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22 November, 2017

The Quad fails to take off

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

During his recent hectic tour of Asia President Donald Trump made an attempt to push the decade-old idea of inveigling India into a new grouping which will also include Japan and Australia.

Since 2002 the US, Japan and Australia have been involved in security dialogue. In 2007 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mooted turning it into a quadrilateral exercise by drawing India into it.

Although all concerned kept affirming that the Quad, as it was dubbed, was not directed against any nation, it had the making of a gang-up against China, which is on its way to emerging as the second most powerful nation on earth. Lately it has also become increasingly assertive. For historical reasons, this is a matter of greater concern to Japan more than to the other three members of the grouping.

Australia soon started pussyfooting on the Quad out of regard for Chinese susceptibilities. Apparently Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is ready to pick up the thread his predecessor left. But there are no signs of quick progress.

In 2007, the preliminary talks at the level of officials were followed by a ministerial level meeting. This time the exercise did not go beyond the official level at all.

The Manila proceedings were in fact marked by extreme coolness at every stage. India did not favour raising the talks even to the level of Foreign Secretaries. There was no joint statement after the meeting of officials. Instead, spokesmen of the four countries briefed the media separately, each emphasising its own priorities. This showed that they were not on the same page.

The Indian statement was delightfully vague. It said the officials had held consultations. The discussions focussed on cooperation based on their converging vision and values regarding peace, stability and prosperity of the interconnected region. They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region was in the regional and global interest. 

Trump referred to the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific in speech after speech to emphasise the importance the US under him attaches to this country’s role in regional politics and strategic calculations. The documents of the official level meeting also used that term. But India continued to approach the issue cautiously.

In his foreign jaunts Modi has often given the impression that he is willing to go along with the US even if it meant settling down to the role of Washington’s second in command in the region. At Manila he appeared determined to correct that impression.

If India was not keen to become a part of the Quad why did it play along? One explanation is that India does not want to be trapped in a geostrategy bind with the US, Japan and Australia. At the same time, it wants to leave open a certain ambiguity in its approach to the problems of the region.

All four countries have their problems with China but they are not identical. While the US and Australia used the term Quad, India and Japan sought to avoid it.

Since all the four countries have forged strategic relationship and have been participating in naval exercises in the past few years, there is little to be gained by the new grouping. But the US, it appears, is keen to push it as a substitute for the Asia pivot which has been abandoned for all practical purposes.

Indian commentators have noted that the US game is to involve India in its military calculations in the Pacific. While India has issues of its own with China, they are not of the same kind as Washington’s.

In September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had held a trilateral with India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in a bid to push the Quad.

Tillerson returned to the theme in a major policy statement last month. He also pursued it when he visited India. A US official told accompanying newsmen that Washington was looking at a working level quadrilateral meeting in the near term. All this suggests that, undeterred by the current setback, the US will continue to make efforts to carry the Quad forward. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 22, 2017

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