Joe Biden Rebooting the Quad in IOR

By Sumanasiri Liyanage | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 26 2021
Columns Joe Biden Rebooting the Quad in IOR

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

It is getting clearer that as far as foreign policy is concerned the change of administration in the United States of America (USA) has no significant impact, at least with regard to the Indian Ocean Region or Asia-Pacific. The Japanese news agency Kyodo reported that the Biden Administration had proposed to the Heads of States of New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra the idea of holding an online summit meeting of the quadrilateral security dialogue or ‘Quad’ as it is popularly known. Continuing to work within foreign policy paradigm of the Obama Administration, President Joe Biden called up Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the topics discussed included and centred around the close cooperation for “a stronger regional architecture through the Quad”. Following the telephone conversation between the two Heads of States, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar and expressed the US aspiration and intention to expand regional cooperation through the Quad if possible expanding it with the inclusion of at least some of the ASEAN countries.

The Disturbed History of Quad

It was the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan who initiated the dialogue in August 2007. His initiative to ensure ‘Seas of Freedom and Prosperity’ won the support of then Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Vice President Dick Cheney of the US and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia. The dialogue was paralleled by joint military exercises of an unprecedented scale, titled Exercise Malabar in which Australia opted not to participate. This diplomatic and military arrangement may be seen as a response to increased Chinese economic involvement in the Indian Ocean Region. As a counter response, the Chinese Government responded to the Quad by issuing formal diplomatic protests to its members. The Quad has a disturbed and discontinuous history. The allegiance to the concept by the member countries depended on their intended relationship with China, so the nature of the administration in respective countries mattered. However, after negotiations that started during the 2017 ASEAN Summits, Heads of State of four countries with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull  of Australia, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and President Donald Trump of the United States agreed in Manila to revive the security pact. Australia joined the Malabar exercise on an invitation from India. So, all member countries of Quad took part in naval exercises for the first time in 2019 making it not only diplomatic but also a military alliance. 

Rebooting the Quad

Reflecting on the new development to reboot Quad mechanism, M. K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, has noted that the Biden Administration strategises to deploy it as the major counter-offensive against the Peoples Republic of China. He opines: ‘The decision to “upgrade” the Quad to the highest level of leadership is a major initiative by the Biden administration. The Quad overnight becomes the tip of the spear in the Indo-Pacific strategy. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently signaled during an online event that Quad will play a key part in US policy in the Indo-Pacific region facing China’s rise. Sullivan said, “I think we really want to carry forward and build on that (Quad) format, that mechanism, which we see as fundamental, a foundation, upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region.” Interestingly, Robert O’Brien, former National Security Adviser to Trump, also said at the same event that the Quad may be the “most important relationship we’ve established since NATO at a high level.” 

He has further pointed out that Joe Biden used the military coup in Myanmar to legitimise rebooting of Quad as ‘the platform to galvanise the restoration of democracy in that country and the promotion of human rights and democracy in the Asia-Pacific in general’. It is interesting to note that Democratic administrations since days of Jimmy Carter have tended to use the human right regime for America’s advantage. Nonetheless, it is clear that the principal objective is to use Quad as a controlling mechanism in the Indian Ocean Region and to use it as a counter offensive to China. “China has brilliantly succeeded through the past decade in dominating and shifting the narrative in the Asia-Pacific to the economic agenda. The US cannot possibly retrieve that lost ground. But, in the US assessment, by positioning the Quad as the flag carrier of human rights and democracy in the Asia-Pacific, Washington could carve out a political domain where China is doomed to remain an outsider.”

The involvement of Japan, China and Australia in the Quad mechanism is nothing more than a cover for the direct operation of the USA in the IOR and South Pacific. Hence, US is trying to get the ASEAN countries within Quad mechanism, but because of heavy presence of China in their economies, the Heads of States in those countries are to rethink in joining an apparently purely military and diplomatic ensemble.

India’s Slow Response

Although Joe Biden contacted the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to organise a quick online meeting between the Heads of States in Quad countries, Modi was a bit hesitant to commit to such an intervention. This may be for many reasons. First, India is the only Quad country that has a common border with the Peoples’ Republic of China. China has on numerous occasions increased the border tension deploying new forces at the border and building permanent structures. Secondly, whatever the rivalry between two countries, China plays an important role in the Indian economy. Thirdly, linking together with the US is always problematic for India’s relations with the countries of the Global South. Close collaboration with the US may cause many problems for India’s stature as a leader of the Global South and the Non-aligned Movement that is weak but not dead. Fourthly, the consensus among the neighbouring countries on the recent developments in Myanmar does not go beyond the objection of the arrest of the leaders of the duly elected Government. Hence, whether it would be possible to materialise the plan for IOR by Joe Biden Administration depends on multiple factors.

Using the military takeover as a scapegoat, Joe Biden and his administration seem to record the US dominance, in the global South, forcing regional leaders to follow the US and his initiative. This effort may be seen also at the on-going Human Rights Commission deliberations.  

The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. 

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By Sumanasiri Liyanage | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 26 2021

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