QUAD amid Ukraine: Limitations, Divergences and the Indo-Pacific factor
Rohith Sai Narayan Stambamkadi : 'QUAD amid Ukraine: Limitations, Divergences and the Indo-Pacific factor'
Leaders of QUAD nations met at a virtual meeting on 3rd March 2022. This meeting was hastily arranged by United States (US) administration to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. The meeting comes in the context of increased concerns about Taiwan, which has stepped up its alert level considering that China may take advantage of West’s distraction in transatlantic and make a move in the Indo-Pacific. The ties between QUAD members are as close as ever at present, and this meeting reaffirmed this fact. The commitments were towards a free and open Indo-Pacific ‘in which the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states is respected and countries are free from military, economic, and political coercion’. Later this year, in spring, the members were scheduled to meet at Tokyo. This sudden meeting is being seen as a push by the Biden administration to corral its allies and partners, especially India, since it took a neutral stance on the current crisis, on the terms of isolating Russia, economically and politically.
In the meeting which lasted 70 minutes, besides the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, members also discussed debt sustainability, supply chains, connectivity, energy, capacity building, and other topical issues such as the situation in South-East Asia, the Indian Ocean Region and the Pacific Islands. They further agreed to set up a new humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mechanism which will enable QUAD to meet future humanitarian challenges in the Indo-Pacific and provide a channel for communication for the members to respond to the escalating crisis in Ukraine. This is indeed the only aspect of the meet in which the members seem to have spoken with no hesitancy.
Divisions and Limitations
Some claims arose that all speculations about India and US not being on the same page on the current Ukraine issue can be put to rest in light of this meeting. But even considering the joint statement issued by the White House, which reflects the shared commitments of the members, the ongoing crisis poses far more difficult questions, and there exist major factors which expose the divisions and limitations of this alliance.
Firstly, the current crisis is beyond Indo-Pacific, which is the broad arena that the QUAD is notionally meant to focus on. Secondly, given India’s neutral stance there are no converging interests among the members when it comes to Russia. Indeed, it is no secret that India’s abstaining of vote at the UN to condemn Russia has brought deep disappointment among the member states of QUAD.
The main outcome of the meeting, and the innocuously worded joint statement, has been the establishment of a mechanism in which member states can coordinate responses to the current crisis. The other aspects proposed by PM Modi such as supply chains, connectivity and energy were ignored. Evidently, the US called this unscheduled meet with a one-point agenda of identifying Delhi’s hesitancy with Washington’s stance on the current issue. Realizing that badgering India for accountability on the subject may in effect be counterproductive, the US and other members adopted a strategy to chip away at India’s resolve. They did this in part by pointing out that the current invasion sets a dangerous precedent that could be used as a ‘strategic playbook’ by a state that sits to India’s north and is now closely observing each of the current happenings.
The statement outlined the ‘ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and assessed its broader implications’ and underlined the ‘continuing pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific’. With this the members were implying the parallels between Russia’s actions against Ukraine in the Transatlantic, with that of China’s actions towards Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, the statement did not have any explicit mention of Russia. It is also noteworthy to identify the differences between the statements issued by the four countries individually and this joint statement. The differences point out to the divergences in their stance and responses to the current issue. While the Australian and Japanese accounts put strong emphasis on events in the Ukraine and a vigorous stance against Russia, India’s readout is more in passing and is a repetition of what many senior Indian diplomats have mentioned before.
Conflicting Interests and divergent positions
The current divergences are centered around conflicting interests of the member parties towards the transatlantic region. NATO’s expansion towards the East of Europe contradicted with the assurances made to Russia by then US Secretary James Baker after the fall of Soviet Union. He had pointed that ‘there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction one inch to the east’ and the contradictory actions have been the source of the current conflict.
US’s vested interests in the region combined by its engagement with Ukraine in recent years certainly underlines its interests in the ongoing conflict. Furthermore, Japan has become confrontational with Russia, and has called its presence in the Kuril Island an ‘occupation’. Given Japan’s by the US, under the framework of the 71-year-old Security Treaty by which both the states committed to defending each other, anything could possibly happen between the Japan and Russian template as well. Additionally, Australia has a history of responding to the call of duty whenever western interests come under any challenge whether it was Vietnam, Korea, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, even though both Australia and Japan have no direct interests at stake, they implemented the sanctions package against Russia as any action against Russia will not be against their own interests. In contrast, there is nothing common that India has with Japan or Australia when it comes to Russia’s power dynamics in the region and their overall diplomatic and historical interplay with the US.
Therefore, West’s callout to India to pick a side in a complex geopolitical conflict, especially in a region where India has barely any stakes or interests, is quite an obsolete form of diplomatic engagement and unviable in today’s age of strategic autonomy. It cannot be denied that Russia’s invasion has posed complex questions to New Delhi’s strategic calculus. India’s relationship with US might get complicated further if the US chooses to impose CAATSA sanctions against the defense equipment imported by India from Russia. The discussions on Ukraine will continue across multiple plurilateral platforms, but on areas where India and US work together this development may bring new challenges to the nature of their bilateral relationship and may also set limitations on the QUAD further.
Additionally, India’s abstentions at the UN will be counterproductive even from the perspective of China, as it would send out extremely wrong signals to China, despite the fact that China itself abstained from voting. If the Russian invasion ends in favor of Putin’s political and military objectives, the consequence would be China taking similar actions in Taiwan with similar justifications. Nevertheless, China is known to be more prudent and thus may not go for a full-fledged attack, yet it is still observing how the situation pans out.
There are some major parallels between the events in Ukraine and Taiwan and the delicate balances of these conflicts in Transatlantic and Indo-Pacific, are centered around both these countries respectively. Hence, Beijing is eyeing the costs imposed by the west on Russia to see how far the US and the west community would go, and then calculate its strategies for vis-a vis Arunachal Pradesh, Galwan or even Taiwan. The focal point of China’s observation would be the breadth of the coalition of countries that the QUAD will be able to string together amid the conflict.
Nevertheless, it must be taken into account that the geopolitics in Asia and Europe are vastly different and thus, cannot be easily compared. India may take a tougher stance when it comes to Indio-Pacific in light of the fact that India’s relationship with China is very different from its closer historical ties with Russia. Furthermore, the US and the QUAD cannot afford to alienate India, which is a critical partner in the global-strategic plan to balance the rise of China. Yet, India may find that its resolve with Russia will be tested, as the Russian relationship with continues to grow stronger China in days to come. Also, if the Russian forces in Ukraine commit war crimes or violations in contravention to the Geneva Convention or any other applicable global treaties, India will need to present a stronger opposing stance.
The current crisis is an example which demonstrates that divergences on any geopolitical happenings in the world, between partners in a multi-lateral strategic group, can affect the nature of the alliance itself. The QUAD remains to be the center of gravity to revive the Indo-Pacific, so the players not only need to understand, but also address their divergences to ensure a stable relationship. If the same is not done, and in a manner of urgency, the pivotal nature of their alliance in overall global dynamics may be threatened. We can witness that the global conversations are shifting towards the Transatlantic for some time now. But they will not define the course of Indo-Pacific in the future. The next QUAD meet scheduled in Tokyo may address some of these important questions, for QUAD’s position in both these important geo-political regions. For India, assessing its dilemmas, setting its priorities and most importantly, diversifying its strategic choices would be the key lessons from the Ukraine crisis. It can be concluded that in this fast changing politically dynamic world, military or economic dependency on any state does not limit the strategic options available to India.