India-China border row, Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy fuelling New Delhi’s new embrace of the Quad, say analysts

India-China border row, Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy fuelling New Delhi’s new embrace of the Quad, say analysts

China’s rising assertiveness, Covid-19 and the Myanmar coup are expected to be on the agenda at Friday’s Quad meeting. Analysts say while the border clash and vaccine diplomacy have shifted New Delhi’s views on the Quad

China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific, coronavirus vaccines and the Myanmar coup are expected to be on the agenda as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday meets his counterparts from Japan, Australia and the US in a teleconference of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”.

The Times of India news outlet reported on Friday that India would manufacture the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine with financing from the US and Japan. Australia would be involved in shipping it to Southeast Asia and Pacific countries.

A senior US administration official had earlier told Reuters that the meeting would see several financing agreements between the Quad parties to support an increase in manufacturing capacity for coronavirus vaccines in India, with some of the doses going to Southeast Asian countries.

According to a Nikkei report, the four members will work together to secure rare earth metals that are essential to the production of electric car motors and other products. China is the top producer of rare earths.

The online meeting marks the first summit since the idea for the grouping of the four major democracies was conceived in 2006. New Delhi’s unwillingness to be seen as part of an anti-China bloc, given its trade ties with China, was cited as one of the reasons for the Quad’s decade-long hiatus. Australia withdrew from the grouping in 2008 to boost relations with China.

But New Delhi has of late urged the other Quad members to invest in its vaccine production capacity in an attempt to counter Beijing’s widening vaccine diplomacy. The months-long border dispute between China and India, sparked by a deadly clash in Ladakh last May, is also likely to have led Modi’s administration to change its views, said analysts, even as a military disengagement process on both sides began last month.
“India’s hesitations about the Quad have certainly diminished after China’s aggression in Ladakh,” said former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

New Delhi’s previous coolness on the Quad was borne out of concerns of its relations with Beijing and wariness about having “no assurance of adequate backing” from other partners, he said.

“It is now clear that China cannot be trusted to adhere to agreements and India has to develop deeper partnerships with others who are also concerned about China’s assertiveness,” said Sibal, who was the top diplomat from 2001-2002. “During the Ladakh crisis, the US was supportive diplomatically and security-wise. This has also influenced thinking in Quad’s favour.”

Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the United States’ Indo-Pacific command, this week said during a congressional hearing that New Delhi had long maintained “strategic autonomy”, but activities along the 3,488km undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) had “opened their eyes” to what cooperation with others might mean for India’s “defensive needs”.

“We have provided some information to India in that crisis – cold-weather closing, clothing, some other equipment … and over the last several years, we have been deepening our maritime cooperation,” Davidson said.
The resumption of the Quad signals that the grouping is likely to play a significant role in setting the geopolitical agenda in the Biden era, amid speculation that new members could join.
The idea of a quadrilateral dialogue came after the four countries came together for human assistance and disaster relief during the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. While a diplomatic dialogue and joint naval exercises were held in 2007, no further meetings took place.

According to a July 2017 article by Tanvi Madan, director of the Indian Project at Washington’s Brookings Institution, although India was seen as the “most prominent holdout”, Australia, Japan and the US had been just as reluctant to push for the Quad in the face of strong Chinese objections and their own ties with Beijing.

China’s behaviour from 2008 – towards territorial and maritime disputes, the South China Sea, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the use of economic leverage – had raised concerns in the four countries, Madan wrote in the article published on War on the Rocks, a web portal on strategic and security issues.

“There is a sense that while Beijing has expected reassurance and wants others to respect its sensitivities and aspirations, it hasn’t returned the favour,” she wrote. “And economic ties with China that some expected would alleviate friction have actually added to it.”

China-Australian relations have plumbed new depths since Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ahead of the meeting on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the summit would become an anchor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

“This is about four nations that have had a long-term interest in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “This is about ensuring that we can trade more easily and peacefully; that there is freedom of movement within the seas and the overflight of the area to ensure that there is facilitation, trade and movement across our great region and before these four nations; liberal democracies; standing up for our values; coming together and ensuring that we are an anchor for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Srinath Raghavan, professor of history and international relations at the Ashoka University near Delhi, said India’s involvement in the Quad did not mean a loss of its strategic autonomy.

“The US is an important driver of the Quad, but all the other countries have their own reasons to come together. India’s participation will be shaped by its capabilities and interests,” he said.
New Delhi’s main challenges were on the land borders with China, relations within the South Asian neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean Region, Raghavan said. “The Quad can help in the Indian Ocean Region and more generally to convince China to proceed cautiously.”

Sibal, the retired foreign secretary, said the Quad summit would “produce a closer understanding on the Quad agenda, without it meaning that the positions of each country will be identical”.
“The US is pushing hard to give the Quad a more open security dimension, whereas countries like India prefer it to have a broader agenda covering human assistance and disaster relief, terrorism, climate change and health issues,” he said.

Sibal added that India would not use the Quad to espouse any open anti-China sentiment. But there could be more elaborate defence exercises, including in the South China Sea, and increased security cooperation and more intelligence exchanges among the members.

“But there has to be more emphasis on other forms of cooperation to give more ballast to the group rather than only security,” he said.

While the first summit was a significant event that sent a “very powerful” message to China, Sibal said New Delhi’s intention was to deter Beijing, rather than to take an offensive against it.
Despite the strained ties, India and China cooperate on a number of platforms, including at the Russia-India-China dialogue forum. India is also part of BRICS – a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and will host a summit later this year.

“Each country in the Quad has a major relationship with China which will be preserved but conditioned on China’s future conduct,” Sibal said. “It is a signal to China that its aggressive policies will be resisted.”

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