USA-led ‘Quad’ New Delhi keeps options open at road show

Asia’s ‘Quad’ is back for the first time since 2007. Senior officials from the United States, Japan, India, and Australia met in Manila on Saturday on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summits to discuss regional and global co-operation. The initiative represents the realization of an old idea, first championed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his first one-year term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.

While this quadrilateral grouping had first met in 2007, it was unable to sustain momentum as China expressed concerns about what it saw as an attempt at containment by like-minded democracies in the Asia-Pacific. The meeting in Manila on Saturday was primarily the result of renewed interest in Tokyo and reciprocal interest in New Delhi, Canberra, and Washington, with the Japanese delegation chairing the first meeting. Saturday’s meeting took place at the “working level” with senior officials from all sides participating. It will still be some time before the ‘Quad’ meets at the ministerial or leader’s level, but the Manila meeting offers insight into its presumptive direction.

On the eve of the East Asia Summit now under way in the Philippines, diplomats from the United States, Japan, Australia and India met in Manila on Sunday to discuss the issues of security and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. Singapore was absent from Sunday’s event. Singapore is reviewing its China policies despite its strong alliance with the US). It hopes to be a regional hub in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations through next year it plans to calm the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

No joint statement was issued after the Quad on Sunday, leaving it to the four capitals to issue press releases. Nuances, inevitably, crept in, which provide useful pointers. Following the meeting, the U.S. Department of State, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs each released statements outlining what was discussed. All four statements stressed upon the convergence of visions and shared interests underpinned the quadrilateral.

The statements, however, were far from identical and a close reading reveals varying priorities within the quadrilateral. The Australian and the U.S. statements touched on all seven of the issues highlighted above under the aegis of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Japan’s statement omitted any mention of enhancing “connectivity,” which, for India and the United States, has come to mean offering an alternative vision to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. (U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in October and India’s May statement on the Belt and Road Forum make this much clear.) Importantly, the press releases issued in Washington and Tokyo were particularly assertive. The US referred to “quadrilateral partners,” while Japan claimed that the Quad meeting “discussed measures to ensure a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific.”

In a major policy speech last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came close to the US too favoring a regional security architecture through “greater engagement and cooperation” among “Indo-Pacific democracies.” But then he added that “it is going to be an evolving process.” China’s growing pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific region worries all four countries, and the recent Communist Party Congress in Beijing would not have eased the anger. Having said that, their priorities vary.

The last thing New Delhi wants is to be hustled into a bloc that restricts its ability to maneuver in the present volatile environment. India retains strategic options, too, which include engaging China bilaterally. After all, the US$235 billion worth of business deals President Donald Trump secured during his recent “state visit-plus” to China carry a big political message that “America First” dominates US foreign policies. The last thing New Delhi wants is to be hustled into a bloc that restricts its ability to maneuver in the present volatile environment

The big question, therefore, is: How consistent are the Trump administration’s Asia-Pacific policies? Both Trump and Tillerson say nice things about India to promote US business interests, especially exports of weapons and shale oil, which create jobs in America. Arguably, Tillerson at times speaks like a strategist, but then, Trump must be believed in that it is he who makes policies  not Tillerson. And Trump is obsessed with transactional diplomacy that is consistent with America First.

India’s strategic dilemma explains the ambivalence that crept into its press release on the Quad event. India says the diplomats held “consultations.” While the discussions focused on “cooperation based on their converging vision and values” as regards peace, stability and prosperity of the “interconnected region,” they agreed that “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” is in regional and global interest.

Besides, they also exchanged views relating to terrorism, proliferation linkages as well as on enhancing regional connectivity. Most important, the New Delhi’s press release underlined that its Act East policy would remain the “cornerstone of its engagement” with the Asia-Pacific region. Indian diplomats, evidently, are in wait-and-see mode.

The Indian press release openly avoided using the word “commitment” in any context  unlike the US, Japanese and Australian versions. However, India will seek to create synergy out of the Quad event. In immediate terms, India is to host the Russia-India-China format at the foreign-minister level, likely to be convened on Monday i.e. 11th of December.

There is bound be a “bilateral” between Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. New Delhi’s focus will be on carrying forward the spirit of consensus at the leadership level to get the India-China relationship on the right track to pursue “healthy stable bilateral ties” and to ensure that “differences don’t become disputes.”

America and Japan are in some hurry to herd India to an exclusive regional format, which to some extent would mitigate the steady deepening of ties between the ASEAN countries and China. But contrary to this, Singapore is hopeful to initiate ASEAN-China naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea next year and to finalize the code of conduct to navigate the territorial disputes. Events are outpacing US (and Japanese) diplomacy and making it look listless and unimaginative. The salience of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Da Nang is that other than America First in trade, the Trump administration lacks a comprehensive regional strategy.

On the other hand, stoking the fires of regional tensions for geopolitical purposes is not what India’s Act East policy has been about. New Delhi always remained desirous to harmonize with the ASEAN consensus rather than create a counterpoint.

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