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Quad Diplomacy, Where India Treads A Careful Line

External affairs minister Dr S.Jaishankar in a virtual conference with US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo as well their counterparts from Australia, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Israel on May 11 to discuss Covid-19.

NEW DELHI: Quad diplomacy has got a whole new life since the pandemic, with virtual weekly meetings of its members along with some other countries. The focus is on sharing ideas and best practices, and where possible resources. But it’s also substantially about China and the sensitive issue of building new supply chains, something which Prime Minister Modi is known to favour, with India serving as the new link in this chain.

The statement by India’s ministry of external affairs on Thursday on the conversations foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has been having with his counterparts in some countries of the Indo-Pacific reflected this. It said “There was shared interest in carrying forward engagement on medium-term planning for safe and sustained economic recovery and growth in the national economies; resilience and redundancies in vital supply chains building on mutual complementarities.”

Note the careful avoidance of any reference to China. With a shared land border of over 3,400-km and prickly disputes, India has made it clear it will not provoke the dragon unnecessarily. In fact, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s statement on his conversations with the Quad plus Brazil, Israel and South Korea last week was factual. “(Discussions) covered pandemic response, global health management, medical cooperation, economic recovery and travel norms.”

On the other hand, sample this readout from the US state department on the meeting: “Secretary Pompeo and his counterparts discussed the importance of international cooperation, transparency, and accountability in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and in addressing its causes. They also discussed collaboration toward preventing future global health crises, reaffirming the importance of the rules-based international order.”

India has not joined the US and Australia in demanding accountability from Beijing and a probe into the pandemic’s origins. Equally, India is not refuting what they are saying.

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Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal says, “All this serves our interests. While we let the others issue anti-China statements, in not contradicting them we’re implying that we subscribe to such views.”

Sibal said that the Quad plus three meeting was “a powerful signal to China in many ways.” Sibal noted that Brazil, although a BRICS member and close China trade partner, had joined the Quad conversation.

While treading the fine line, the ministry of external affairs is also pressing some buttons of its own, although in its usual oblique manner. Check out this statement issued on Thursday where it said the conversations Shringla has been part of with some of his Indo-Pacific counterparts have “underlined the need for a new template of globalisation and for international institutions to reflect contemporary realities”.

The reference clearly was to the reform of the World Health Organisation (WHO), something which Shringla had indicated last week. The FS has been having weekly telephonic conversations with his counterparts in the Quad countries, also South Korea and Vietnam, ever since the first discussions were initiated on March 20 by the U.S.