There are many aspects that characterize global politics today – from suffering a pandemic allegedly generated by a deadly virus that artificially emerged in a lab, an ambitious military rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region to grab natural resources and convert atolls into military bases, to expansionist policies leading to hotly contested territorial disputes, illegal supply of nuclear arsenals by sidelining established norms, unsustainable debt-aid policies, to an unprecedented global economic depression that is festering poverty each day. But in all of this there is one thing in common, an aggressive China driven by policies of the Chinese Communist Party led by President Xi Jinping. While the world battles these phenomena in myriad ways, many multinational organizations and groupings involving multiple countries have reoriented their strategies and redirected their energies to effectively tackle these global challenges. Likewise, some of the vibrant democracies across the globe such as the US, Japan, Australia and India representing different regions of the world got together a few years back under the nickname of QUAD, looking to build a security architecture that could enable the sustenance of a rule based order in consonance with global laws and conventions. At the essence of this coalition lies what S Huntington highlights in his seminal work, Clash of Civilizations that the unholy alliance between Islamic and Confucian civilizations is the most fundamental threat to the West and the International Order.
The QUAD: A Modest Beginning
On March 12, 2021, in the first virtual Summit of the Quad, the leaders of the member countries asserted the need to strengthen global cooperative procedures by adopting open and coercion free-political choices, setting the norms that govern sharing of innovative technology and enhancing capacity building of individual nations to deal better with the climate related challenges affecting the wider humanity. Quad members also stated that focusing on shared challenges including cyber space, critical technologies, counter-terrorism, quality infrastructure investment, humanitarian-assistance, transparency of World Health Organization and disaster-relief would be areas of priority.
Spirit of the Quad
It is important to note that in order to implement the decisions taken at the Virtual Summit; the Quad formed the senior-level Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group, the Quad Climate Working Group and the Quad Vaccine Experts Group. Thus the Quad meeting deliberated on matters like climate change, critical and emerging technologies to help set standards in areas important for the future such as 5G, cyberspace and artificial intelligence. The US also used the Summit as a platform to correct some of the issues plaguing the nation from the previous presidency such as withdrawal of US support from multilateral organisations like the WHO and the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change. In the Spirit of the Quad statement, the US’s endeavour to work in close coordination with multilateral organisations e.g. WHO and COVAX, as well as the need for transparent and results-oriented reform at the WHO was specifically pointed out.
QUAD and the Pandemic
However, what is considered as the most noteworthy outcome of the Virtual QUAD Summit has been the group’s pledge to deliver a billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine throughout the Indo-Pacific by the end of 2022. This is widely seen as a bid to counter China’s influence in the region. The QUAD agreed to a plan to pool their financial resources, manufacturing capabilities and logistical strengths so as to ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region. The vaccine diplomacy envisaged by the member countries will witness the use of shared tools and expertise. This should be the basic premise on which any ‘issue-based alignment’ should rest on. The members also finalized huge investments in India to make it a vibrant manufacturing hub with the aim of synergizing the vaccination efforts, and to create a global-health partnership for exports to the Indo-Pacific region which many experts perceive to be a significant step to counter China’s expanding vaccine diplomacy.
Interestingly, the QUAD of which the United States is the most dominant part, gains renewed status in recent times as media reports indicate that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the alleged epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic where high risk gain of function research was being carried out were hospitalised in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with the Covid-19 virus. This claim emerged amidst reports that the US State Department believed the Chinese military scientists to be presenting a new era of genetic weapons having been weaponising coronaviruses for the past five years, much before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in the world. The US authorities also allegedly predicted a World War III that is most likely to be fought with biological weapons where attempts would be made to facilitate the collapse the enemy’s entire medical system.
Indo Pacific Region: A Battle of Turfs
Beyond the Coronavirus related pandemic when one looks at the South China Sea(SCS) which is a relevant area for the stakeholders in the QUAD, it is important for the grouping to recognize that China has adopted a three layered warfare strategy to dominate the South China Sea for economic and military purposes without triggering a traditional war so far.
First, a propaganda campaign has been unleashed with public claims that the South China Sea belonged to China since antiquity, for over thousands of years. That China was actually the first country to discover, name, explore, and exploit the resources of the Islands in the SCS and the first to continuously exercise sovereign powers over them. However, despite all these monumental claims, the truth remains that China doesn’t have any evidence in support of the same.
Secondly, by blatant intimidation of other maritime states in the SCS and by building huge air and naval bases in the Spratly islands to project itself as a superior military power, China has been overtly and covertly threatening nation-states in the region to support the imaginary nine-dash line as its national boundary in the SCS. This is an outrageous thing to do as the high seas belong to mankind as a whole and there is no concept of ownership of the seas or of boundaries based on imaginary lines. Moreover, exclusive economic zones in the coastal areas are traditionally seen as belonging to none other than adjacent coastal states..
The third aspect of this warfare is China’s efforts to influence international laws and conventions to its own advantage. This is apparent as China claims that its sovereign rights to the SCS predate the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which it believes cannot be used to prejudice its rights. This is part of China’s continuing effort to introduce Chinese characteristics into international law, designed to serve solely its own national interest.
Recently, China blatantly engaged in unilateral decision making in complete disregard of global conventions by enacting a new law that authorizes its Coast Guard officials to fire on foreign vessels operating outside of China’s UNCLOS-recognized maritime zones but within its notorious nine-dash line. This effectively translates to Chinese dominance in the high seas which the country perceives as its own. This also meant that the Chinese coast guard vessels could fire on Vietnamese, Malaysian, Philippine, and Indonesian vessels engaged in fishing or surveying within their own countries’ exclusive economic zones that fall within China’s perceived nine-dash line. A grave violation of the UN Charter, this Chinese law expressly violates the international rule that outlaws the use or threat of force to settle territorial or maritime disputes between states.
China accused Quad for sowing discord between nations by projecting it as a potential threat as part of the continuing cold war psyche and ideological prejudice. Further, it also advised the group to refrain from forming exclusive small cliques. The Chinese referred to the Quad meeting as selective multilateralism and Covid politics reflecting their frustration over the emergence of an alternative international collaboration on global vaccination, a domain that China otherwise unilaterally reserved for itself with the motive of profiteering.
As such, the Quad was hardly active during multiple acts of Chinese belligerence, both at land and in Sea. For the Quad to have relevance as a multi nation grouping of democracies, it is imperative that plots that threaten any of the member states’ sovereignty or legitimate rights are effectively neutralized. In spite of this, the first ‘Quad leaders meeting,’ was crucial as the new US administration candidly endorsed the United States continued commitment to the idea of ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Tension between the Quad nations and China however has increasingly led to fears of a new Cold War or a new Great Game. Nevertheless the Quad meeting could be seen as a step in the right direction both in the security realm where the rise and advancement of an authoritarian China is noticeable; as well as in the domains of technology, climate change and measures to tackle a worldwide pandemic. At present, though the Quad does not seem to be looking for an expansion as a deterrent to peace spoilers, in the long term it may possibly incorporate like-minded countries into its fold to check the growing adventurism of certain autocratic countries, not only because it is founded on the fundamental principle of democracy but also since as a grouping it has the potential to become one of the most important and effective watchdogs of the global order.