The US under President Biden appears to regard the Quad as needing to evolve into a subsidiary of NATO. The White House has lately been acting in a manner which suggests that they believe NATO needs to guarantee security not just in Europe but in Asia as well, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
Almost every week, a new headline appears in media across the world about the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) that was launched in 2007 between India, Australia, Japan and the United States. After going through a period of torpor, it was re-invigorated in 2017, and has made some progress since in creating linkages between the four members. Given such progress, it has become imperative for the Quad to redefine itself and set clear rules for its membership and operations. This essential task has for too long been allowed to be a “work in progress” rather than attempted and completed.
If some of the statements made by some top policymakers in India are concerned, the Quad is linked to everything other than regional security. The US under President Biden appears to regard the alliance as needing to evolve into a subsidiary of NATO. The White House has lately been acting in a manner which suggests that they believe NATO needs to guarantee security not just in Europe but in Asia as well. What Asian countries think of such a Eurocentric, Atlanticist idea seems not to be a factor that troubles key elements in what is clearly as Europeanist a White House as was the case during the Clinton period.
Australia and Japan are as emphatic as India in seeking to diversify supply chains away from China, given the possibility of geopolitical clouds around that country developing into storms and later, cyclones. Atlantic powers such as France and the UK have indicated that they would like to join the Quad, while Indo-Pacific countries that are more suitable candidates for membership (such as Indonesia) are still silent about the alliance. Given the medley of views and perceptions surrounding the Quad, there are several analysts and policymakers worldwide who dismiss the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as a talking shop.
Acquiring a formal structure and a permanent headquarters seems as distant a prospect in 2022 as was the case in 2007. Despite this, it is a fact that, driven by the Prime Ministers of India, Australia and Japan, the four Quad members are working closer together as a group than has ever been the case. Steadily, a calendar of meetings and a menu of action points is getting drawn up, not all of it in the public eye. In the US, while the frankly Euro-centred Secretary of State Antony Blinken appears to have no time except for matters concerning the tragedy that has befallen Ukraine, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has with greater nuance been far more supportive of initiatives within his department that bring together the four members of the Quad in matters connected with security in Asia, and the defense of the Indo-Pacific.
Few such discussions with the Department of Defense include what has become a commonplace in interaction with the State Department, which constantly brings in the pet issue of the White House, which is the involvement, indeed the leadership together with the US, of Europe of the structures and activities taking place in the Indo-Pacific. Whether out of inner conviction or regard for the opinion of President Biden, both Secretary Blinken as well as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan appear to have bought into the White House view that Ukraine is the single most consequential issue affecting the future of the world, and that the Russian Federation is a much bigger threat to the US and its allies than even the USSR was in the good old days before it imploded in 1991. This flies in the face of the overtaking during the early years of this century of Europe by Asia as the primary theatre of both economic as well as security policy, including so far as Washington is concerned.
Given the swirl of sometimes contrasting narratives and the medley of objectives, it is evident that a reset is needed where the Quad is concerned. Given that Indonesia and possibly South Africa are potential Quad members, changing the definition of the alliance from the mechanical mode of number of its members to matters of consequence to the geopolitics of the day is overdue. Instead of referring to the four countries that are presently members of the Quad, events indicate that this Indo-Pacific security alliance may be better defined by four principles. As a consequence, it would still be the Quad, although not through the number of its members, but as a consequence of the four guiding principles of the alliance. These need to be:
(a) Full membership of the Quad would be restricted to countries that in their geography form part of the Indo-Pacific, and would exclude countries that are present in the Indo-Pacific solely on account of previous colonial conquests that have yet to be surrendered to the original inhabitants of the island territories taken over in the past.
(b) Membership would be restricted to those opposed to attempts by a certain power to establish its hegemony over the Indo-Pacific. Countries such as Pakistan that are functioning in a manner subordinate to that power would be excluded from any participation in the activities and structure of the Quad.
(c) Functional democracies alone would be admitted as full members of the Quad, although countries such as Singapore, Oman and Vietnam need to be welcomed in a Quad Plus arrangement, whereby they participate in some, but not all, the meetings of the group. Germany, the UK and France would also be welcome partners in a Quad Plus grouping.
(d) Substantial people to people contact would be encouraged within the Quad and Quad Plus, thereby creating elements of cultural fusion, besides substantially expanding business and civil society linkages, and not just those at the government to government level.
Rather than a consolidated headquarters, there needs to be separate nodal centres for individual streams of coordinated activity. Defence and security would need to be headquartered in the US, medicine and pharma related activity would ideally be located in India, technology chains in Japan, and creation of resilient supply chains between the Quad and Quad Plus members would be planned from a location in Australia. Not just naval vessels but the merchant marine as well as air linkages would need to be expanded between the Quad members, and over time, visa restrictions diluted.
By its open advocacy of a Europe First (rather than an America First) policy, the White House is doing more damage to US goodwill in Asia than is outwardly apparent, especially by the acquiescence of South Korea, Japan and Australia to the White House policy of concentrating resources and attention on Ukraine, a theatre far removed from the Indo-Pacific, and of limited strategic value even for the US. President Biden needs to institute a reality check within the administration, so as to adjust its policy matrix to the needs not of the previous century but of the present.
Instead of the next meeting of the Quad finding itself sought to be sidetracked by the Europeanist stream within the US administration and its obsession with Ukraine, what is essential is a reset of the mechanism through which the Quad protects freedom of access and security of the countries in the Indo-Pacific. Many of them are at risk from a power seeking to replace past US hegemony with its own, and have already lost land and sea space to that aspiring hegemon. Given such a situation, Biden, Modi, Morrison and Kishida need to concentrate on the task of protecting the sovereignty and interests of countries opposed to hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. Through this, they would work to fulfill the objective for which they are meeting in the next Heads of Government meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Time has already run out, and soon so will overtime, unless the four leaders, who will soon be meeting, engineer a reset of the Quad that is designed to effectively and collaboratively fulfill its objective of having a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific.