Follow us on

|

Quad Tokyo Summit 2022

Will a revived Quad balance the scales of power in the Indo-Pacific?

Print edition : Jun 21, 2022 T+T-

Will a revived Quad balance the scales of power in the Indo-Pacific?

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese (far left), and US President Joe Biden to the Quad leaders summit, in Tokyo on May 24, 2022.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese (far left), and US President Joe Biden to the Quad leaders summit, in Tokyo on May 24, 2022. | Photo Credit: Evan Vucci

A resurgent Quad, bolstered by Australian support, targets China at the Tokyo summit and outlines plans to boost maritime surveillance in the Indo-Pacific region.

The first in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit in more than two years was held in Tokyo on May 24. United States President Joseph Biden, who was on his first official East Asian tour, held meetings with the Prime Ministers of India, Japan, and Australia in Tokyo on the last day of his official visit to Japan. The holding of the fourth Quad summit was a strong signal to the international community that the anti-China security grouping was no longer a work in progress but a reality in the Asia-Pacific context.

Anthony Albanese, the new Australian Prime Minister, rushed to Tokyo to attend the summit hours after he was declared elected in a close contest that brought his Labor Party back to power after almost a decade.

Anthony Albanese, the new Australian Prime Minister, rushed to Tokyo to attend the summit hours after he was declared elected.
Anthony Albanese, the new Australian Prime Minister, rushed to Tokyo to attend the summit hours after he was declared elected. | Photo Credit: Christian Gilles - Pool/Getty Images

Kevin Rudd, a former Labor Prime Minister, had distanced Australia from the Quad during its earlier incarnation, making the security grouping non-functional two years after its formation in 2006. His party had been critical of the concept behind the Quad grouping 15 years ago.

Now, the Australian Labor Party is fully on board. Although Brendan Nelson, a former Australian Defence Minister from the Labor Party, had assured Beijing during a visit to China that Australia would not “do anything unnecessarily that upsets any other country”, the new Prime Minister wasted no time in swearing allegiance to the Quad, saying “it was an honour” that this was his “first act as Prime Minister”.

Quad revival

The Quad was revived in 2017 mainly at the initiative of the Japanese government, then under the right-wing leadership of Shinzo Abe. After taking office for a second time in 2012, Abe went about assiduously trying to resurrect the Quad, which debuted on the international stage during his first term in 2006. At that time, he had the backing of the George W. Bush administration in the US. The U.S. Vice President at the time, Dick Cheney, had strongly endorsed the idea of a quadrilateral grouping.

The Quad was revived in 2017 mainly at the initiative of the Japanese government, then under the then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The Quad was revived in 2017 mainly at the initiative of the Japanese government, then under the then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. | Photo Credit: POOL / Getty Images

The Australian government’s reluctance and the Indian government’s ambivalence for almost nine years had stymied the re-emergence of the Quad. But with Australia reverting to its traditional role of being the closest ally of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, following the return to power of right-wing conservatives, the Quad has received a second lease of life.

The signing of the AUKUS military pact with the US and the UK last year is a clear indication of Australia’s priorities. In parallel, the Narendra Modi-led government also became an enthusiastic supporter of the Quad after tensions began rising with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Objections from China, Russia

Despite China and Russia openly expressing misgivings about the rationale behind the formation of the Quad, the grouping seems to be going full steam ahead. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, has said that the US will convert the Quad into an “Indo-Pacific NATO”. He accused Quad member-states of encouraging a “cold war mentality” in the region and stoking “geo-political rivalry” in remarks made just before the Quad leaders met in Tokyo.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, speaking at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia in southern China’s Hainan province, on April 21, 2022.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, speaking at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia in southern China’s Hainan province, on April 21, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

A joint statement issued at the end of the last Quad meeting in Washington last September said that the four nations were committed to “promoting the free, open, rules-based order rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion”. The statement was a clear allusion to China’s stance on the disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has described the Quad as “a divisive grouping” that is aimed at disrupting existing regional structures and containing China’s influence in the region. Both Russia and China claim that the US and its Western allies selectively talk about “a rules-based international order” while disregarding international laws and rules themselves.

The Quad’s critics claim that the US-backed grouping is an undisguised effort to move away from the ASEAN-centric consensus on the Asia-Pacific region. None of the ASEAN nations has expressed a desire to join the Quad, although many like Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand have traditionally embraced a pro-Western foreign policy. Only South Korea, which recently elected a right-wing President, seems inclined to be part of an expanded Quad.

Message to China

The Quad summit was one of the key events during Biden’s five-day trip to South Korea and Japan. His trip, as the White House let the world know, was intended to send a message to China that it was still very much in the US’ cross-hairs, despite the current focus of the West on the war in Ukraine. “This is about democracies versus autocracies, and we have to make sure that we deliver,” Biden said in a speech delivered during the summit.

A day before the summit began, he said that the US was committed to defending Taiwan if China decided to forcefully reintegrate that state with it.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida tacitly endorsed the US position on Taiwan.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida tacitly endorsed the US position on Taiwan. | Photo Credit: CAROLINE CHIA / REUTERS

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida tacitly endorsed the position taken by Biden on Taiwan. While opening the Quad summit, Kishida strongly criticised the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and stressed that “we should never, ever allow a similar situation to happen in the Indo-Pacific”.

In a major policy speech delivered in the last week of May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that his country’s main strategic rival was China. “Even as [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin’s war continues, we will focus on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order—and that’s posed by China,” Blinken said in his speech. He added: “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the world and, increasingly, the diplomatic, economic, military and technological power to do it.”

Blinken made it clear that the US views China’s rising economic clout as a threat to its interests and is prepared to go to any length to “defend our interests against any threats”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that the US views China’s rising economic clout as a threat to its interests.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that the US views China’s rising economic clout as a threat to its interests. | Photo Credit: Jae C. Hong / AP

However, the official Quad communique issued at the end of the summit was carefully worded and did not mention China. But the intent was clear. The statement “strongly opposed any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo” in the Indo-Pacific. These included “the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ off-shore resource exploitation activities”.

All these are accusations routinely directed at China by the West. The Quad leaders, as they have been doing routinely for the last four years at every meeting, pledged to “uphold the international rules-based order where countries are free from all forms of military, economic and political coercion”.

Just weeks before the Quad meeting, the US was openly pressuring India to side with it on the Ukraine issue and condemn Russia. It has also openly expressed displeasure after India started buying discounted Russian oil.

India has so far held on to its “neutral” position on Ukraine while endorsing most of America’s hard-line policies on China. The US has shown that it is willing to bend over backwards to accommodate India’s specific foreign policy concerns, especially its relations with Russia. The US knows that the Quad is a non-starter without India’s participation and is going out of its way to keep it in good humour. Biden has been full of praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s style of governance.

US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive at the Quad leaders summit in Tokyo.
US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive at the Quad leaders summit in Tokyo. | Photo Credit: Evan Vucci

According to reports, during his interaction with Modi, Biden praised the “successful” handling of the pandemic by the Indian government and contrasted it with China’s “failure” in managing the pandemic. A Press Trust of India report said: “Biden said that Modi’s success has shown that the world’s democracies can deliver, bursting the myth that ‘autocracies’ like China and Russia can handle the rapidly changing world better.”

Maritime awareness initiative

The Quad summit unveiled an important new programme, known as the Indo Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative (IPMDA), which could further raise tensions in the region. The avowed aim of the initiative is to help the countries of South-East Asia and the Pacific Island nations to track widespread “illegal fishing” and other illicit activities in the Indo-Pacific region. The US and its allies have accused Chinese fishing vessels of acting as a “maritime militia” and engaging in unauthorised activities within the exclusive economic zones of many countries.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister James Marape during a visit to Port Moresby, the PNG capital, on June 3, 2022.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister James Marape during a visit to Port Moresby, the PNG capital, on June 3, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

China has around 3,000 fishing vessels, the largest fleet in the world. It has strongly denied allegations that its fleet engages in illegal activities and stated that “it strongly complies” with international regulations. It has dismissed allegations that it controls “a maritime militia”. Chinese naval vessels have also been accused of encroaching on disputed areas of the South China Sea.

But according to many experts on the region, the actual purpose of the IPMDA is to increase US-led maritime surveillance on China. They said this was the most significant step taken by the Quad so far in its moves to counter China.

Although the Quad did not elaborate on the specific measures it will take, a senior Biden administration official told the media that the Quad intends to fund commercial satellite tracking services to provide free maritime intelligence to nations of the region. By monitoring radio frequencies and radar signals, the initiative will help track boats even if they switch off their transponders. The intelligence will be shared with an existing network of regional surveillance centres in countries such as India, Singapore, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, which already have a close intelligence sharing relationship with the US.

China has described the formation of the IPMDA as counterproductive. Chinese commentators have said that it is a move aimed at “stigmatising” their country. Hu Bo, Director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, said: “The move toward Chinese fishing vessels is likely to be just an ‘appetizer’; the Chinese government and coast guard vessels as well as warships will become the next targets of surveillance. This is feasible for the Quad’s broader surveillance system.”

Economic framework

The second proposal mooted separately by Biden and endorsed by Quad leaders in Tokyo was the “Indo Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” (IPEF). Twelve countries, including Quad members, have announced ambitious plans to extend more than $500 billion in infrastructure assistance and investments in the Indo-Pacific region.

US President Joe Biden’s proposal for the “Indo Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” (IPEF) is an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
US President Joe Biden’s proposal for the “Indo Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” (IPEF) is an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). | Photo Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

It is an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The IPEF is also viewed as a competitor to the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement from which the US withdrew when Donald Trump was President.

The IPEF has specifically pledged special aid packages for Pacific Island nations where China’s influence has been steadily growing. The Australian Prime Minister was particularly upset that China was now training security personnel in countries such as the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Until recently, Australia was the sole security provider for most Pacific Island nations.

China responded to the US strategy of forming military alliances in the region by proposing an alternative “Global Security Initiative” (GSI), which will seek to unite the international community on the basis of shared values. Chinese President Xi Jinping first talked about the GSI in this year’s Boao Forum for Asia annual conference in April.

A picture released on December 31, 2021, by Xinhua News Agency shows a J15 fighter jet preparing to land on the Chinese navy’s Liaoning aircraft carrier during military exercises in the disputed South China Sea.
A picture released on December 31, 2021, by Xinhua News Agency shows a J15 fighter jet preparing to land on the Chinese navy’s Liaoning aircraft carrier during military exercises in the disputed South China Sea. | Photo Credit: AP

According to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Xi proposed to meet “the common aspirations of all countries to uphold multilateralism and international solidarity” and “the pressing need of the international community to maintain peace”. Wang Yi said that some countries were adhering to outdated “cold war” concepts, pursuing “unilateralism in the name of multilateralism”. He and other top Chinese officials have been going around the world in recent months to promote the concept of the GSI.