India, the US, Japan and Australia view the threat of an increasingly aggressive China as so serious they met face-to-face in Tokyo in the midst of the pandemic to discuss the issue. But there, unity ended. The Quad meeting’s aim was to send a strong message that overly assertive Chinese behaviour, whether in Ladakh or the South China Sea, would encounter resistance. But the language used showed there are still wide differences in Quad members’ approach to China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted China’s ruling Communist Party for “coercion and corruption.” But India, Japan and Australia didn’t even name China. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar spoke only of the need for “respect for territorial integrity.” There was also no post-meeting joint statement. It certainly wasn’t the birth of an ‘Asian Nato’, as some claimed it would be. For that, we must ask the question: would the Americans or Japanese come to our aid if fighting erupted in Ladakh? For that matter, would India dispatch naval ships to Japan’s aid if a conflict occurred over the Senkaku Islands that China also claims?

Washington is locked in a trade war with Beijing, Sino-Australian ties have been deteriorating and India and China are facing off along their border. Still, there’s the question whether any of the four countries will want to take on China long term, especially given their strong economic links with the country. Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga says he wants “stable” Sino-Japanese relations. There are 35,000 Japanese firms in China compared to 1,500 in India. Despite current bilateral hostility, the Australians have built a booming economy by selling their commodities to China. The Sino-Indian economic partnership isn’t as deep but China has been supplying India with vital start-up money. Both US presidential contenders have spoken of “decoupling” from China but Beijing’s betting the US ultimately won’t be able to resist China’s massive market.

China lashed out against the Quad meeting with the state-controlled Global Times branding it “an ideological” Cold-War-style camp that “seeks to contain China.” However, even if a military alliance doesn’t come into being, China should worry as the four countries feel the need for a regional alliance to rein in its ambitions. But there’s no sign Beijing’s ready to modify its behaviour despite global flak. India shares a 4,000-km border with China that has led to it playing a balancing act. China’s aggression in Ladakh has changed that equation and India recognises it may have to reach out to other countries to take on its neighbour. India’s answer to China’s moves shouldn’t only be land-based but also be in the Indian Ocean and exploit our nearness to the Malacca Strait. India and Japan have signed a treaty allowing the Japanese to use Andaman’s port facilities and we’ll now be able to use Japan’s Djibouti base. A similar pact could come with Australia. We must hope such ties will help convince the Chinese that it’s not worth their while to try and push India around.