Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (L), Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi (R), Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Marise Payne (2nd L) and US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo (2nd R) gather for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) ministerial meeting on October 06, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Pool/ Anadolu Agency/AFP Forum

The much-hyped and much-anticipated second ministerial meeting of the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad, was held in Tokyo on Tuesday. 

The meeting of Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Indian External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ended without releasing a joint statement. 

Many commentators have criticized the Quad for the failure to issue a joint communiqué after the high-level meeting. It has also appeared reluctant to attempt to institutionalize itself as a permanent body. So the meeting turned out to be business as usual.

The AustralianIndian and Japanese foreign ministries and the US State Department issued statements separately. A careful look at the full text of each statement suggests that all four nations played down the importance of the Quad.

The meeting was originally scheduled to be held in New Delhi in September last year in a 2+2 ministerial format – the foreign minister and defense minister of each country would participate in the conference more extensively than under this week’s Tokyo format. 

More important, the US wanted to recalibrate the Quad into an Asian NATO to deter China. The US intended to develop the Quad as a collective defense system of all member countries. Each member state would agree to mutual defense to respond to any military attack on any other member, like members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization do across the trans-Atlantic region.

Some analysts have portrayed the US attempt to transform the Quad into an Asian NATO as going too far.

In any case, India withdrew from hosting the meeting in New Delhi in September 2019. The date and host country of the meeting were changed.

As the participants in the Tokyo meeting failed to issue a joint statement at the end of the forum, the clamor to make the Quad into an Asian NATO and the US hope for containing China through this forum was in vain.

Each member country had enough reasons to play down the Quad.

First, the US is under immense pressure to reset its policy because it has been losing the trade and tech war against China. Experts say that the US chip industry will not survive the tech war.

President Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric is not likely to attract American voters for the election to be held on November 3. Trump has not been able to provide a viable and workable solution to improve the trade deficit and restore the jobs he used to claim that China had been seizing from Americans. 

American voters realize that Trump’s verbal war against China on the Twitter wall cannot fix the United States’ real economic problems. On the contrary, Americans are receiving more pain than gain from the trade war. Every household in the United States faced extra costs of up to US$1,000 due to Trump’s tariffs against Chinese goods in 2019.

According to the Financial Times, more than 3,500 companies have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration over China tariffs in recent weeks. This demonstrates the extent of unhappiness among businesses over Trump’s myopic trade war.

Trump’s popularity has plummeted as trade and tech wars have had more unintended consequences than desired outcomes. So Trump will not win his re-election bid with the help of much-hyped but zero-result trade and tech war against China. 

Now it seems the Trump team has realized that the hollow rhetorical trade and tech war will not help to reopen the White House’s door to Trump on November 3. They want a course correction on China policy.

The Trump team now concludes that the anti-Chinese stance will not help them any more. They need to reset policy to prevent further harm China can cause to the US economy as retaliation. And Beijing’s recent vow to go for a green economy by 2060 is another wake-up call for the US.

Although Pompeo himself in his remarks at the Tokyo meet slammed China over the alleged Covid-19 pandemic’s early mishandling, the State Department’s statement made clear that the US was also playing down the Quad at this time.

Second, Australia participated in the second Quad ministerial meeting not because it particularly wished to but because it could not withstand US pressure.

But China’s retaliatory measures could cause severe damage to the Australian economy. 

China is able to impose bans on Australian dairy products, wine, minerals and ores, coal and natural gas. It also can harm Australia by not sending Chinese students to enroll at Australian universities and Chinese tourists to visit Australian destinations. China has already banned Australian beef and barley.

Therefore Australia has reason to soften its stance on the Quad.

Third, although the Quad was the brainchild of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan does not want to take unnecessary risks to dismay China. Japan doesn’t want its high-tech companies to lose their business in the Chinese market.

Last, India seems to be under the most pressure.

The US had a clear plan to transform the Quad into an Asian NATO, but India was not very enthusiastic about this idea. Jaishankar repeatedly claimed that India will never be part of any military alliance.

India had expected that the Chinese economy would collapse because of the Covid-19 pandemic by March or April. It considered that it could take revenge for its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. India also believed that China’s economic, military, and strategic advancement could be halted with US help.

However, China brought the pandemic under control by the end of March. In contrast, India and the US were hit hardest by it in May and June. Both economies plummeted on an unexpected scale.

Since the first week of May, China has pressured India to stick with the earlier agreements and consensus reached between the Chinese and Indian leaders in the 2018 and 2019 informal summits. 

However, China did not budge. It continued its pressure on India.

As winter approached in the Himalayas, India became more anxious. In Siachen, Indian soldiers’ non-combat fatalities due to the cold are five times as many as from the enemy’s bullets. India faces the challenge of protecting its troops amid inadequate logistics to bring in supplies. India wants to reduce the number of troops in Ladakh as soon and as much as possible. 

As a result of all these factors, India withdrew from hosting the Quad ministerial meeting last year.

By doing so, it was adhering to the first point of the agreement reached at the China-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization sidelines in Moscow on September 10. That item reads, “[The] two ministers agreed that both sides should take guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes.”

Even after the agreement reached in Moscow, China continued to put pressure on India. Thus India was forced to play down the Quad, first by not hosting the meeting in New Delhi and second by issuing an ambivalent statement after this week’s Tokyo meet.   

No tangible takeaway was available to either of the four parties to the Tokyo Quad meet. It was just a formal event to reaffirm their commitment to the Quad. And so it would appear that the “Asian NATO” proposal was stillborn.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.