Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

The Quad and the Pandemic: A Lost Opportunity?

If the Quad is not going to pursue hard military balancing against China, it needs to go all-in on humanitarian aid. The COVID-19 pandemic is the right time to start.

By Anil Jai Singh for
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The Quad and the Pandemic: A Lost Opportunity?
Credit: The Diplomat

Ever since the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) bringing together four maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific (the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) was first conceptualized in 2007, it has remained a grouping in search of relevance. From the very outset, the purpose of the Quad itself has been ambiguous. It is meant to be a security dialogue but seems to lack a clear objective. The initial perception that it is a response to counterbalance China’s maritime expansionism in the Indo-Pacific turned to ashes the moment the dragon spat fire and individual members promptly distanced themselves from such an assumption. Even in 2017, when the Quad was revived on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit with a meeting of mid-level officials, the divergence in each country’s perception of the grouping became apparent in the statements they issued after the meeting. It was therefore obvious that the Quad would be a nonstarter if indeed counterbalancing China was the aim.

The Quad, by its very composition, comprises an arc of maritime democracies located at the peripheries of the Indo-Pacific region. It  is committed to a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region based on shared values and principles and respect for international law”  but until recently had not felt the need to include the countries that are central to this strategic  construct — the countries of Southeast Asia, four of whom are embroiled in maritime territorial disputes with China and are constantly being subjected to Chinese bullying. It is their vulnerability that China is exploiting while consolidating its dominance of the waters east of the Malacca Straits (and also advancing steadily westwards into the Indian Ocean). This oversight led to suspicion about the Quad’s motives even among these countries. Fortunately, firm support for ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the region is now a part of the Quad narrative.

It is often stated that the Quad is still a work in progress and therefore should first focus its attention on “low-hanging fruit” like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), search and rescue (SAR) operations, and countering nontraditional transnational threats that jeopardize good order at sea. It is felt that these relatively benign and constabulary operations would enable consolidation in areas of convergence and dissipation in areas of divergence through a shared understanding of each other’s operating philosophies and national security imperatives. A further sign of this consolidation is reflected in the enhanced level of engagement, which now includes meetings among the foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of these four countries.

An encouraging trend that augurs well for the success of this arrangement are the bilateral and trilateral engagements in diverse areas such as cybersecurity and maritime domain awareness.

If “low-hanging fruit” is indeed the way ahead, then a golden opportunity has presented itself with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is devastating populations and economies and has exposed vulnerabilities in nations, big and small, rich and poor. A coordinated global approach has not been forthcoming. The United Nations has proven woefully unequal to the task and even smaller multilateral groupings like the G-20, comprising the 20 largest economies in the world, have fallen short of expectations. China, in fact, has been the first off the block to capitalize on the vulnerabilities created by the spread of this pandemic. It has reached out to nations and offered support that obviously comes with strings attached. While there has been some pushback against coercive debt-trap diplomacy, the ability of the poorer or smaller nations to avoid succumbing to Chinese pressure will depend on the alternatives available to them to withstand this onslaught.

Can the Quad, comprising the world’s largest, third largest, fifth largest, and 14th largest global economies (by GDP), grab this opportunity and provide such an alternative?  They certainly have the capacity to do so and individually each one of them is taking various initiatives but is there a collective will to do so? The signs have not been very encouraging so far. On March 20, the United States organized a conference call with the other Quad members, Vietnam, New Zealand, and South Korea. According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs press release, “The participants shared their assessments of the current situation with respect to COVID-19, and discussed ways to synergize their efforts to counter its spread.” The time for discussion is long past but tangible outcomes are yet to become visible.

The inability of the Quad to pluck even this low-hanging fruit has, on the one hand, allowed China to wrest the advantage, and has, on the other, damaged the credibility of the Quad. With no coordinated action even in a time of dire need, it is increasingly doubtful that the grouping can inspire confidence in the region as a meaningful entity for ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Cmde Anil Jai Singh (retd.) is the Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation.