A senior official of the Joe Biden administration has given a detailed rundown on what Quad, a grouping of India, Australia, Japan and the US, isn't.
"I do want to underscore that the Quad is an unofficial gathering, although we have a number of working groups and we are deepening cooperation on a very daily basis. It is also the case that it is not a regional security organisation. We are going to address particular issues associated with the challenges confronting the Indo-Pacific in the current environment. And I think that's what the leaders want to focus (on Friday)," the official said.
"It's also the case that President (Joe) Biden believes that too oftentimes, these kinds of discussions are scripted, and he really wants to be able to sit down and have a deeper conversation with all leaders in an environment where they can really share perspectives on what's important to each of them as they go forward."
"I do want to just underscore a critical point. I think all of you will have seen or heard the President's speech at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week when he underscored that, you know, we are coming out of a period of really long and consequential conflicts, and we are now doubling down on diplomacy," the White House official said, betraying clear discomfiture with military action.
That said, the official reconfirmed importance that the US continues to accord to the Indo-Pacific, a region key rival China now claims as an extended backyard.
"What we are seeing is a clear and emblematic indication of that strategy. It also indicates that the Biden administration understands that the challenges of the 21st century will largely play out in the Indo-Pacific, and we are doubling down on our efforts."
"This Quad is part of a larger fabric of engagement that you've already seen evidence of with very high-level bilateral engagements with security partners, other steps that we've taken. AAnd we believe that the Quad will be a key and critical format and forum for discussion and joint purpose as we head into a challenging period ahead," the official said on the existentialist question facing the grouping since it kicked off in 2004.
On specifics, the official spoke of semiconductors, 5G, space, cyber, climate change, vaccines, and scholarships.
On semiconductors, "we will be announcing a supply chain initiative, and the effort is really a detailed joint initiative to map overall capacity; identify respective vulnerabilities; and to take critical steps to bolster supply chain security, particularly for semiconductors and all their vital components".
The goal, he said, is to "help ensure Quad partners help take their steps to support at least a somewhat diverse and competitive market that produces secure, critical technologies that are essential for digital economies globally".
Without naming Chinese pushback in the 5G theatre, the official said that "we're also going to announce a 5G deployment and diversification effort...to support the critical role of Quad governments in fostering and promoting a diverse, resilient, secure telecommunications ecosystem. And we're launching an effort -- sort of a 1.5 industry dialogue -- on Open RAN development and adoption. So this is actually a quite well-articulated game plan about how the four countries will work together."
Echoing a line from Biden's UNGA speech, the official confirmed that the Quad partners have "a robust cybersecurity effort underway with the State Department that's going to be enhanced at the leader level. We're going to try to take steps to bolster critical infrastructure resilience against cyber threats -- something that's plagued all four of our countries".
On joint academic endeavours, the official said the Quad fellowship will be sponsored by private donors. "We will bring 100 students per year -- 25 from each Quad country -- to pursue either a master's or doctoral degree at a leading STEM graduate university in the United States. I think that's a big deal for us, and that's a signature initiative designed to indicate that we want and encourage Quad countries to send their best students to work with us and to build those lines of communication and coordination with young people."
"We'll have an initiative on space. I think all four countries are determined to work on joint efforts," the official said, adding the "sharing (of) information on illegal fishing, on issues associated with maritime domain awareness."
Likewise, climate change and promotion of "a variety of issues associated with estuaries and fisheries -- fishing more generally. (Also) specific steps in climate: green shipping network. And this has to do with how to decarbonise what we call the shipping value chain. And we're also taking specific steps to work with ports in each of our countries to ensure that best practices are followed with respect to decarbonising efforts there as well."
"(A) vaccine deliverable will be rolled out (Friday)," the official said.
Pushed on what then differs between Quad and AUKUS, a grouping the US has with Australia and the UK, the White House official said: "It's important to underscore these are two completely separate initiatives. They really have nothing to do with one another, even though there is some overlap with Australia, obviously."
"The Quad is a discussion and engagement effort around a number of practical matters, like -- we've discussed Covid and issues associated with climate change. There is not a military dimension to it or security dimension to it. And it is an informal grouping."
"The AUKUS, obviously, has been underscored and discussed in other venues. I won't go through those details here."
As a sort of reality check for us vis-a-vis Beijing, the official confessed: "We have seen actions by China that has ramped up tensions with neighbors. It's not unique to India; we've seen it in other circumstances as well and -- with Australia, with the South China Sea. And we've seen an increase in wolf warrior diplomacy in Europe. And so, it's difficult to tell exactly what the motivation is, but I can assure you that Indian friends are very clear-eyed about both their desire to make sure that they are working closely with -- in communication with China to try to avert these sorts of difficulties, but also remaining resolute as well."
Asked whether the Malabar exercises -- naval exercises that began between India and the US in 1992 -- in its 25th edition this year having had participation of all four Quad partners "would at any point expand to infantry exercises, especially given India's concern about China's encroachment on what it considers its side of the border in Ladakh and other parts of its northern border - and why the Chinese are doing that", the White House official was candid in limitations.
"The Malabar exercise is a great area of cooperation -- has expanded in recent years, regularised, and as you say, it includes all four countries. I'm not aware of any current discussion to go to infantry."
(Nikhila Natarajan is on Twitter @byniknat)
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