China’s military muscle-flexing in its neighbourhood — be it in the Indo-Pacific, South China Sea or in the Himalayas — loomed large over the Quad ministerial meeting in Tokyo. The four member-nations — the US, Japan, India and Australia — are working towards building a strong multilateral institution that can make China uncomfortable. In fact, the meeting prompted the Chinese Foreign Ministry to voice its opposition to the formation of ‘exclusive cliques’ that can harm the third party’s interests. Even as India and the other countries have reaffirmed their collective vision for a ‘free, open and inclusive’ Indo-Pacific, the quadrilateral coalition runs the risk of being reduced to an anti-China forum spearheaded by the US. While America is openly using this platform to indulge in Dragon-bashing, the others have preferred to respond in a guarded way.
In his opening remarks at the meeting, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reiterated India’s commitment to a rules-based world order, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, and peaceful resolution of disputes. Jaishankar, who had worked out a five-point agreement on de-escalation with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow last month, predictably stopped short of naming (and shaming) the neighbouring country. India should continue to explore the bilateral route for settling issues with China, but at the same time make the most of Quad cooperation for bolstering its security. Every country is justified in safeguarding its interests first before doing its bit to meet regional or global challenges.
Both the US and India have been ravaged by Covid-19. Quad can help them emerge as influential players in the post-pandemic world. Economic recovery should be the top priority as of now rather than countering China’s assertiveness. Looking at the larger picture, it’s imperative for the coalition to ensure a central role for the 10-nation ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), a major stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, in the scheme of things. Quad should be open to engaging with other like-minded countries in the region, resisting the temptation of throwing its weight around. That will be a win-win situation for all of them.