Thursday, June 20, 2024

Quad’s Emerging Focus To Create A Secure And Rules-Based Order In The Indo-Pacific

Washington, DC – President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio of Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia participated in the second in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit at Kantei in Tokyo, Japan. The top leadership of the four countries has met once in Washington last September and twice virtually in less than two years. That underscores the importance of the Quad, which was essentially just a concept until 2017. During the Summit, the four leaders had slightly different views on the Russia-Ukraine issue. However, there was unanimity on jointly opposing China’s growing economic and military aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

Although the Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement does not directly mention China, it avers that there will be opposition to “any coercive, provocative, or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo” in the Indo-Pacific. More importantly, the Quad leaders announced a major initiative: the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). The IPMDA will likely help “transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The main objective of this initiative is to boost the maritime capabilities of the countries in the Indo-Pacific region to tackle human and weapons trafficking, illegal fishing, and Chinese maritime militias.

The IPMDA initiative will use satellite technology to connect existing surveillance centers in India, Singapore, and the Pacific. This will help establish a tracking system to combat illegal, unregulated, and unprotected (IUU) fishing in the region. The satellite-enabled dragnet will track IUU fishing activities from the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia to the South Pacific. The aim is to monitor illicit fishing vessels that have their AIS (automatic identification system) transponders turned off to evade tracking. In the 2021 IUU Fishing Index update, which maps illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in 152 coastal countries, China was ranked as the “worst offender.” China is considered responsible for 80 percent to 95 percent of illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific region. According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report, China’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet has approximately 17,000 vessels. The Quad’s new maritime domain awareness initiative likely aims to reduce China’s growing maritime footprints in the Indian Ocean region and small Pacific Island nations.

To counter China’s coercive economic policies, India and a dozen other countries joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a US-led economic initiative that seeks an open, inclusive, interconnected, and secure Indo-Pacific for sustainable development growth of the region. The IPEF, involving 13 initial partners: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, represents 40 percent of the world’s GDP. The steady decline in each Quad nation’s bilateral ties with China in the past few years has given the group new impetus. It is noteworthy that more countries in the Indo-Pacific region are willing to indirectly become part of the Quad initiative as they are also facing growing Chinese aggression. The IPEF initiative is the first step in that direction. It may prove a challenge to China’s economic clout in the Indo-Pacific region, especially as a possible counter to its hegemony in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). As expected, Beijing reacted sharply to IPEF and said that “many countries in the region are worried about the huge cost of ‘decoupling’ with China.” Nevertheless, under the IPEF initiative, the Indo-Pacific region will see $50 billion of infrastructure assistance and investment over the next five years to drive productivity and prosperity in the region.

As a multilateral grouping, the Quad has come a long way in the last five years, with four partner countries focusing on mutual issues of convergence – and China is the biggest of these. China has become increasingly assertive in the Indo-Pacific region, with ongoing maritime disputes with several countries, especially in the South China Sea, regular navy incursions in neighboring waters, and a land boundary conflict with India. Furthermore, to increase its military domination in the Pacific region, Beijing has recently signed a bilateral security agreement with the Solomon Islands, which has stoked fears in Australia and the United States. According to the pact, Chinese warships would be permitted to dock on the islands, and Beijing could send security forces “to assist in maintaining social order.” The agreement is China’s direct response to the Quad grouping and related developments.

On May 27, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken revealed the Biden administration’s approach to China. According to it, the US will seek to influence China’s behavior by shaping the world around Beijing. Washington has concluded that decades of direct economic and diplomatic engagement to compel China to abide by the “American-led order” have largely failed. Therefore, as Blinken asserted, the goal now should be to “form coalitions with other nations to limit the party’s influence and try to curb its aggressions in that way.” Based on this policy direction, the Quad initiative will play a critical role in countering Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region.

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