New Delhi: Nearly seven months after their first meeting in a decade, senior officials from India, Japan, Australia and the US (the Quadrilateral Alliance) met again in Singapore on Thursday to emphasise their commitment to promote “rules-based order” in an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN centrality at its core.
The meeting took place on the sidelines of the gathering of senior officials for discussions on East Asia summit and other ASEAN-led mechanisms in Singapore.
The last meeting of officials of the four countries took place on November 12, 2017 in Manila on the periphery of yet another regional meeting.
On Thursday, senior officials again got together and talked – and issued separate press statements, as they had done last year. India was represented by two Ministry of External Affairs joint secretaries in charge of Americas and East Asia.
The press releases from Australia, Japan and the US were rather identical, with India largely marching on its own beat. The similarity in all four documents was the identical language to describe the Indo-Pacific region – “free, open, prosperous and inclusive”. All the statements also supported “ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the regional architecture for the Indo-Pacific”.
The participants reaffirmed their support for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. [Indian Ministry of External Affairs]
The four countries strongly supported ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific region and reaffirmed that ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), play an indispensable role in the region. [Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs]
The emphasis on inclusivity and role of ASEAN was a new addition this time, compared with the previous iterations in 2017. It was a reflection of the need to alleviate concerns of South East Asian nations that the formation of the ‘Quad’ would not take away their leading role in the region.
Further, all four countries also spoke about strengthening and promoting a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific.
Participants noted that they each have an important role to play in safeguarding and strengthening open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional order. [US State Department]
The reference to the rules-based order is an implicit finger-pointing at China over its aggressive position on the South China sea dispute.
The presence of this term in the Indian press release is notable, as it was the only country not to have endorsed ‘rules-based order’ in its official communique after the last ‘Quad’ meeting in November 2017.
The topics of discussion listed by the four participants were largely similar – connectivity, development, regional security, counter-terrorism, maritime cooperation and counter-terrorism.
However, India didn’t mention “good governance”, which was present in all the other press releases. Instead, the Indian addition was humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
India also differed from the rest that there was the absence of the constituents of the ‘rules-based’ order, like freedom of navigation and overflight.
The officials continued discussions on promoting an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific where all countries respect sovereignty and international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sustainable development. [Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade]
However, the Indian press release also pointed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, where he had emphasised free access to global commons in the region. In fact, official sources noted that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had specifically praised Modi’s speech to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj during their meeting in South Africa. This was also reiterated by the Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou during his meeting with foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale in Delhi on June 5.
Besides India, all the press releases noted that the four had “shared democratic values”.
The four countries confirmed a common commitment to uphold and strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, with shared democratic values in mind. [Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs]
The Indian press statement only stated that the four had “a common commitment” in the Indo-Pacific “based on shared values and principles”.
Further, Japan, Australia and the US committed to discussions on a “regular” basis”. However, the Indian press note was silent about this point. Instead, it seemed to imply that the ‘Quad’ format was only one of many ‘plurilateral formats’, countries and institutions that it would ‘partner’ with in the region.
They agreed to partner with all countries and institutions in the region to promote the shared vision of a peaceful, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific, including through such plurilateral formats. [Indian Ministry of External Affairs]
Before this meeting took place, there were concerns that New Delhi was reluctant to take forward the Quad meeting. There had apparently been dates suggested to New Delhi for meetings on the sidelines of other multilateral events, which it had not accepted. The Indian side had apparently been more keen to see some concrete steps take place as a result of the decisions of the November 2017 meeting, before agreeing to another date.