By the time of the first Quad leaders meeting in March 2021, and with the Biden’s predecessor and geopolitical disruptor Donald Trump out of office in the US, it was clear where the new consensus position lay. The “Spirit of the Quad”, the four leaders said in a statement, involved supplying a “positive vision” for the region. The website of the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade describes the Quad as having a “positive, practical agenda to respond to the region’s most pressing challenges.” These include, “Covid-19 vaccines, climate change, infrastructure, critical and emerging technology, cyber security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, space, maritime security, countering disinformation, and counter-terrorism.”
Some of Beijing’s uncompromising behavior is seen in these areas, but the agenda is a far cry from the hard-edged Quad that China hawks saw as shaping up just a few years ago and which some still hope the group will become.
Several factors explain the demise of the hard-edged Quad. India’s increasing self-assuredness could be perhaps the most significant. Despite having its own acute challenges to manage with Beijing, New Delhi appears not to feel the need to fall into line with Washington or Tokyo – and certainly not Canberra.
Consider New Delhi’s different-drummer response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Not condemning Moscow’s actions was just the start. Six months after the war began, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and while stating that “today’s era is not an era of war”, nonetheless described the two countries as having an “unbreakable friendship” (a declaration not dissimilar to Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s assertion of a partnership with “no limits” on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar then visited Moscow and said that in recent years the two sides “have been finding ways of expanding this relationship”, while describing India-Russia bilateral ties as among the “steadiest” of major global powers.