Japan's prime minister at the time, Shinzo Abe, in 2007 had proposed a 'quadrilateral strategic dialogue' among these countries. While these four countries had met before for other reasons, after Abe's proposal the Quad nations as well as Singapore, for the first time held a joint maritime military exercise. Its scope increased and the question arose as to whether this dialogue forum would be limited to military exercise or would take the shape of a military pact. This question has come to the fore once again.

At the outset of 2008, Australia moved away from the Quad and announced it was unwilling to participate in the Quad or any dialogue. This proved to be a major obstacle to the Quad. It not only signalled an end to the Quad, but also indicated the possibility of China and Australia growing close. That would be a threat to the US in this region.

In 2017 there was a revival of the Quad and its member countries became active. Their main objective was a free, open and neutral Indo-Pacific region. This revival has brought the Quad into limelight again and there is a general curiosity concerning where it is headed.

It is felt that the Quad will play a significant role in determining the future of this region. In fact, many experts believe it will soon take on the shape of a defence pact. In other words, Quad will emerge as the 'Asian NATO'. They also believe that the militarisation of the region will come to the forefront. The Malabar joint naval exercise of the four Quad countries is indication of this. This exercise was a display of military power, which basically is a message to China. And the Quad countries are also participating in each other's multilateral military exercises. This includes The Rim of Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), considered to be the world's largest naval exercise. This close proximity between the countries and the importance given to the Quad indicate that it is a farsighted initiative in global politics, which will play a significant part in the political equilibrium of this region.

It is conjectured that an appeal may be made to a few more regional countries to join up with the Quad in order to expand its scope and strength. Firstly, the important countries of the region may be invited to join in a naval exercise. The 'Pacific Vanguard' naval exercise with South Korea is an example. It will hardly be surprising if New Zealand also joins this initiative as it has also started cooperating with the Quad through the 'Five Power Defence Arrangement' and 'Five Eyes' initiatives. It will be beneficial for the Quad if New Zealand joins the initiative because this will extend its regional reach.

Bangladesh has already received a sort of 'caution' from the Chinese ambassador in this regard. He said that if Bangladesh takes part in the Quad, this will be harmful for Bangladesh-China relations. Bangladesh, however, has not been invited to join the Quad.

Secondly, they may include certain western countries too, which have interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The UK and France are being considered as possibilities as both these countries have interests in the region. France still has some of its colonial territory here. And the UK is stepping up its attention in this region and through the Commonwealth may also strengthen their historical ties with the region.

Other than directly adding members to the Quad, there may also be a 'plus process', as is seen in the example of ASEAN -- the ASEAN+3 Corporation. So they may adopt a Quad+ initiative or something on such lines. This will increase members on the one hand as well as increase linkage with the smaller states. If they can keep the smaller states as a 'support cluster', then the joint security of this region will be in their hold and Quad will be able to carry out their activities and cooperate with more ease. It will be a farsighted decision as well as strategically relevant if Quad can bring the other countries of the region together in this manner.

Quad's future plans are not restricted to the security of this region alone. They are keeping up with current developments. Other than defence issues, their joint statement includes issues such as climate change and equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. These matters will be important to developing countries in the post-Covid multilateral circumstances.

When these developing countries were struggling to tackle Covid-19, China and Russia forged a sort of close bilateral relationship by means of their vaccine supply. If China and Russia spread their influence by these means, or if they can build up close tie with countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam or the Philippines, that will foil the main objective of Quad. So even if it is to use their 'vaccine diplomacy' against their rivals, Quad will expand its vaccine distribution project in the region.

The main objective of Quad is to check Chinese influence in this region which will naturally give rise to strategic differences. And, to counter these moves, China will keep up its efforts to spread its influence too. In fact, the Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network dialogue of China, Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan, is being seen as the 'Himalayan Quad' or a counter to Quad. China denies this and has not issued any statement against Quad. However, it is felt that they may reach an understanding with Russia in this connection. They do not want any country of South Asia or Southeast Asia to join the Quad.

Bangladesh has already received a sort of 'caution' from the Chinese ambassador in this regard. He said that if Bangladesh takes part in the Quad, this will be harmful for Bangladesh-China relations. Bangladesh, however, has not been invited to join the Quad. All this indicates that Bangladesh will have an important role in this regional tussle. If there is actually a militarisation of the Quad, then there will be two sides -- China and Quad.

Bangladesh, and other countries of the region, needs to be extremely astute regarding Quad and such initiatives. It must proceed with its own interests in mind, applying pragmatic diplomacy and maintaining as much of a balance as possible. It would not be wise for Bangladesh to join Quad or any one-sided alliance at the moment. For Bangladesh, there is no alternative to strategic neutrality for the sake of regional stability and to consolidate its position in bilateral geopolitics.

* ANM Muniruzzaman is a retired major general and president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.

* This column, appearing in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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