NEW DEHLI: It was war — a war of words in Alaska, as United States and China sat down to talk for the first time in March under the Joe Biden administration.
For those tracking US-China relations outside the states, any expectations of a reset in ties have been buried, while the shock is yet to wear off.
It was quite the show—negotiations cheekily dubbed “Anchor-rage” by media and twitter commentators alike.
The strategic messaging for the global audience was clear - the Biden administration was intent on calling China out for its unrestricted unilateralism, while an unapologetic Beijing confident of its stride to the global centre stage was very derisive in its assessment of Washington’s “decline”.
The plummeting Sino-US ties impact all geographies and for those watching closely this did not come as a surprise though it may have made strategic options clearer.
THE QUAD IS MOVING FORWARD
Juxtapose this with the contrasting images that came out from the much talked about Quad Summit held virtually just before the Alaska meeting. Indian Prime Minister Modi, called the summit “a coming of age of the Quad".
A joint statement from leaders of United States, India, Japan and Australia — speaking of their shared vision for the Indo-Pacific, signified a realisation that managing the many disruptive challenges in the post pandemic global order including that of a new, rising superpower will require collective action.
This could only happen if all sides built on each other’s strengths. Capacity-building would be the thrust of the agenda. The mandate would be to sharpen collective aims, set timeframes and avoid duplication of effort.
Practically, these efforts would identify collective challenges and tackle them through concrete workplans and activities via multilateral channels under the ambit of the Quad.
In fact, it’s the formation of the Quad Vaccine Partnership, the Quad Vaccine Experts Group, the Quad Climate Working Group and the Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group, which shows the grouping has gone beyond being an “anti-china talk shop”.
The pledge that the four nations have taken to supply up to 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the Association of Southehinast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and countries in the wider Indo-Pacific region by the end of 2022 that plans to engage Indian manufacturing, Australian logistics and financing from Japan and the US is a credible demonstration of “this is what the Quad can do for you”.
Moreover from the Quad nations point of view, it showcases its commitment to ASEAN nations in the larger Indo-Pacific vision is not just empty rhetoric that panders to the slogan of ASEAN centrality.
REAL BENEFITS FOR OTHER COUNTRIES
The joint statement while pegging maritime security central to its agenda also stresses on expanded focus on health, climate change, cyber space, critical technologies, counter-terrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief.
It’s reflective that Quad countries have internalised the understanding that while divergences can be managed, synergising individual approaches for delivering solutions to global challenges is the need of the hour.
The message being reinforced time and again in meetings among the Quad countries in various permutations and combinations seems to be — an acknowledgement that the group is willing to institutionalise networks of partnership which go beyond addressing just the China challenge and truly benefit countries in the Indo-Pacific.
A WORK IN PROGRESS
This isn’t a sudden development, but a work in progress.
Over the last few years there has been an emergence of a crisscrossing of networks in the Indo-Pacific region giving rise to the institutionalisation of a series of small, inter-government groupings (mini laterals)which are focused on specific outcomes on trade, technology, connectivity, third country cooperation on quick impact projects and deepening security cooperation.
Recall that during the peak of the pandemic, a Quad-led dialogue, loosely addressed as the Quad plus - with countries like Vietnam, South Korea, New Zealand was also convened to coordinate pandemic recovery.
The traction for issue-based coalitions is growing. If we take the case of India alone, and other groupings including various permutations of cooperation, including India-France-Australia, India-France-Japan and more along with India’s pursuit of national security advisor level talks with Maldives and Sri Lanka — these are all part of an emerging landscape.
The Resilient Supply Chains initiative between Japan India and Australia aims to rewire global supply chains to be less dependent on China.
France, India and Japan have been putting their heads together to develop multilateral norms for the digital economy.
France is also a key partner of the India led International Solar Alliance of 121 countries which aims to mobilise over US$1 trillion of investment for the deployment of solar energy at affordable costs and has been working towards providing electricity to some member countries to power cold storages for vaccines in the wake of COVID-19.
Similarly, Japan is bringing its core competencies to take the lead in developing the connectivity pillar of the India-proposed Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative, which engages with its Indo-Pacific partners at bilateral and multilateral levels in key spheres including maritime security, Blue Economy, maritime connectivity, disaster management, and capacity-building.
PUTTING THE BLUEPRINT INTO ACTION
These are just a few examples, but it's clear the blueprint for delivering results in the Indo-Pacific is certainly being put into action.
The groundwork might be gathering momentum but countries leading the charge are aware of the challenges ahead. As China ups its stake for global leadership, the turbulent waters of the Indo-Pacific will continue to be the focal point for strategic competition.
Expectations on future burden-sharing arrangements in the region will require leading powers to show up more, provide credible signals of political will and demonstrate capability. Issue-based coalitions where function not form drive engagement will continue to be the way forward.
This week, India has joined its Quad partners - Australia, Japan and the US - in a French-led naval drill in the Bay of Bengal for the first time to improve Indo-Pacific maritime security.
While the security logic to the Indo-Pacific was always clear, the Quad’s multi-arena capacity building attempts are a sign that the socio-economic logic to the Indo-Pacific is also being ironed out now.
The Quad showed up, now it will have to deliver on its chosen mandate.
Shruti Pandalai is a Fellow at The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses tracking India’s Foreign and Security Policy including sharp power competition in the Indo Pacific.