By Lionel Barber
In the spring of 2019, I sat down with Narendra Modi in the Indian prime minister’s pristine residence and workplace in Lok Kalyan Marg, formerly 7 Race Course Road, in Delhi.
The tea-seller’s son, dressed in an immaculate orange bandhgala jacket, swiftly adopted the role of international statesman, dismissing postwar arrangements such as the U.N. Security Council’s permanent five, including France and the U.K., as a “bygone era.”
Modi highlighted a recent Group of 20 summit in Osaka where two separate meetings were held between India, Russia and China; as well as India, Japan and the U.S. “India was the common factor in both meetings,” Modi told me, “this is something that has not been thought about enough.”
Modi’s comments on the shifting power between East and West throw into relief the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting on May 24 in Tokyo, where Modi will join leaders from the U.S., Japan and Australia. At times overhyped, the Quad is much less than an alliance, more an embryonic partnership in a geopolitical context transformed by the rise of China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Initially set up in 2004 as a regional relief effort in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Quad trod water for more than a decade. After it was revived in 2018, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi dismissed Quad 2.0 as a “headline-grabbing exercise” that would soon disappear like “sea foam.”
True, a joint effort to distribute at scale COVID vaccines funded by the U.S. and cheaply produced by India foundered after second thoughts in Delhi. But China’s efforts to stifle or silence the Quad have also come to nothing. If anything, Beijing’s belligerence in the region has pushed the four closer together.
The Quad’s agenda covers, among other areas, supply chain resilience — diplomatic speak for reducing dependence on China, digital infrastructure, vaccines and a broad-brush commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The new forces at work are a Japanese government committed to higher military spending, President Joe Biden’s reengagement with Asian allies after the Trump administration’s blunderbuss diplomacy, and new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was sworn in on Monday after defeating the conservatives led by Scott Morrison in Saturday’s general election.
In parallel with the Quad, Biden is touting his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to entice economic regional allies like Japan and South Korea to sign up to common rules on trade, investment, decarbonization and tax.
In practice, it looks like a thinly disguised effort to compensate for America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017 and its refusal to sign up to its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which includes China.
However much Biden may want to distance himself from his predecessor Donald Trump, his trade policy, driven by Democrats in Congress, is America First by any other name. One New Zealand diplomat, noting the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’s lack of meat by comparison to the TPP, says: “It’s like being invited to lunch during Ramadan.”
By contrast, the Quad looks more appetizing. It could expand to include South Korea, especially now that president Yoon Suk-yeol appears to want closer ties with Japan. Another potential member is the U.K., a major trading nation in search of new partnerships after its Brexit departure from the European Union.
The Johnson administration is very keen to conclude a free-trade pact with India and signaled its global ambitions by signing up to AUKUS, a trilateral security pact whereby the U.S. and U.K. will help Australia develop a nuclear submarine capability.
These moves reflect a new geopolitical environment, whereby previously neutral or unaligned countries are being forced to adjust to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sweden and Finland have applied to join the NATO military alliance. India, meanwhile, has engaged in an uncomfortable straddle, aware that it depends on 90% of its military hardware from Russia, traditionally a more reliable supplier than the U.S.
Drawing India into anything approaching an alliance to contain China will never work because Delhi traditionally prizes its nonaligned status, even if it views Beijing as its main economic rival and security threat. “India will never be an ally, but it can be a partner,” says a veteran U.S. diplomat, “but India thinks it is in the catbird seat and others will come to them.”
By comparison with President Biden, whose Democrats face a drubbing in the midterm elections, Modi dominates the national conversation. He is a two-time election winner who faces little effective opposition.
Although Modi’s liberalization program has been stop-start, animal spirits are reviving in India and the economy looks in stronger shape than rival China, still suffering from President Xi’s zero-COVID policy.
A more confident India, a newly assertive Japan, a U.S. desperate to reengage in the Indo-Pacific region and a new Australian prime minister eager to make his mark. There are enough signs to suggest that the Quad’s incremental progress will continue in Tokyo. It may not yet be a strapping teenager, but it has definitely come of age.
Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times. He is the author of “The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times.”