As China eyes Taiwan and beyond, Quad's Indo-Pacific agenda takes priority
- The Quad Summit will be US President Joe Biden’s first interaction under the diplomatic and security initiative revived during the Donald Trump era as a buffer against Beijing
Leaders of the four-nation Quad grouping that seeks to counter Beijing will meet this month to work together for peace, prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping unveiling plans to tighten its grip on Hong Kong and building a high-speed railway and expressway linking Beijing and Taipei.
The meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, will be US President Joe Biden’s first interaction under the diplomatic and security initiative that was revived during the Donald Trump era as a buffer against Beijing in 2017. Foreign ministers of the four countries met last month to prepare for the meeting of the heads of government in March.
That the Biden administration has taken steps to hold the first Quad Summit within months of taking over demonstrates that the security relationship has been institutionalised. The Biden administration has made it clear right at the beginning of his term that he would work more closely with other countries including Quad members to strengthen partnerships as part of its strategy on China.
This would include deepening the partnership among Quad countries, not just as an anti-China platform but a convergence of democratic powers to back the rule of law. The four powers will also coordinate to express their position in UNSC through the US as P-5 and India as a non-permanent member, and look at forming an economic platform in the future through common interests.
China watchers in New Delhi said the backdrop of the Quad meeting was crucial given how, over the last few days and weeks, Beijing had made it clear that it intended to go all out to consolidate its control over Hong Kong and Taiwan and assert its footprint in the South China Sea where it has territorial disputes with almost all neighbours.
As things stand, Indian officials do not expect any dramatic change in Xi Jinping’s approach towards India. Chinese troops had triggered friction at multiple points along the border in Ladakh last year that led to casualties on both sides in June 2020, a new low in relations between the two giants in over 40 years.
Last month, the two countries finally decided to disengage their troops from one part of the border. But China appears less-than-enthusiastic to expand this understanding to troops in other parts of the Line of Actual Control including the Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang bulge area. At the same time, the Indian army formations in the east have flagged efforts by the People’s Liberation Army to carry out rapid infrastructure upgrades across two Indian states, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
On Friday, Prime Minister Li Keqiang signalled that the Chinese efforts to strengthen the military would continue as he announced a defence budget of 1.35 trillion yuan ($208.47 billion) for the military, the second-largest in the world after the US. China’s defence budget - it is nearly three times India’s military budget - is expected to grow by a little less than 7% over the previous year.
Experts believe China’s defence budget understates the actual military expenditure - it does not include the billions poured into research and development to develop an array of weapons including fighter jets - but is tracked closely as an indicator of the direction and pace of the Chinese military investment.
“We will boost military training and preparedness across the board, make overall plans for responding to security risks in all areas and for all situations, and enhance the military’s strategic capacity to protect the sovereignty, security and development interests of our country,” Premier Li was quoted as saying in a government translation of his remarks.
Indian strategists believe that China’s growing defence budget under Xi Jinping would put pressure on New Delhi to raise military spending also in view of the Ladakh friction. India has already increased the budget to buy weapons and systems by 20% this year to catch up with China.
India has also been cementing its defence cooperation with countries outside Quad as well. Next month, India’s INS Vikramaditya will exercise with France’s nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier strike force in two phases in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
This week, the Indian Air Force started participating in the annual multinational air exercise hosted by the United Arab Emirates. Exercise Desert Flag, being held at UAE’s Al-Dhafra airbase, also has air forces from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Bahrain.