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Biden administration outlines a softer focus for Quad

Visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State clarified the different track compared to security role for AUKUS

The Quad is a “non-defence, non-military” arrangement, said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during her visit to India and Pakistan last week, indicating at two separate interactions that the purpose of the Australia-India-Japan-United States grouping is meant to cooperate on what are considered ‘softer’ issues.

“The Quad is [a] vehicle which largely operates in security realms that are non-military, non-defence. Things we do together on vaccines, and infrastructure, supply chains, technology and climate — all the forward thinking areas in which we need to gain confidence and ensure security for our people,” Ms. Sherman said at an event organised by think-tank Ananta in Mumbai.

People-to-people ties

In an interview to Pakistan’s official PTV, broadcast on Saturday as well, Ms. Sherman called the Quad “a cooperative effort to work on things like energy, people-to-people exchanges and infrastructure and supply chain resilience.”

The comments by a senior U.S. official are the clearest signal yet that Washington has shifted its view of the Quad’s agenda, particularly after the announcement of the new Australia-UK-U.S. or AUKUS alliance for nuclear submarines in the Indo-Pacific. The announcement came just a week ahead of the first in-person Quad summit, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended in Washington in September.

In a briefing by the U.S. State Department at the time, a senior official had also said there was no “military dimension to it or security dimension” to the Quad, which was earlier called the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue”, calling it an “informal grouping” instead.

Indian officials also said the imperatives of the COVID pandemic, including the need for vaccines, technology, supply chain resilience and HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) operations appear to have “clarified” the Biden administration’s plans for the Quad.

‘Repurposed’

“The Quad has not been downgraded, but we are seeing it being purposed differently from the AUKUS,” said an official aware of the discussions.

When asked about the difference between the Quad and AUKUS at the Ananta interaction, Ms. Sherman replied that the two were non-competing “pieces of a puzzle”

“AUKUS is a one of a kind project, which will be a game changer in a maritime sense in this arena,” Ms. Sherman said, speaking about the project for the U.S. and UK to help Australia build a fleet of nuclear propelled submarines “which are faster, harder to detect, more agile”.

Former Indian Ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale, who had posed the question to Ms. Sherman, said that in his view, the U.S. position has not shifted.

“Quad may not be a military alliance, but it continues to undertake military activities like the Malabar Naval exercise,” he told The Hindu, pointing out that the 4-nation naval exercises will begin a second phase this week in the Bay of Bengal.

China factor

However, other analysts say that the shift is perceptible, and that it could lead to more productive outcomes, given India’s hesitation over joining any military forum in the Indo-Pacific.

“This is not about containing China as much as it is about competing with China. The costs of containment, especially for countries like India, is too high,” said Rudra Chaudhuri, Director of Carnegie India.

Ms. Sherman’s words during her visit were in stark contrast to those of Michael Pompeo, the former U.S. Secretary of State during the Trump administration, during the Quad’s Ministerial level meeting just a year ago.

“As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the Chinese Communist Party’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion. We’ve seen it in the south, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits,” Mr. Pompeo had said in his opening statement in Tokyo in September 2020, where he lashed out at the Chinese government’s “authoritarian nature” and criticised it for the Covid pandemic.

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