October 20, 2019

Will India be Able to Avoid a Military Quad?

B Arjun

THE Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (“the Quad”) between India, Australia, Japan and the US has got a fresh lease of life. In a significant development for the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, Quad held its first minister-level meeting on September 27 in New York.

The efforts to build an Indo-Pacific security architecture was initiated in 2007, when for the  first time the four countries met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum summit in the Philippines. During the Obama years, the initiative remained in limbo due to his preoccupation with economic revival of America after the 2008 economic meltdown. However, with the arrival of President Trump, American policy on China took a new turn. In majority of the American think-tanks, China is largely viewed as a “revisionist power”. Therefore, Trump administration decided to directly confront China through greater naval activity in the Indo-Pacific waters. What Obama had started in 2010 by announcing “pivot to Asia”, Trump has added much vigour to the process.

The four maritime democracies have been inching closer to institutionalise the gathering since 2017. Quad has met four times in the past two years at the level of senior officials only. The meeting-of-ministers under Quad banner is certainly a big step ahead to formalise a multilateral arrangement to manage growing Chinese power in the region and also to help America retain its regional hegemony. The meeting indicates that Quad is gathering momentum and moving beyond signalling to adding substance to its proceedings. 

Unlike, the United States that is brandishing the upgradation of Quad as a significant achievement, India has largely maintained reticence. Till last year India was reluctant to hold Quad deliberations at the foreign secretary level, preferring to limit engagement to the more junior joint secretary level, despite significant pressure from the US and Japan. India’s problem is that it is ideologically aligned to the US but its deteriorated economic health demands a healthy economic relationship with China. The Indian foreign policy establishment appreciates the fact the formation of Asiatic-Nato that US intends to create from Quad will foreclose its options vis-a-vis China. Last year the India-China trade had hit $95.54 billion. India needs technology and investments from China. It is largely because of this that Prime Minister Modi has to meet President Xi Jin-ping on a regular basis. If America was capable of providing India with the money to advance its economy, India probably would have been more gung ho about an Asiatic Nato. But under the current circumstances, India needs China. Japan and Australia also intend to maintain a healthy balance between China, their economic partner and US their military hero. It is largely this dichotomy that is taking long for the US to knit together an Indo-Pacific military alliance against China.      

India is the only member in the Quad grouping that is also a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the largest transnational body in the Eurasian region. On the one hand, India protects the US-led maritime order and on the other hand it strengthens the Eurasian connectivity, that directly impinges on the viability of the dominance of the international trade by maritime powers. With one foot in Eurasia and the other in the Indo-Pacific, India is walking a tightrope. This strategy of simultaneously travelling in two boats is being increasingly tested. As the US-China trade war becomes more intense, as the US steps up pressure on Chinese periphery, Tibet and  Xinjiang, India will be called upon to assist US. India will be required to take sides, which will have an impact on its position in the SCO and consequently its relations with China as well as with the Russia.  President Putin has already pointed out “that given the ‘centrality’ of the ASEAN in the Asia-Pacific and the ‘network structure’ existing around that grouping, a ‘bloc-based organisation’ like Quad doesn’t make sense. He said it is ‘un-Asian’ if someone were to ‘create some kind of a bloc-based organisation… that is at odds with the current state of affairs in Asia.’

With India-Pakistan relations going from bad to worse and China affirming its intention to "stand by Pakistan,” the Indo-China relationship is far from satisfactory. China is now asserting and in fact flaunting its economic power asymmetry with India.  President Xi Ji ping’s Chennai visit was sandwiched between Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing and Xi’s visit to Nepal. It is a clear indication that Beijing is in no mood to appease Modi. There are no signs to show that Xi wants to disengage with India, but Beijing is now clear that Modi and his foreign policy team is ideologically aligned to America and  will only have limited engagement with China.

The stated aim of  Quad is to lay a foundation based on a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and ‘shared commitment to close cooperation on maritime security, quality infrastructure and regional connectivity in support of a rules-based order that promotes stability, growth and economic prosperity.” However, there is little doubt that Quad is a formation designed primarily to contain China and confine its maritime ambitions.

In order to manage its relationship with China and Russia, India has been attempting to signal that its Indo-Pacific strategy is different from the other members of Quad. America talks “free and open” Indo-Pacific, India says it believes in the “free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific,” in order to show that it is not willing to exclude China from the Indo-Pacific. Recently, India and Russia agreed to develop a maritime link connecting Chennai with Vladivostok. This shipping link would take cargo between the ports in 24 days. Currently it takes 40 days to transport goods from India to Far East Russia via Europe.

India appreciates the fact that its “multi-layered engagement with China as well as its strategic partnership with Russia is key to ensuring a stable, open, secure, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said that India is “for something” in the Indo-Pacific and “not against somebody”. However, the problem is that the US and Japan’s insistence on forming a military alliance in the region is putting additional pressure on India’s external policy. The US strategic perceptions on containing China are also influencing the choice of naval platforms and weapon systems that India is procuring. With India’s defence outlook largely based on interoperability with the US led alliance in the region, the growing divergence between India’s foreign and defence policy is becoming apparent.