From Tokyo, a strong message to Beijing

Published on May 24, 2022 07:42 PM IST

Quad is now marked by people-centric initiatives, political resilience and security and technology cooperation in order to help create an equitable balance of power

The message from Tokyo is one of peace, but peace on terms acceptable to all major powers. As China goes through its most serious crisis in recent years, it may want to calmly internalise the implications of Quad. (ANI) PREMIUM
The message from Tokyo is one of peace, but peace on terms acceptable to all major powers. As China goes through its most serious crisis in recent years, it may want to calmly internalise the implications of Quad. (ANI)

For much of the past decade, it appeared that China was invincible. From conceiving and operationalising the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to sending signals of military predominance in the vicinity, from continuing on a trajectory of high economic growth to becoming a political player in countries across South Asia, Africa and Latin America, from seeking more space in international governance structures to cracking down on Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, and from managing to keep Covid-19 numbers extraordinarily low in the early period of the pandemic to creating a web of economic interdependencies, Xi Jinping was presiding over a new, assertive, and successful China.

But history is never linear; nor is politics. And we are now at a moment where China’s vulnerabilities, for the first time, are becoming apparent.

Its zero-Covid-19 policy has led to economic ruin. Its predatory economic practices are now generating a backlash from smaller countries in South Asia. Xi’s domestic political control may be witnessing cracks. Its military belligerence has created insecurity all over the region. Its ability to implement and operationalise projects has been shown to be exaggerated. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left it unsettled, showing the power of the West as far the international financial system is concerned.

In addition to this, what appears to have rattled China is the emergence of Quad. And if the meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday is an indicator, Beijing is right to be worried for four reasons.

The first is the political commitment that India, the United States (US), Japan and Australia have displayed in giving Quad a new lease of life since last March. The grouping has had four leader-level summits (two virtual, two in-person). The Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese rushed to Tokyo to attend the Quad meeting as his first assignment. Foreign msinisters of the four countries met in Melbourne this February. It is striking that Quad became a victim of neither political blame-game nor bureaucratic inertia; and among diplomatic initiatives in recent decades, it may already count as the most successful mechanism given the frequency of high-level engagement and the substance of the work it has done. The fact that the US has remained invested in Quad despite the war in Ukraine, and the US and India have not let their differences over Russia affect Quad, speaks of its political resilience. And with a range of countries keen to join Quad, its political appeal is only growing.

Two, Quad’s affirmative agenda stems from the recognition that China’s advantage in the region comes from its ability to invest resources and make (often false) promises of economic development. By pooling in resources and comparative advantages, and then providing vaccines, giving scholarships, investing in infrastructure, deepening climate initiatives, and offering humanitarian and disaster relief, Quad has the ability to make a tangible difference in the lives of people in the Indo-Pacific — without forcing the States in the region to choose between the US and China, a scenario that Southeast Asian countries want to avoid.

Three, Quad countries recognise that the battles of the future are in the maritime and technological domain. That is why, in Tokyo, they launched the Indo-Pacific partnership for maritime domain awareness; this is in addition to joint naval exercises that are already being conducted. That is also why the Quad working group on emerging and critical technologies has focused on creating standards, ensuring interoperability, maintaining diversity of suppliers, and securing semiconductors, among other steps. By establishing its presence in the maritime realm, and taking the technological battle right to China’s doorstep, Quad has sent a clear signal it will not be bullied.

And finally, the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is a signal to China that its economic dominance in the region will not go uncontested. While IPEF does not involve market access, and details of its four pillars (supply-chain resilience; clean energy, decarbonisation and infrastructure; taxation and anti-corruption; and fair and resilient trade) are yet to be disclosed in great detail, the fact is that the US (despite a difficult political climate at home) has been able to push through a framework that will play a role in setting standards and creating new economic chains and a dozen countries have signed up to it. It is the beginning of a conversation on a new economic architecture, one that Beijing won’t be pleased about.

None of this is meant to underestimate the differences within Quad — for instance, Taiwan is a key security priority for the US in the Indo-Pacific, while India has a different set of concerns when it comes to Beijing’s belligerence. The US, Japan and Australia are treaty allies, and there will be occasions when New Delhi won’t be on the same page as the other three countries. It would also be a mistake to underestimate China. Beijing will remain the most formidable Asian power in the years ahead, despite its recent setbacks.

But the point of Quad is not to stir up conflict, as Beijing alleges. It is meant to avoid conflict by creating a more equitable balance of power on the ground in the Indo-Pacific. The absence of this balance of power led China to overreach and miscalculate in recent years. And that is what made the need for a new mechanism of deterrence so urgent. The message from Tokyo is one of peace, but peace on terms acceptable to all major powers. As China goes through its most serious crisis in recent years, it may want to calmly internalise the implications of Quad and refrain from unilateral measures.

The views expressed are personal

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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