Bill Emmott: Quad must be productive partnership to keep India from Russia, China orbit
The photos always look impressive: political leaders from four great countries covering a very wide geography, bearing very wide smiles. The fact that, as on May 24-25 in Tokyo, the "Quad" of Japan, the United States, India and Australia met at all is quite an achievement, especially when one of the key members, India, is taking such a different stance on Russia's war on Ukraine than the others. Yet if this grouping is to survive and make a real difference, more will be needed than just photos, smiles and summits.
Let us not forget that the Quad has a sort of rival. I do not mean the Russia-China bilateral partnership proclaimed in Beijing in early February. What I am referring to is the BRICS summit, a group which since 2006 has assembled ministers from Brazil, Russia, India and China, and which in 2011 added South Africa.
At first, the BRICS summits appeared to symbolise the growing importance of these big emerging economies, reflecting also in a Western-centric sort of way the fact that the idea of "the BRICS" was originated by a British chief economist at the American investment bank Goldman Sachs as an intellectual piece of marketing. Now, hardly anyone in the international media pays attention to the meetings. Yet the ministers still assemble, this year under China's chairmanship, with what is an impressive array of regular encounters between specialist ministers and business sectors.
Compared with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to give the Quad its full title, the BRICS summits look almost technical in nature. The Quad was initiated by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 with the idea of influencing or reshaping the grand stage of geopolitics, using joint military exercises between the four countries to emphasise the Quad's role as a counterweight in the Indo-Pacific against China's growing role.
Yet the grouping fell asleep almost immediately as a new Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who took office later in 2007, felt it was unhelpfully confrontational and withdrew his country. It took 10 years before the Quad could be revived, several Australian prime ministers later, with Donald Trump in the White House, with Abe again Japan's prime minister, and with joint military exercises being resumed. President Joe Biden then gave the Quad an even greater emphasis and greater formality, hosting the first full summits of the countries' then four leaders twice in 2021, and now they have met again twice in 2022.
There is no doubt that seeing Joe Biden, Fumio Kishida, Narendra Modi and now Anthony Albanese meeting together makes the Quad look like a geopolitical game-changer. And so it could be, for India's border clashes with China in 2020-21 convinced many that India had found a strong incentive to build close security friendships with other leading Indo-Pacific democracies.
Yet we must return to the comparison with the BRICS summits if we are to be able to judge how big a game-changer the Quad really can be. India, it must be noted, is a member both of the Quad and the BRICS groupings. Prime Minister Modi has moved almost immediately from one summit, supposedly of like-minded friends, to the other, with little embarrassment. Moreover, the quite intense annual programme of BRICS ministerial meetings and other events shows that even if this grouping is largely ignored by the international media, it nevertheless has established quite a strong habit and necessity of consultation and collaboration between the five member countries.
This is something the Quad has yet to achieve. The leaders' summits have tried to set up some joint projects, most notably an agreement in March 2021 to make a headline-grabbing collective investment in manufacturing 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccines in India for distribution to poorer countries in the Indo-Pacific. This, however, made better headlines than actual outcomes, for it quickly was overtaken by India's own coronavirus crisis which led the country to ban vaccine exports until the infection spike had been overcome. The result was that the first delivery of vaccines under this scheme was not made until April 2022, when 325,000 doses of Indian-made vaccines at last arrived in Cambodia.
Now, the Quad has pledged at its Tokyo summit to collaborate on establishing a body called "the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness," mainly for tracking illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific and potentially responding jointly to natural and humanitarian disasters. This looks like a good arena for collective endeavour because it will involve the co-ordination of military-grade surveillance systems without having a formal and therefore potentially provocative military purpose. The Quad also pledged to invest $50 billion in infrastructure in the region, but it is unclear whether this is really new money rather than simply a method to catalogue or organise pre-existing commitments.
The basic question, however, which the four leaders are unable currently to answer, is what is the long-term strategic purpose of the Quad? Almost certainly, all four governments would, if pressed, come up with somewhat different definitions. But the most different would come from what the other three consider to be the Quad's most important member: India.
Japan, the United States and Australia see India as the key member for the obvious reason of countering China. But while India does see the need to counter or deter China, it plainly also sees a purpose in consulting quite intensively with China through the BRICS framework. And, as everyone has been aware since Russia's full invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24th, India remains dependent on China's "strategic partner" Russia for military supplies and technology, and has refused to join any sanctions or condemnations of Russia's behaviour.
The Feb. 4th Russia-China joint statement about that strategic partnership talks, moreover, of an aim of deepening collaboration between those two countries plus India. The great sub-continental nation of South Asia is clearly considered to be in play.
The Quad would not succeed if it sought to force India to choose sides. So what should it do? My advice would be that it should seek to emulate the BRICS framework by institutionalising Quad meetings and projects in a much more regular and multi-level series of summits. The point would be to build, step by step, the habit of consultation while also displaying, continuously, the benefits of collaboration.
In practice, this would have a less grand aim than that of directly countering China in a full security partnership. But it would still have a strategic purpose, perhaps one that is more realistic, given India's interests and attitudes: to ensure that India never develops an interest in becoming genuinely close to China and Russia.
(By Bill Emmott. Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)