Quad: Divided over Ukraine, United in the Indo-Pacific?

Quad: Divided over Ukraine, United in the Indo-Pacific?

Does the Quad have the prowess and prudence required to protect a rules-based order, not just in the Indo-Pacific but globally as well? 

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) met on March 4, 2022, to lay to rest speculation that the group was in serious trouble over differences of opinion on the Ukraine crisis. The Quad’s joint readout did not condemn Russia, despite three out of the four partners already having imposed “unprecedented” sanctions on the country in response to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Rather, the readout stuck to the “broader implications,” specifically the humanitarian aspect.

Clearly, differences do indeed exist among the partners. Japan and India released their individual overviews of the meeting. The former “strongly condemned Russia” but stressed that the four leaders—Prime Ministers Fumio Kishida, Scott Morrison, and Narendra Modi along with President Joseph R. Biden—“concurred to work closely together to respond to the situation in Ukraine.” India, on the other hand, underlined that “the Quad must remain focused on its core objective of promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” The meeting largely highlighted that the Quad is mainly an Indo-Pacific mechanism “to promote regional stability and prosperity,” and for now, it will widen its ambit to include only international humanitarian needs, even as the “Spirit of the Quad” (2021) sought to advance peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Thus, as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, the Quad is a cohesive unit. However, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan post the U.S. withdrawal last year and now the Ukraine crisis have illuminated the cracks in the partnership. Will another such international crisis where more is at stake truly bust open the cracks in the coalition? Or can the Quad learn from the impact on its stability from the present Russia-Ukraine conflict and undo the damage? Does the Quad have the prowess and prudence required to protect a rules-based order, not just in the Indo-Pacific but globally as well? 

The Ukraine Causality

The Ukraine crisis is relevant to the Quad not only because its partners disagree on how to respond to Russia’s invasion, but also due to the growing Russia-China convergence that culminated in a significant joint mission toward “redistribution” of the global order just prior to the crisis. Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met in early February to reiterate that their friendship had “no limits” and “no forbidden areas of cooperation,” effectively legitimizing their respective territorial violations in Taiwan (Russia’s support to the One-China policy) and Eastern Europe (China’s opposition to further NATO enlargement). For the Quad, the statement is concerning because it presents a rather distorted version of democracy. As Australian foreign minister Marise Payne pointed out, “It doesn’t present or represent a global order that squares with those ambitions for freedom and openness and sovereignty, and the protection of territorial integrity.”

Russian tactics in Ukraine highlight worrisome repercussions. U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken said at a post-Quad meet press conference in February that “massive consequences would follow from renewed aggression.” In other words, Russia’s success (and also the West’s tepid or fractured response) in Ukraine will “embolden” China, in particular, to pursue military action in Taiwan at some stage. General Kenneth Wilsbach, head of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, has noted that China “would want to take advantage” of the Ukraine crisis and the world’s preoccupation with it by pursuing “provocative” action in the Indo-Pacific. However, it seems unlikely that China will act in Taiwan immediately. Rather, Beijing will be watching the Ukraine situation closely and monitoring the West’s response. Beijing, in any case, intends to discredit the United States by illustrating the latter’s distracted response and questionable status as a security provider in Eastern Europe. After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, too, the Chinese media had claimed that “the US is doomed to eventually abandon Taiwan.”

However, it is important to note that China is not oblivious to the fact that the United States considers the Taiwan question as a core U.S. interest, whereas both Ukraine and Afghanistan have peripheral value. Hence, Washington’s reaction to any Chinese assault, as compared to Russia’s, would be harsher. Moreover, whenever active conflict emerges over Taiwan, the Quad countries would undoubtedly be a key regional grouping to respond to the situation, individually and collectively.

 Maintaining Centrality of the Quad Spirit

The newly resurgent Quad has widened the ambit of its goals to cover global health, infrastructure, climate, education, critical and emerging technologies, cybersecurity, and space. Considering that China’s growing influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans was one of the major catalysts for Quad’s revival, the partners must strengthen the security aspect as well to ensure a free, open, and rules-based order “rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” It is now imperative to assert the “Spirit of the Quad”—which stresses diplomacy, dialogue, and deterrence—by ensuring that like-minded democratic nations find convergence and play a pivotal leadership role globally.

Significantly, neither the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021 nor the current Russian invasion of Ukraine falls directly under the Quad’s purview. But events in geopolitics are hardly independent and are more like dominoes that have a consequential impact regardless of the location. Accordingly, these two crises, too, have immeasurably affected the Quad’s democratic, “affirmative partnership,” which propagates a liberal global order based on universal values, international law, and human rights. Nonetheless, a falling out between these like-minded nations over authoritarian regime-led takeovers would be catastrophic, especially in terms of the loss of hope over the viability of rules-based mechanisms. On the other hand, a squaring of points of divergence would importantly signify the resilience of democratic norms and show the Quad’s commitment to the common good. Such a scenario, notwithstanding the partner states’ dissensions over strategic limitations, is limiting the scope of the Quad to the Indo-Pacific, which is no doubt the world’s current geoeconomic and geostrategic center of gravity.

Dr. Jagannath Panda is the Head of the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden. Panda is also the Director for Europe-Asia Research Cooperation at the Yokosuka Council of Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS); and an International Research Fellow at The Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), Japan. He is a former fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.

Image: Reuters.