October 11, 2020

In the Jaws of the Quad

Prakash Karat

THE ministerial level quadrilateral meeting comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India was held in Tokyo on October 6.  Known as the Quad, the four country grouping is fast shaping up as a military alliance targeted at China. 

The foreign minister, S Jaishankar, had stated in September that India will not become part of an “alliance system”.  But the developments concerning the Quad belie this stance. There is a good deal of camouflage and doublespeak on the part of the Modi government on the overall direction that the strategic alliance with the United States is taking. 

Some commentators see the enthusiasm of India to be part of the Quad its wholesale participation as an outcome of the border standoff with China in Ladakh.  According to them, India is compelled to join the security alliance headed by the United States to defend itself from China’s expansionist moves. In fact many of the strategic experts and pro-US security analysts are rooting for it.

But this is not a fact.  Much before the current standoff in Ladakh, India had committed itself fully to be a partner in the quadrilateral alliance. 

During President Obama’s visit to Delhi in January 2015, a joint statement was issued with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region”.  With this, India was fully on board the American strategic plan for the region.  The direction of the statement was clear even then when it stated “We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. The pivot to Asia under Obama saw India as a “lynchpin” in the words of the then secretary of defense, Leon Panetta in 2012.

There is an earlier history of attempts to forge the Quad. The first attempt at forming the Quad was in 2007 at the initiative of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But this did not take off after China expressed its disapproval and sent demarches to India and other partner countries. Australia under a new goverment and the Manmohan Singh government backed off.

The idea of the Quad was revived at a meeting held in Manila in November 2017 during the ASEAN summit when the leaders of the four countries met and agreed to take the step. By this time, all the four countries had right-wing governments who had no ideological qualms about confronting China. The Quad meeting that followed was attended by a joint secretary of the external affairs ministry from India.

Under American pressure, the Quad forum was upgraded to the ministerial level and the first ministerial meeting was held in September 2019 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. There was no ambiguity that this partnership was to counter the growing influence of China economically and strategically in the Asia-Pacific region. The talk of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” initiated by the United States provided the basis for the revival of the Quad.

That the current posture of the Quad is driven by the Trump administration’s escalation of the conflict with China – in the trade, technology and strategic spheres – is evident in what was discussed between the foreign ministry officials of the four countries on September 25, prior to the ministerial meeting.  According to a statement issued after the meeting, it was discussed how to “promote the use of trusted vendors, particularly for fifth generation (5G) networks”.  This clearly was the American agenda to block Huawei from exporting its 5G technology.The other subjects were counterterrorism, cyber and maritime security and quality infrastructure in the region. 

The efforts to rope-in India into what the Trump administration hopes would become a full-fledged security alliance in the Asia-Pacific region became obvious when the region was rechristened as the Indo-Pacific region. India even sent a senior military official to attend the ceremony for renaming the US Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command.   

The architecture for the military alliance had also to be completed. India had signed the logistics agreement with the United States in 2016 which was called the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA).  This is an agreement for use of base facilities for repairs, fuelling and servicing of the two armed forces in each other’s countries.  The actual name of this agreement used by the United States with its allies is the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. For the Quad to become a full-fledged cooperation between the four countries, it was necessary for India to have such logistics agreements with Australia and Japan. These were negotiated much before the current conflict in Ladakh began in May this year. In June, Australia and India signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement which will allow the two countries to use each other’s bases for repairs and supplies.

The agreement with Japan called the Reciprocal Provision of Supplies and Service between the Self-Defence Forces of Japan and Indian Armed Forces, was signed on September 9. With this, India has signed the important military agreement for logistics cooperation and to facilitate interoperability with all the three partners of the Quad.

To say after these steps, India will not be part of any military alliance or alliance system is to be ingenuous and to befool the people. As late as February 2020, when Trump visited India, the joint statement issued talked of strengthening the quadrilateral forum.

What the US wants out of the Quad is clear. At the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum meeting on August 31, Stephen Biegun, the US deputy secretary of state laid bare the US plan.  The goal eventually is an Asian NATO. He said:

“The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures. They do not have anything of the fortitude of NATO or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia often times are not, I think, not inclusive enough and so … there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this. Remember, even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries (initially) chose neutrality over NATO membership.”
However, Biegun noted that such a Pacific NATO would come about only if countries in the region would show the same commitment that the US had towards the idea.

It was here that Biegun informed that the Quad ministerial meeting was to be held in New Delhi in the autumn, something which had not been made public till then by the Indian government. After Beigun’s disclosure that the ministerial meeting of the Quad would be held in October in Delhi, the spokesman of the ministry of external affairs was forced to confirm that such a meeting is being held. But later, it was shifted to Tokyo. Was it due to a change of mind on the part of the Modi government?

In Tokyo, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo in his inaugural remarks at the Quad meeting said: “As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) exploitation, corruption, and coercion.”

What was not acknowledged openly by the foreign minister, Jaishankar, was stated by the chief of defence staff, Gen. Bipin Rawat  who said on September 3, that India believes the Quad would be a “good mechanism to ensure freedom of navigation operations” in the Indian Ocean and surrounding oceans.  This would require joint operations of the naval forces, not just the current joint exercises.

Ever since the first defence framework agreement was signed with the US in 2005, step by step, the military collaboration with the US has deepened and important segments of the higher echelons of the armed forces have become fully committed to a military alliance.

The Quad, just like “the Pivot to Asia” under Obama, is meant to fulfill the strategic plan of the United States to contain China.  No purpose is served for India by lining up with this strategic design.  The South China Sea has no bearing on India’s vital interests. Why should the Indian Navy conduct joint exercises with the the US and Japanese navies in the South China Sea? None of the Quad partners are going to commit themselves for military support to India in its territorial conflict with China.

The countries which are vitally concerned with the dispute in the South China Sea, the littoral states and the main regional formation – the ASEAN – are not willing to join the US-sponsored Quad.  They don’t want to be part of any anti-China grouping that will not serve their own country’s vital interests.  Indonesia, one of the major countries in the region which is involved in the South China Sea dispute, has steered clear off such a course.

The Modi government cosying up to the United States at a time when it is on a warpath against China has had a bearing on the worsening situation around the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. The last six months have made it clear that China’s stance on the border issue has also stemmed from India’s steps to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and the growing strategic convergence of US-India ties against China. 

The national interest of India lies in directly negotiating with China to settle its current disputes on the border without ganging up with the United States and its allies in any anti-China grouping. India has the resources and capacities to deal with this problem without becoming a vassal of the United States.

As for the Chinese side, it needs to consider, how far pushing India to the American side serves its interests. Rising tensions on the LAC, a nebulous line which serves as the temporary border between the two countries, will not serve the interests of the two great neighbouring countries of Asia who are destined to play a major role in the 21st century for the well being of humanity and the planet. After all, we together constitute more than a third of the global population.