As China increasingly asserts its presence and makes no bones about its expansionist trait, the fourth Quad foreign ministers’ meeting in Melbourne on 11 February saw Australia, Japan, India and the United States reaffirm commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific with their focus on expeditious delivery of vaccines, maritime rules-based order, humanitarian assistance, counter-terrorism efforts and to counter disinformation.
A Quad joint statement, a first after a long time, issued after the meeting specifically mentioned the terrorist attacks on India in Mumbai and Pathankot while condemning terrorism and calling upon countries to eliminate safe havens of terrorists. This was also the first time that a joint statement was issued after a meeting of the Quad foreign ministers.
There were differences over Ukraine, as India was expectedly reluctant to take an extreme position on the issue, given its close ties with Russia. The joint statement made no mention of the crisis even though it expressed concerns about the Russian military build-up in the meeting.
Subsequent to the joint statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin any moment. When asked about India’s position, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said India had already spoken on the issue at the UNSC. As it had said in the Security Council, India wants legitimate security concerns of “all countries” to be addressed.
“This meeting is focused on the Indo-Pacific, so I think you should figure out the geography there. And where we stand, our position on Ukraine, we have laid it out in public at the United Nations Security Council,’’ Jaishankar said.
On the question of Myanmar, Jaishankar pointed at the challenge of insurgency along the Indo-Myanmar border and recalled the recent incident in which a colonel and his family (that included a child) were killed in an ambush by militants. He stressed that India was against “national sanctions”. The US has imposed sanctions on a number of leaders of the Myanmar junta.
On being asked what Quad could do about China-Russia cooperation, Jaishankar said it was “for something, not against somebody’’. The Quad statement called for protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all regional countries.
According to the joint statement, the foreign ministers denounced the use of terrorist proxies for cross-border terrorism and urged countries to
- work together to eliminate terrorist safe havens
- disrupt terrorist networks and the infrastructure and financial channels that sustain them
- halt cross-border movement of terrorists
“In this context, we call on all countries to ensure that territory under their control is not used to launch terror attacks and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of such attacks. We reiterate our condemnation of terrorist attacks in India, including 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot attacks,’’ the statement said.
On Afghanistan, Quad reaffirmed the UNSC Resolution 2593, passed under India’s presidency last year, that Afghan territory should not be used to threaten or attack any country, shelter or train terrorists, or plan or finance terrorist acts, with “such ungoverned spaces being a direct threat to the safety and security of the Indo-Pacific’’.
Discussions on Chinese activities in the region saw the Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi raising serious concerns’’ over unilateral attempts to change the status quo in South and East China Seas. The foreign ministers underlined the need for all to adhere to international law, particularly UNCLOS, to deal with challenges to maritime rules-based order”.
While Hayashi said that there was a discussion also on Taiwan, with each country referring to its “basic position’’, there was no direct mention of this in the joint statement.
“We are determined to deepen engagement with regional partners, including through capacity-building and technical assistance, to strengthen maritime domain awareness; protect their ability to develop offshore resources, consistent with UNCLOS; ensure freedom of navigation and overflight; combat challenges, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and promote the safety and security of sea lines of communication,’’ said the joint statement.
The ministers also reaffirmed commitment to upholding and strengthening the rules-based multilateral trading system, with the World Trade Organisation at its core, saying they opposed coercive economic policies and practices that ran counter to this system.