Quad countries' meet today to raise 'free and open Indo-Pacific' agenda; strained ties with China pose hurdles

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will hold the first-ever Quadrilateral grouping leaders’ summit on Friday, with issues like a free and open Indo-pacific (FOIP), climate change and vaccine supply on the agenda.

The virtual summit, which will commence at 7 pm IST, comes after three meetings of the foreign ministers of the Quad grouping. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement that the leaders will discuss regional and global issues of shared interest, and exchange views on practical areas of cooperation towards “maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.

The Quad grouping, which was revived in 2017 a decade after being disbanded due to China’s growing presence in the peninsula, has picked up issues like cooperation in the Indo-pacific region, maritime security and resilient supply chains to thwart Beijing’s dominance.

According to an ASEAN document, the FOIP consists of three pillars - promotion and establishment of rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade; pursuit of economic prosperity; and commitment for peace and stability.

To achieve economic prosperity, the grouping aims at improving connectivity through infrastructure projects to develop ports and railways, strengthen economic partnership through investment treaties and improve the business environment, the document states. The grouping further strives to achieve cooperation among Japan, US, India, Australia, ASEAN, European and West Asian countries and to establish strategic communication at international arena and through media.

To secure peace, the Quad countries aim to provide capacity-building assistance to coastal countries of the Indo-Pacific region, apart from cooperation in the fields of humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy, counter-terrorism and non-proliferation.

According to erstwhile US national security adviser HR McMaster, the core tenets of the concept include freedom of navigation, the rule of law, freedom from coercion, respect for sovereignty, private enterprise, and open markets, and the freedom and independence of all nations, The Diplomat reported.

Quad members share tense relations with China

The talks come at a time all the four Quad countries have tough geo-political relationships with China, posing a threat to the implementation of the FOIP vision. India has only recently seen an ebbing in tensions over the disputed border with China in Ladakh. Beijing’s assistance in infrastructure development in India and the threat of the possibility of its growin presence in the Indian Ocean are also deterrents for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government to waver on its stand to support the FOIP vision.

India and Australia are also important trading partners of China’s, with the latter being the second largest recipient of Chinese direct investment. However, amid souring relations between Canberra and Beijing, the latter slapped trade sanctions on Australia, after the country voiced support for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. It suspended some beef imports and effectively blocked barley imports by imposing steep tariffs.

Japan is threatened by China’s claim on the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The country also accuses Beijing of changing the status quo in the South China Sea, where it has built and militarised manmade islands and is pressing its claim to the sea's key fisheries and waterways, according to a report by The Associated Press. Nearly 20 percent of its total exports are to China. However, the FOIP will allow Japan to have access to West Asia, a key source of oil for a nation strained by minimal resources and an ageing population.

Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera that he expects China to step up economic support for neighbours in the face of a stronger Quad alliance. “What China wants to avoid is the kind of Cold War containment where its neighbours are pulled into an antagonistic relationship,” he said. “Their answer to this militaristic approach is an economic one.”

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin too will address the FOIP issue on his first visit to India on 19 and 20 March. A Ministry of Defence statement on the India and the US “are expected to discuss ways to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation and exchange views on regional security challenges and common interests in maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region." During his other stops in South Korea and Japan too, Austin will reinforce the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region – founded on respect for international rules, laws, and norms, according to a Pentagon statement.

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