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The “Squad” is a welcome spin-off, but the Quad is the main game

India might not perfectly align with its partners in the minilateral group but its Indo-Pacific heft is much greater than that of the Philippines.

The Quad is not an Asian NATO (Ruma Aktar/Getty Images)
The Quad is not an Asian NATO (Ruma Aktar/Getty Images)

In light of the successful first-ever US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit and joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea involving the United States, Japan, Australia, and the Philippines in April, the concept of a new minilateral group dubbed the “Squad” has emerged – a four-way counterbalance to China amid escalating tensions between China and the Philippines over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

At the same time, the postponement of the New Delhi summit for the leaders of the Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, as well as India’s recent foreign policy decisions, such as abstaining from UN resolutions on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, maintaining trade ties with Russia, procuring Russian S-400 missile systems against the preference of the United States, and the Chabahar port deal with Iran, have raised doubts about the Quad's cohesion.

Some close regional observers, such as Richard Heydarian writing in The Interpreter, have even suggested that the “Squad” could be a more effective mechanism than the Quad, with the Squad a “natural outgrowth” of existing minilateral groupings such as AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) and the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral partnership.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi is re-elected, and in all likelihood he will be, the Quad will gain more traction within Indian policy circles.

Undoubtedly, the proposed “Squad” is a timely and necessary boost of confidence in Filipino policy circles, especially given Beijing’s increasing hostility towards Manila. The Philippines has consistently challenged China’s illegal maritime claims and has employed all available political and military measures to manage the situation effectively. The Biden administration, initially sceptical about the democratic credentials of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., now views the Philippines as a crucial democratic partner.

However, there are two critical aspects to consider regarding this new minilateral initiative.

First, the Philippines lacks the requisite military or economic capabilities or intentions to join its partners in extensive Indo-Pacific operations to contain China at multiple levels. Expecting the “Squad” to take on regional responsibilities would be unrealistic, considering Manila’s current military limitations and its commitment to ASEAN’s normative principles, which are founded on consensus and non-interference. At its best, the Squad can have an effective “localised” presence in the waters of the South China Sea.

Second, it is premature to dismiss the Quad as ineffective. Two immediate developments will shape its trajectory: the outcome of India’s elections, and the timing and agenda of the next Quad summit. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi is re-elected, and in all likelihood he will be, the Quad will gain more traction within Indian policy circles. India has already scheduled the Quad summit for the second half of 2024 once a new government has been formed.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Washington DC in March (MEA Photo Gallery)
Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Washington DC in March (MEA Photo Gallery)

As a rising “swing state”, India’s recent foreign policy choices make sense. Despite some not being in tune with policy preferences of its Quad peers, neither Washington, Canberra or Tokyo has moved to downgrade the Quad or replace it. Instead, most of the statements on whether or not the Quad is united or cohesive have emanated from India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in response to questions during press briefings or think tank conversations. Jaishankar’s often contextual remarks, such as debating the unnecessary attempts to equate the Quad with the idea of an Asian NATO, have contributed what is really a faux debate. In an address at the Munich Security Conference in 2022, Jaishankar made this amply clear, stating: “I would urge you not to slip into that lazy analogy of an Asian NATO. It isn’t, because there are three countries who are treaty allies. We are not a treaty ally. [The Quad] doesn’t have a treaty, a structure, a secretariat, it’s a kind of 21st century way of responding to a more diversified, dispersed world.”

Unlike the Philippines, Australia and Japan, India is not a US treaty ally and receives no direct military support from other Quad members, even during the ongoing border standoff with China. This highlights the differences in expectations from India within the Quad setting. This reality should condition what to expect and, just as importantly, what not expect from India. As long as New Delhi remains dependent on Russia for its defence and military requirements and is not politically or strategically aligned with the other Quad members in a way the rest of them are, it would be imprudent to expect India to follow other Quad members in toto.

While the Quad membership offers significant advantages, India’s geographic location and military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region and population heft make it an invaluable partner. That said, New Delhi must sharpen its focus on the security and military component of Quad rather than the less consequential aspects, such as the Quad fellowship program, etc. India and other members of the Quad must keep in mind why they started this minilateral grouping in the first place, which was as a security dialogue.

The formation of the “Squad” may complement existing minilaterals, but the Quad’s role, with an active Indian presence, is irreplaceable for now. Perhaps adding the Philippines (and South Korea) to Quad would be a better approach to evolving regional dynamics.

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