanitarian access and ending arbitrary detention. As of January, more than 2,000 refugees crossed the border from Chin state into the Indian village of Mizoram.
Through Myanmar, the Quad has sought to centralise ASEAN’s role by calling on the military regime to urgently implement ASEAN’s five-point consensus and swiftly restore democratization in Myanmar. This depicts the Quad’s greater resolve towards realizing ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific. Behind the obvious attempt to urge a strategic role for ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific, Quad members seek a decisive participation of the group in matters of the Indo-Pacific, including the South and East China Seas and comes on the back of several circumventions by ASEAN on matters where China is concerned.
On North Korea, the stance of Quad countries reflects a more hawkish approach. While denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula was included in the objectives in the first Leaders’ Summit in September last year, the latest joint statement, in addition to its continued pledge on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, takes a hard stance by condemning North Korea’s destabilising ballistic missile launches, which are in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
Given India’s traditional policy independence and its broader approach towards issues concerning both Myanmar and North Korea, its own policy compulsions apropos Myanmar and deliberate poise over Pyongyang would have prevailed. Its tacit support to these issues in the joint statement points to the fallout of seeking a collective balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region for New Delhi. However, they will be part of the cost to ensuring a free, open, and peaceful Indo-Pacific in which India plays a more substantive role.
Even as Blinken was in the Indo-Pacific, the US released its Indo-Pacific strategy. The timing of the release of Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific policy is also critical from the perspective of the Quad’s expanding role. In seeking to marry Euro-Atlantic agendas to Indo-Pacific strategic compulsions, Biden seems more ambitious than just linking two strategic geographies through a continental-maritime continuum. The American Indo-Pacific policy now envisions a “strong and reliable Quad” alongside an “engaged” Europe. This is likely to forge a broader mandate for the Quad under a broadening umbrella of regional participation and the growing stakes of European countries in the Indo-Pacific.
A key challenge before Quad countries will be to what Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy seeks to do in aligning approaches of allies and partners outside the Indo-Pacific—namely the EU and NATO—with those of the countries within the region. In the current circumstances, aligning positions on the widening Ukraine crisis may have tested the Quad’s expanding purpose to integrate extra regional issues, such as India’s nuanced position on Ukraine and its strategic need to keep any reference to the same out of the official joint statement suggests the impediments ahead.
Nonetheless, the Quad’s ministerial meeting proved a prime opportunity to review the progress and jumpstart the agenda for the Leaders’ Summit in Japan later this year. Specifically, a promise to explore a Track 1.5 dialogue between strategic thinkers from member countries is a step in the direction of promoting a better exchange of ideas. Bilaterally, this announcement was preempted by the recent launch of the Indo-Pacific Circle. This could be the beginning of various collaborations between Quad members.
Even though China seems to have been deliberately left out of the Quad joint statement, the allusions to ‘coercion’ and ‘transparency’ refer directly to China’s behavior and their expectations from Beijing. The Quad’s purpose, mandate and role are deeply embedded in the latest US Indo-Pacific strategy. The 19-page document mentions the Quad 13 times. It is clear, especially after Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton’s message to his own Parliament that Canberra was facing the “most complex and potentially catastrophic regional security environment” since World War II, that the work of Quad senior diplomats will only get exponentially more difficult as transregional challenges prove more difficult and test the upper limits of its quadrilateral capacity.
Mark S. Cogan is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.
Vivek Mishra is a Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. His research interests include America in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific regions, particularly the role of the US in security in South Asia, Indo-US defence relations, and the Indian defence sector.