China may dismiss the Quad as the Asian NATO and yet fail to see why a country like India will not be a part of any military alliance

It has been a long eighteen years to give some shape to an idea that essentially grew out of a tsunami; and when the leaders of the United States, India, Japan and Australia met in Tokyo on Tuesday for the Quadrilateral Dialogue every one of them must have gone back with a feeling that finally at last the initiatives are in the right direction.

The Quadrilateral Dialogue, known as the Quad, is not a military or a strategic alliance as some in the Indo Pacific would want to make it out to be, rather a concerted effort on the part of four nations to make sure that international norms and codes of conduct are adhered to, irrespective of the size or level of economic development.

The second in-person meeting in Tokyo in the last one year had its moments of suspense as well. After being in office for sixteen months President Joseph Biden was coming to East Asia not only for the Quad Summit but also for his critical bilateral meetings in South Korea and Japan.

A major war is going on in the Ukraine thanks to the Russian invasion; and a federal election was under way in Australia that eventually saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison quickly conceding so that Prime Minister Antony Albanese could attend the summit of the leaders without skipping a beat.

For India, the Indo Pacific has always been a central part of its foreign policy, not just in terms of freedom of navigation and ensuring a rules-based international order. New Delhi has drawn flak from some in the western world for refusing to jump into the American bandwagon and condemn Moscow over Ukraine; but time and again India has been quite forthright in telling the world where it stood when it came to aggression and inviolability of sovereign borders.

And at the summit Prime Minister Modi spoke of a new energy and enthusiasm for the defence of democracy that was the driving force. “… our mutual cooperation is encouraging of a free, open and inclusive Indo Pacific which is a shared objective for all of us”, Modi remarked.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 raised the spectre of a similar adventure by the People’s Republic of China in its “renegade” province of Taiwan. President Biden came at a time when a considered opinion was that it was high time for Washington to shed its ambiguity on the defence of Taiwan—a posture that is not helping Taipei, Beijing or the Indo Pacific. A showdown in Taiwan will invariably involve Japan and South Korea where some 80,000 American troops are stationed.

“The policy of ambiguity worked extremely well as long as the US was strong enough to maintain it, and as long as China was far inferior to the US in military power. But those days are over. The US policy of ambiguity toward Taiwan is now fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region, by encouraging China to underestimate US resolve, while making the government in Taipei unnecessarily anxious…The time has come for the US to make clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion”, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued in a recent commentary.

And President Biden obliged. At a joint news conference with the Japanese Prime Minister, Biden was asked if the United States would be prepared to defend Taiwan if attacked. “Yes. That’s the commitment we made. We agree with the ‘one China’ policy. We signed on to it. All the attendant agreements (were) made from there. But the idea that that can be taken by force, just taken by force… it’s just not appropriate”, Biden replied. Senior American officials accompanying the American President tried to soft pedal the direct formulation on Taiwan saying that there is no change in Washington’s position which is technically governed by a 1979 law called the Taiwan Relations Act, but the bolt out of the blue was for all to see.

The problem in the Indo Pacific and one that is just not confined to the four members of the Quad is the attitude of China and in an increased belligerence to question the rules based international order pertaining to maritime issues in the South China Seas, and competing claims over the Spratlys that is a bone of contention of six nations including Taiwan. And it took a security pact with Solomon Islands for Australia to see China knocking at its doors in the South Pacific. And countries like India and Japan that depend on vital sea lanes for unhindered transportation of supplies, Beijing’s unilateral claims or veiled attempts to rewrite the Laws of the Sea are not acceptable.

From the point of view of India and Prime Minister Modi, the bilaterals and the Quad summit could not have come at a better time especially in the context of some in the western world continuing to harp on New Delhi’s refusal to take sides in the Ukrainian conflict and condemn Moscow and President Vladimir Putin. Every country in the Quad, the United States included, has said that they perfectly understood where India came from. And in his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, President Biden said that he is committed to making the bilateral partnership “among the closest we have on earth” and that the two countries will closely consult on ways to mitigate the negative effects of the Russia-Ukraine war on world order.

One of the major takeaways from the Quad Summit was the U.S. launched Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) that India and 12 other countries in the region signed on to—an economic partnership that is not about trade and tariffs but of enhancing resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness and competition in the Indo Pacific-- a clear message to China on the gains of playing by a rules-based international system. And a reminder to Beijing that the more muscle it flexes to unilaterally enforce its way of life, the bondages are going to get stronger in the cluster of nations of the Indo Pacific.

Over the years the rhetoric from Beijing has only gotten shriller by the day as the countries of the Quad get closer to meet the challenges of security, strategic, geo-political and environmental issues facing the region. China may dismiss the Quad as the Asian NATO and yet fail to see why a country like India will not be a part of any military alliance; or derisively look down on the four-nation initiative as something looking for headlines. “It seems there is never a shortage of headline-grabbing ideas”, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in 2018. “They (Quad) are like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean; they may get some attention, but will soon dissipate”, he added. The Quad has shown that it is here to stay.

***The writer is a former senior journalist based in Washington covering North America and the United Nations; views expressed are his personal