Rock, paper, scissors. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pictured with US President Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017. Photo: dpa
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump have come closer together on China policy. Photo: AFP/DPA

Foreign ministers of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal forum comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, will have their second meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday. Unlike their first meeting in New York last year, on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly, this “standalone” ministerial meet looks like it will set in motion the long-awaited formal institutionalization of their musings on regional security.

As the first sign of this, the meeting will be followed by senior-officer-level consultations next month, and the timing could not have been more appropriate.

After being initiated in 2007, which was followed by the Lehman Brothers crash unleashing a global economic slowdown, the Quad became the victim of sharp rhetorical démarches from Beijing, then a budding Sino-Indian bonhomie, and China overtaking Japan as the largest foreign creditor to the US. 

In Australia, Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd had just taken over as prime minister. The world had known Rudd for supporting stronger partnerships with Beijing and had last seen him addressing president Hu Jintao at the 2007 Sydney APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Hu’s own language.

This time around, however, the backdrop is marked by major powers’ increasing discomfiture with the unfolding of an assertive “new era” under Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the midst of a pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China’s trade and border tensions respectively with the US and India – which have since become the world’s largest and second-largest Covid-infected nations – have seen their ties with Beijing making a sharp U-turn. 

Donald Trump’s and Narendra Modi’s hyper-displayed personal camaraderie with Xi has since raised questions on their possible misjudgments about the Chinese leader. Domestic backlash has seen a series of executive orders from the White House imposing tariffs, sanctions and travel advisories and India’s “boycott China” campaign leading to the Modi government tightening regulations on Chinese investments and banning about 200 mobile-device applications, mostly Chinese. 

Up to now, India has been seen as the weakest link in the Quad alliance, but this recent period has pushed the US and India closer together. Give the bipartisan support for engaging with India, even a change in the White House is not likely to slow their growing strategic proximity. 

The Tokyo ministerial that takes place in the midst of unending China-India border tensions and on the eve of a US presidential election makes it a perfect platform for further fueling their anti-China sentiment, if not open anti-China rhetoric.

Australia and Japan have likewise faced Beijing’s increasing fire and fury. Australia asking for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in April triggered not just verbose “wolf warrior” diplomacy but a Chinese blitzkrieg of hurdles on Canberra’s exports of barley, beer and beef, and finally a ban on its academics.

Tokyo has similarly been upset over China’s war-mongering about the disputed Senkaku islands and also by China’s bullying of Hong Kong and Taiwan, resulting in an unprecedented rise in Japan’s defense budget last year. The Tokyo ministerial therefore will showcase the early signs of how Japan’s new leadership views its stakes in ensuring peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region.

All these pull and push factors are bound to incentivize institutionalization of the Quad in terms of its likely objectives, structures and processes. Though perennial issues like counterterrorism, maritime and cyber security, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance and development finance are listed as agenda items, the focus is likely to remain China-centric, especially on 5G (fifth-generation telecommunications) and ensuing a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In terms of extant regional security architecture, there has been a a clear drift away from keeping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the driving seat on this issue. The centrality of ASEAN was premised on never hurting the core interests of major powers. This has since been compromised with China emerging as a global power with system-shaping capabilities. This creates a structural vacuum where the Quad could step in, at least potentially.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already witnessed the Quad rapidly concretizing its cohesiveness by adding various new components.

With the India-Australia summit in June resulting in New Delhi finally inviting Canberra to the Malabar naval exercises, in August Japan initiating a triangular Supply Chain Resilience Initiative with India and Australia, and lately the US favoring a “Quad Plus” format in its deliberations with regional stakeholders, the Quad has begun to concretize its strategic, economic and diplomatic linkages. 

With persistent bilateral tensions reshaping India’s China policy and the expanding remit of the Quad, India is seeing its vision of Indo-Pacific geopolitics fructify.

And with India becoming enthusiastic and committed to building a multilateral format for restraining Beijing, the Tokyo ministerial should be able to concretize a consensus on at least some tentative outline of the Quad’s vision, objectives, structures and processes to initiate its formal institutionalization as well as centrality in the security architecture for the Indo-Pacific region.

Professor Swaran Singh is chairman of the Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.