Opinion: Hiroshima Quad Summit - Evolution Of India's Act East Policy

The Quad has effectively become an important constituent of India's Act East policy. If the original objective of the policy was to strengthen ties with Japan and reconnect with the ASEAN region, it has now expanded to include the US and Australia. The policy was initially driven by economics as the need was felt to engage with a rapidly developing Southeast Asia and rebuild ties that were historically deep but had faded during the colonial era. A strong security dimension has now emerged on account of China's assertive rise and its expanding influence in a region of geopolitical importance.

We have not formally merged the Quad with our Act East policy but the convergence is taking place in reality. When former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech in Chennai in July 2011, exhorted India "not just to look East, but to engage East and act East" - and linked it to India-US ties becoming "one of the defining partnerships of the new century" - the US was already anticipating the broader evolution of our eastwards thrust.

Japan under Shinzo Abe allied with the US and facing China's assertive territorial claims and actions in the East and South China Seas catalysed the strategic dimension of our Act East policy, as Clinton had propounded, expressed eventually in our support for the Indo-Pacific concept and Quad membership.

India was initially slow to commit itself to the Quad as it was wary of shaping a perception that it was being drawn into an alliance, given that the other three countries were allies. To avoid that impression, India laid emphasis on a much broader Quad agenda covering supply chains, health, technology, terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal fishing, and humanitarian issues, and downplayed the security dimension. This raised some doubts in others about New Delhi's commitment to the grouping, and, as a result, India was viewed as its weak link.

With India's deepening ties with the US as well as Australia, and China's increasingly aggressive behaviour towards New Delhi, the security content of the Quad. Many of group's goals focus on addressing the escalating China threat, without naming China.

India has, nevertheless, pursued with success its key objective of anchoring the Quad into a broader and durable cooperative framework that it can also leverage for promoting its own economic interests.

At the Quad summit at Hiroshima, both these elements - economic and security - are reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's opening statement. He emphasized the Quad's role in establishing itself as an important platform for ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, recognised that the security and success of the Indo-Pacific have broader implications for the world and that the region is driving global trade, innovation and growth.

The Prime Minister noted the growing cooperation in areas like climate action, disaster management, strategic technologies, reliable supply chains, health security, maritime security and counter-terrorism. 

The expansive Quad Leaders' joint statement issued at Hiroshima almost vies with that of the G7 in covering issues of cooperation and concern regionally and internationally. Concerns about China's activities in the Western Pacific are more pinpointed than before. The Quad "seeks a region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated - one where all countries are free from coercion". The statement strongly opposes "destabilising or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo by force or coercion". It mentions the challenges to rule-based order in the East and South China Seas, and expresses "serious concern at the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels, and efforts to disrupt other countries' offshore resource exploitation activities". China's aggression in the Himalayas is not mentioned, no doubt because India would prefer not to insert our border differences with China into the Quad agenda, as that would complicate our diplomatic efforts to resolve matters with Beijing bilaterally.

Both China and Russia are criticising the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad as bloc politics of the Cold War type being introduced in Asia by the US. India has not been deterred by such criticism from affirming that we see the Quad as a public good, as mentioned by PM Modi in his opening remarks. (India will host the Quad Leaders' Summit in 2024).

At Hiroshima, India joined in the strong condemnation of China's policies in the western Pacific, recognizing their negative impact on India's interests in the region. Earlier misgivings that India is not committed sufficiently to the security agenda of the Quad and that the Australia-UK-US defence tie-up is to compensate for this in some measure misreads the reality. India remains deeply concerned about China's unpredictability and its unwillingness to draw back its forces from the Indian border massed there in violation of existing agreements. It has affirmed repeatedly that bilateral relations cannot be normal until the situation on the border becomes normal. The meeting between India's Foreign Minister and his Chinese counterpart in New Delhi during the SCO Foreign Ministers' meeting produced no change in positions.

India, therefore, supports the Quad's mounting concerns about China, which now have become broader in scope than when the the Quad was first formed. The group is now cognisant of China's expanding challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. This explains the greater attention it seeks to give to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and, of course, the ASEAN by affirming that the Quad's work will be aligned with ASEAN's principles and priorities and will be supportive of implementing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). The focus on the Pacific Island countries is on account of China's penetration of the region. The scope of the Quad's commitment to the PIF will include climate action, ocean health, resilient infrastructure, maritime security, and financial integrity.

The Quad has acknowledged the Indian Ocean Rim Association as the Indian Ocean region's premier forum for addressing the region's challenges and has recognised India's leadership in finalising the IORA Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (IOIP).

India's preference and push for a Quad agenda that went beyond security is bearing fruit. The agenda now includes climate issues, green shipping and ports, early warning systems, ensuring better access to affordable, reliable and secure clean energy, access to climate finance and climate-smart technology for the Indo-Pacific region.

With the Covid pandemic in mind, the Quad summit has announced that the Quad Vaccine Partnership will evolve into a broader Quad Health Security Partnership in the Indo-Pacific. As China uses infrastructure development as a geopolitical tool beyond an economic one, the Quad summit promises support for access to quality, sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure investments in the Indo-Pacific region.

The investment it supports will be "fit for purpose, demand-driven and responsive to countries' needs, and does not impose unsustainable debt burdens" - a hit at China.

As part of improving the region's connectivity by developing resilient infrastructure, a new 'Quad Partnership for Cable Connectivity and Resilience' was announced. The Quad partners' export credit agencies will enhance cooperation with a joint MOU.

The transformative power of technology, particularly digital public infrastructure, to support sustainable development in the Indo-Pacific and deliver economic and social benefits is recognised, with a willingness to strengthen supply chain resilience and improve the region's digital connectivity through access to critical and emerging technologies and advanced telecommunications technology, including 5G networks.

A collaboration with Palau to implement Open Radio Access Networks (Open RAN) in the Pacific was announced. So were the Quad International Standards Cooperation Network and the Quad Principles on Critical and Emerging Technology Standards.

The launch of the private sector-led Quad Investors Network (QUIN) aimed at facilitating investments in strategic technologies, including clean energy, semiconductors, critical minerals, and quantum was announced, as well as support for joint research to advance innovation in agriculture through emerging technologies designed to empower farmers everywhere to increase yield and resistance.

The Quad's commitment to a more secure cyberspace and to fostering an international digital economy was flagged. The Quad Joint Principles for Secure Software and the Quad Joint Principles for Cyber Security of Critical Infrastructure were announced.

The Quad Space Working Group will explore avenues to deliver Earth Observation data and other space-related applications to assist nations across the Indo-Pacific to strengthen climate early warning systems and better manage the impacts of extreme weather events. A commitment to open sharing of civil Earth Observation data was announced, as well as the sharing of expertise and experience in space situational awareness. A commercial space business forum will be held in 2023.

The Quad announced that the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) is underway in its pilot phase. Through IPMDA, near-real-time maritime domain data being provided to maritime agencies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific will now be expanded to partners in the Indian Ocean region in the coming months.

The Quad joint statement expresses deep concern over the war in Ukraine. It echoes PM Modi's words that "ours must not be an era of war". The claim that the Quad members remain committed to dialogue and diplomacy (when only India says so and would have got this phrase included for balance) is not quite accurate.

The Quad countries concur that the use, or the threat of use, of nuclear weapons is serious and inadmissible. This is directed at a purported threat of use of nuclear weapons by Russia. China signed on to this concern when German Chancellor Scholz visited Beijing in December 2022. This is not surprising as the five nuclear weapon powers jointly stated in January 2022 that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought, and affirmed that nuclear weapons be used only for defensive purposes. China has since repeated this position. India joining in this rejection of the use of nuclear weapons would be in New Delhi's eyes a reiteration of a position that all nuclear weapons states have themselves accepted quite recently.

With Hiroshima hosting the fifth Quad summit, the group has acquired traction. The comprehensive content of the joint statement lays out a policy direction and a framework of future cooperation. However, between the idea and the reality always lies a lot of ground effort to establish a balance of priorities and interests amongst all countries.

(Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, and Deputy Chief Of Mission in Washington.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.