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Quadrilateral dialogue: As India, US, Japan, Australia converge after 10-year hiatus, crucial questions remain unanswered

When a great power rises, it creates ripples across the fabric of international relationships, disrupting the status quo and (sometimes) forcing drifters to converge. And so it is that senior officials from India, Japan, Australia and the US met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila on Sunday as the quadrilateral security dialogue took shape, rising phoenix-like from 10-year-old embers to signal the first official pushback against a revanchist China.

'The quad' is still little more than a concept. It is not a military alliance like the NATO. Though China's coercive behaviour has forced "like-minded democracies" to converge, it's still an amorphous alliance with an inclusive agenda. And just as well, because a 10-year hiatus demands that the bar shouldn't be set too high.

The quad champions multilateralism — as against China's unilateralism — and offers a model that is quintessentially antithetical to the Chinese prototype. In that sense, the quad is not only a formulation of strategic deterrence but a mechanism to provide more and better options to regional powers.

The near-term aim of the quad, therefore, is not "containment" of any country (though it may certainly be perceived as such in Beijing), but to ensure that the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions remain free and open for multilateral trade and commerce. Its stress remains on a rules-based order, connectivity ventures are not fuelled by "predatory" funding, and disputes are mitigated peacefully in accord with international jurisprudence.

The four-way dialogue sensibly resumed with a senior official-level interaction with a hint that it could witness a ministerial-level upgrade in the near future.

 Quadrilateral dialogue: As India, US, Japan, Australia converge after 10-year hiatus, crucial questions remain unanswered

Leaders of India, Japan, Australia and the US met in Manila this week. PTI

The Indian side, according to a report on The Times of India, was represented by Pranay Verma, joint secretary in charge of East Asia, and Vinay Kumar, joint secretary (south). Alice Wells was the US representative while Satoshi Suzuki, deputy minister for foreign policy, represented Japan. The newspaper quoted a member as saying that the dialogue was "constructive".

Though a start has been made, which is important, much will depend on interoperability, cooperation and convergence. Each of the sovereigns will face internal and external pressures and the challenge lies in finding areas of mutual interest amid inevitable roadblocks. The 2007 dialogue died a premature death when Kevin Rudd-led Australia buckled under Chinese pressure, as did the UPA government in India which strived to stay within the good books of China and subsequently kept Japan out of the annual naval exercise with the US.

If the expectation was that this will placate Chinese nerves and forestall an arms race in the region, that was belied. Collapse of the quad, say analysts, incentivised China's coercive behavior. Beijing quickly turned territorial ambition into a template in the absence of pushback mechanisms.

Professor Rory Medcalf, head of national security college at the Australian National University, argued in the Australia-based Financial Review that abandonment of the security dialogue in 2007 was to preempt Chinese paranoia and prevent its military modernisation, but "rather than placate Beijing, such acquiescence" ended up fuelling Beijing's ambition. "The region has seen increasingly unsettling Chinese strategic behaviour for most of the decade since. All the bad things the quad would supposedly provoke have occurred in its absence. The fact that China and those who seem to privilege its perspective are allergic to the idea of the quad confirms that it is an option worth keeping in mind for balancing Chinese influence."

Though this provides a useful convergence platform for "like-minded democracies" to share notes, a look at the press releases of the four nations reveals subtle differences in agenda that must be factored into future dialogue mechanisms. Interestingly, India has assumed a more reserved stance among the four, and its language is more circumspect and ambiguous compared to the rest.

Following the first 'quad' dialogue, while the American and Australian statements mentioned "freedom of navigation" and "overflight in Indo-Pacific" as operative principles, Japan stressed on "ensuring freedom of navigation and maritime security". The statement by India's Ministry of External Affairs had no mention of these words.

Similarly, while the US, Australia and Japan mentioned "respect for international law in the Indo-Pacific", these words were again missing from the Indian statement. India also lacked the inclination to highlight "maritime security in the Indo-Pacific", words that found specific mention in the other three statements.

What India had instead was stress on the word "inclusive". Agreement has been reached, said the MEA, that a "free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large". Australia, Japan or the US didn't stress on inclusiveness as a key 'quad' agenda, which raises some questions about the convergence of purpose.

To a certain extent, Indian scepticism is fuelled by both far history and near developments. The institutionalised memory of non-alignment (which has taken a more avant garde approach in "strategic autonomy" under Narendra Modi) still continues to guide the tenets of Indian foreign policy.

In the near-term, Donald Trump continues to inject lethal doses of unpredictability in US foreign policy — as witnessed during his maiden China trip where he seemed to be veering towards a G2 equation — and therefore India has thought it prudent to take a more cautious approach. Following Trump's meeting with Xi Jinping, for instance, the South China Morning Post had noted that "China's Silk Road Fund, a unit under the People's Bank of China to promote the Belt and Road international trade initiative, will set up a joint fund with the US". A pivot within a pivot serves no one's interest.

During a media briefing on 27 October, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar had been at pains to clarify that the 'quad' is little more than one more addition to several such trilateral or multilateral mechanisms that India follows, and any collective pivot will have to take on board India's self interest. This conflict is understandable.

Much as there is a need to contain China's assertiveness and restore the power balance in Asia, India won't gain by making an enemy out of China. It remains to be seen how the quad resolves these intractable differences.

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2017 07:46:18 IST