Against the backdrop of continuing concerns over China’s actions across the region, the first ministerial meeting of the Quad since the Biden administration assumed office reiterated the group’s commitment to a rules-based world order underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.
At the virtual meeting on Thursday, external affairs minister S Jaishankar, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, Japan’s foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi and US secretary of state Antony Blinken agreed that changes underway around the world made a “strong case for their countries working closely together”, the external affairs ministry said in a statement.
The ministers also discussed countering disinformation, counter-terrorism, maritime security, and the “priority of strengthening democratic resilience in the broader region”, according to a readout from the US state department.
This was the third such meeting since the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad was upgraded to the ministerial level in September 2019. It was held less than five months after the last meeting in Tokyo in October, signalling the new US administration’s commitment to the Quad as a key formation in the Indo-Pacific.
There was speculation in some quarters on whether India would continue to work closely with the Quad following progress in its efforts to end the standoff with China in Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India and China recently agreed on disengagement on the northern and southern banks of Pangong Lake, one of the friction points on the LAC.
While the former Trump administration had talked about formalising and expanding the Quad, questions had been raised on whether the Biden administration would adopt a more cautious approach to the group as a counter-balance to China.
The external affairs ministry’s statement said: “The ministers emphasised their commitment to upholding a rules-based international order, underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas and peaceful resolution of disputes.”
The four countries highlighted their “shared attributes as political democracies, market economies and pluralistic societies” and said it is important for the world community to ensure that the “direction of changes remains positive and beneficial to all”, the statement added.
The Quad members reiterated their “common vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, with clear support for Asean cohesion and centrality” and noted that the Indo-Pacific concept had “gathered growing international support, including in Europe”, the statement said.
The Indian statement and the US readout reflected the difference in the approach of the two sides to the February 1 military coup in Myanmar against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The US readout said the ministers discussed the “urgent need to restore the democratically elected government” in Myanmar. The Indian statement adopted a more cautious approach, saying the Indian side had reiterated the “upholding of rule of law and the democratic transition”.
The ministers discussed efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, including vaccination programmes, and agreed to cooperate on enhancing access to affordable vaccines, medicines and medical equipment. “India’s efforts at providing vaccines to 74 countries was recognised and appreciated,” the external affairs ministry said.
The meeting also discussed climate change and cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and supply chain resilience.
The four countries agreed on holding ministerial meetings of the Quad at least once a year and meetings at senior and working levels on a regular basis to bolster cooperation on advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Chinese officials have likened the Quad to a “mini NATO” and said its activities are aimed at targeting third parties, a charge rejected by the four members of the group.