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  Opinion   Columnists  13 Jan 2024  Bhopinder Singh | Quad shouldn’t allow group to get derailed by Chinese games

Bhopinder Singh | Quad shouldn’t allow group to get derailed by Chinese games

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry
Published : Jan 13, 2024, 10:49 pm IST
Updated : Jan 13, 2024, 10:49 pm IST

The Quad's strategic dance and shifting priorities: Familial bonds and geopolitical dynamics.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar delivers a lecture on ‘Bharat’s Rise in Geopolitics', in Nagpur, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar delivers a lecture on ‘Bharat’s Rise in Geopolitics', in Nagpur, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (PTI Photo)

Speaking at the launch of his latest book Why Bharat Matters, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar conflated the great Hindu epic, the Ramayan, to put the dynamics of the Quad grouping (of the United States, Japan, Australia and India) in context. This analogical reference was after the mandatory castigation of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had allegedly put China’s interests ahead of India’s at the UN Security Council. A month back, the proposed Quad summit in New Delhi (a day before or after Republic Day) was postponed to a “later date in 2024”, with “scheduling constraints” cited as the reason. US President Joe Biden had been invited as the chief guest for Republic Day, but his visit got cancelled.

Explaining the occasional disunity, the minister likened the role of diplomats to Hanuman -- the four Quad countries as Raja Dashrath’s four sons, with the ally France, to Lakshman. The moot point was of familial bonhomie and fundamental alignment, but with each having occasional conflicting interests. Keeping with the times and necessities, he expounded on the Ramayan as a treatise on statecraft, just as earlier he had likened the Mahabharat’s Krishna to India’s stand in a turbulent world, launching his earlier book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World. Besides being “kosher” in today’s political environment, the referencing to ancient Indian texts can’t be faulted in terms of relevance and adding to the perceptions of profound civilisational wisdom that is India. This sort of soft-diplomatic allusions has been mastered by the Chinese, who invoke their own ancient treatise and philosophers on the world stage.

The alluded “intra-family” intrigues and cross purposes within the Quad fraternity manifests with examples of India’s “strategic independence” in avoiding the anti-Russia chorus as desired by the US in the Russia-Ukraine war, or with an Australia reneging on a multi-billion contract for submarines with France, in favour of the US/UK. But these frustrations don’t take away from the far more powerful bind of the Quad rationality: the China-wariness that remains as serious and relevant as earlier. Importantly, the Quad democracies can create independent and unaligned sovereign agendas on some issues, but “strategic competition” with China has a bipartisan/universal consensus across party lines.

The Chinese acknowledge the prospective force of a dedicated Quad in unifying and fructifying a formidable alternative and multilateral coalition of resistance to stiffen spines against China’s expansionism and intimidation. Currently other “blocs” like Nato or AUKUS are burdened with other agendas beyond China, and therefore lack the funnel of Sino-focus. The Quad operates under the euphemistic cause of “advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific”, without unnecessarily naming the specific and singular force that sullies it in the restive waters of the East China Sea, Taiwan Straits, South China Sea, or the larger tracts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with talk about a “Quad Plus” (adding South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand). But beyond the Quad’s hypothetical military bite, it can also trigger a domino effect of a global anti-China coalition that can derail the neologism of a “Chinese century” and swing the collective balance of power away from Beijing. A battle of wits, patience and (im)probabilities in coalescing the Quad is underway.

However, with elections due in India and the United States this year, and in Japan and Australia next year, the reprioritisation of leadership focus to be more domestic, than having them invest their time and effort in Quad imperatives, is inevitable. A practical reality in the functioning of participative democracies, as opposed to the Chinese regime that moves unilaterally, undistracted and with a long-term focus on strategic issues, given no concern of regime change or even the popular mood,

beyond a point. Therefore, President Joe Biden’s desperate battle for a second term and its resultant “tight political calendar” that thwarted his visit to India (and postponement of the Quad meet) is symptomatic of the shifting of priorities in democracies. This is the second consecutive time that Mr Biden has pulled out of a Quad meeting, as earlier in May last year Mr Biden was fighting a debt ceiling crisis and had to put the Sydney summit on the backburner. Importantly, while China weighs heavily in public imagination and as an electoral issue, the Quad fructification is a more gradual and invisible process in outcomes and optics, that does not galvanise the public mood immediately. As the unofficial mouthpiece of the Chinese regime, Global Times reports: “Neither the Quad nor the Indo-Pacific framework can increase Biden’s chances of an election victory, so Biden will abandon it, at least for now”. For once, the Chinese are correct, for even if all professional and serious assessment of threat perceptions to the Quad countries points to China, the natural workings of democracy disable commitment to continuous progress on the Quad journey.

The possible backlash of a brazen reaction to Quad posturing also weighs on the minds of the leaders of the four democracies as not all constituents are prepared to accept the repercussions. Pursuant to the age-old Chinese maxim of “killing one, to warn a hundred”, Beijing had suddenly made a scapegoat out of Australia by restricting the imports of Australian coal, cotton, meat, wine, barley, timber, copper, sugar, etc, to exert painful economic pressure.

Politics within the Quad countries have reckless individuals like Donald Trump, who build their electoral “muscularity” by threatening to undo past deals like Iran, and now promise a similar shooting on the foot by dismantling the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” should he return.

Similarly, India’s grandstanding against the US over accusations of sponsoring “hits” against terrorists galvanises the Indian electorate more compellingly than investing in the Quad. While China remains the main enemy across Quad electorates, the competitive dynamics of democracy do derail focus.

Tags: eam jaishankar, quad counties, why bharat matters