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New Delhi: Even as war clouds continued to hover over Ukraine, the foreign ministers of the United States, Australia, Japan and India met to deepen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region that was “free from coercion”.
The four foreign ministers were having their first physical meeting after two years. In between, the Quad had already upgraded their interaction with two virtual leaders’ summit in 2021. The next summit will be held in Japan early this year.
The joint statement issued at the fourth meeting of the foreign ministers in Melbourne on Friday was silent over the crisis over Ukraine, likely reflecting India’s discomfort over the sabre-rattling between Russia and the West.
On Russian actions in Ukraine
However, the press conference after the meeting was dominated by questions about Russia, with reference to China and Myanmar occasionally. While he didn’t directly answer the question on whether Ukraine was discussed among the foreign ministers, the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken had no compunction about talking about Russian “aggression” and linking it to the situation in Indo-Pacific.
India’s refusal to get drawn into any public recrimination of Russia was starkly demonstrated at the media appearance following the foreign ministers’ call on the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison.
In answer to a direct question on India’s view on Russian actions in Ukraine, Jaishankar replied, “This meeting is focused on the Indo-Pacific, so I think you should figure out the geography there.” He added that India’s position on the geo-political crisis was laid out in the UN Security Council.
During the main press conference, all the foreign ministers were asked whether they had any concerns about the recent joint statement issued by Chinese and Russian presidents that there were no limits to their cooperation.
The US and Australian ministers both said that it was concerning. In his turn, the Indian foreign minister did not address the question but only stated that “we (Quad) are for something, not against somebody”. Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hiyashi acknowledged that “Ukraine was also discussed” at the Friday meeting.
Incidentally, another regional issue discussed but did not find a direct mention in the official readout was Taiwan. Last month, as per media reports, China sent 39 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. The Japanese foreign minister Hiyashi stated that there had also been a “discussion on Taiwan with each country referring to its basic position, and Japan stating that the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait are important”.
While Russia and cross-strait relations were absent from the Quad’s joint statement, China’s ambitions in the region continued to have a presence with the ministers asserting their support for a rules-based order in Indo-Pacific.
“In the meeting, we reaffirm the Quad’s commitment to supporting Indo Pacific countries’ efforts to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific – a region which is inclusive and resilient, and in which states strive to protect the interests of their people, free from coercion,” said the joint statement.
Echoing language used during leaders’ summits, the ministerial joint statement also reiterated the importance to adhere to international law, “especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China Seas”.
Underling ASEAN centrality in the region, the Quad foreign minister also expressed determination to “deepen engagement with regional partners” to strengthen maritime domain awareness, protect ability to develop offshore resources, ensure freedom of navigation and overflight.
At an interaction at the University of Melbourne, Jaishankar had pushed back on the suggestion that the Quad was China-centric. According to an Australian reporter present at the event, Jaishankar had noted that this was also a “line being pushed by China”.
He added that it didn’t mean that China was not a factor, but “I would not like to be reduced to that”.
With the anniversary of the junta’s coup marked last week, Myanmar was on the top of the regional topics mentioned in the joint statement.
“We remain gravely concerned about the crisis in Myanmar and call for an end to violence, the release of all those arbitrarily detained, including foreigners, and unhindered humanitarian access,” said the joint statement.
Backing the ASEAN initiative, it further urged the international community to work together to end the violence in Myanmar.
However, there is clearly a divide even among Quad members on how to deal with the junta that had overthrown the civilian government and imprisoned all political leaders on February 1, 2021.
Jaishankar pointed out that India had “very specific concerns” as an immediate neighbour of Myanmar. He listed them as “concerns about insurgents operating there who some months ago killed a very senior military officer and his family; concerns about the COVID and the lack of vaccination on our common border; concerns about a humanitarian situation which is arising from food shortages”.
Indicating that all of these issues require engagement with the military junta, he added that India does not have a policy of national sanctions. Among the Quad members, the United States has imposed sanctions against the Junta leadership.
At the University of Melbourne event, Jaishankar had candidly stated that “one way to secure that border is by working with the government, which means the military”. He had also complained that the West had been inconsistent in dealing with military-led governments.
“We had military generals to our west and east. One was sanctioned, the other was elevated to a major non-NATO ally,” the Indian minister noted. He was referring to the West’s close ties with the regime of Pakistani army chief Pervez Musharraf who had overthrown the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999.
Counter-terrorism and pandemic
The joint statement had a substantive paragraph on counter-terrorism, which denounced the use of terrorist proxies for cross-border terrorism. It also explicitly referred to attacks in India in which Pakistan-based terror groups had been involved. “We reiterate our condemnation of terrorist attacks in India, including 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot attacks,” stated the Quad foreign ministers.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan was relegated to a single line by reiterating UNSC resolution 2593 that Afghan territory should not be used to threaten any other country.
At the first leaders’ summit in March 2021, all four leaders had committed to manufacturing more than one billion vaccine doses at India’s Biological E ltd facility by 2022. The first batch of Quad-supported vaccines will be delivered in the first half of this year.
“We reviewed the Quad’s ongoing efforts to combat the COVID pandemic and agreed to expedite delivery of safe and affordable vaccines, support capacity building, and augment infrastructure for “last mile” delivery,” said Jaishankar.