Quad 2.0’s Challenges for India: A Delicate Balancing Act
From reminiscing on his relationship with India, to highlighting how the American national anthem was written by Francis Scott Key aboard a ship built in India, to expanding on the vision for an Indo-Pacific order driven by the U.S.-India partnership, there was no dearth of optimism in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent speech highlighting Washington’s vision for the Indo-Pacific. No potential area of cooperation between New Delhi and Washington was missed:
Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy. We share a vision of the future. The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade. Our nations are two bookends of stability — on either side of the globe — standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.
The speech ended on a high note, with Tillerson stating that it was time both nations “act on the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, supported and protected by two strong pillars of democracy — the United States and India.”
The U.S. secretary of state’s Oct. 18 speech set the stage for Quad 2.0, which has made its way into global strategic discourse almost a decade after the collapse of Quad 1.0. Days after the speech, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kano called for a top-level dialogue with the United States, India, and Australia. On Nov. 12, officials from the four nations met on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN Summit, and agreed to work together for a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region [that] serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.” The very next day, President Donald Trump met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and according to the White House readout, also emphasized cooperation for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” during the meeting.
These developments contribute to New Delhi’s diplomatic profile and raise expectations that it will play a proactive role alongside Washington towards the envisioned Indo-Pacific order. Although New Delhi, mindful of the context in which Quad 1.0 collapsed, has welcomed Quad 2.0 cautiously, it has big plans for the partnership and “wants to retain a big say for India in its agenda,” as C Raja Mohan, the director of Carnegie India, put it. However, India could face a number of challenges from China, which has interpreted the Quad as a strategic alliance against it. Nevertheless, India can benefit from the Quad and the shifting regional order the group symbolizes by strengthening its geoeconomic linkages with the region and being careful to avoid provoking confrontation with China.
While there is no indication at the moment that the Quad will turn into a full-blown alliance, the fact that the four countries are discussing the concept, the endorsement in Tillerson’s speech, and Australia’s foreign policy white paper expressing concerns over China’s rising influence all suggest a push to deepen ties as part of a strategy to hedge against China. In his speech, Tillerson held China’s rise responsible for “undermining the international rules-based order” and said its activities in the South China Sea “challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for.” It’s clear that Washington’s views on China influenced the making of Quad 2.0. Indeed, the fixation with China underlying the inception of Quad 2.0 is obvious. For key Asian states, “the rise of China and its increasingly assertive behavior is unnerving,” as the collective economic good emanating from China’s economic growth increasingly gets overshadowed by “collective military and security hazard,” as Professor Harsh V. Pant of King’s College London noted.
The avowed China-focused narrative revolving around Quad 2.0 could have direct consequences for India, the only nation in the grouping that shares terrestrial borders with China. Tensions still dominate the bilateral relationship, given the strengthening China-Pakistan nexus and the recently ended two-month standoff in Doklam. Thus, the first danger of India’s participation in the revived Quad is that it could stoke larger regional palpitations in the Indo-Pacific, leading to backlash (overt, covert, or both) from China. The end of the Doklam standoff did signal a degree of maturity, since the two sides agreed to manage the crisis diplomatically. But hostilities are far from over since troops still remain mobilized, though at a safer distance. India joining the Quad could result in Chinese reactivating tensions with India on multiple fronts, from disputed border points across the Line of Actual Control (the de facto Sino-India border) to a certain hostile western neighbor that already enjoys significant Chinese support. Many believe that the aim would be to keep India engaged in its immediate neighborhood, leaving it with less time and resources to honor its strategic commitments in the Indo-Pacific. To be sure, this is not to say India’s engagement with the Quad countries would immediately raise such risks — only that India should be aware that Beijing might attempt to disturb the status quo more frequently. Writing for an Indian newspaper just after the Quad meeting, the Chinese ambassador to India called upon the nations of the Indo-Pacific to shed their “cold-war mentality” and embark on mutual cooperation.
Second, while India might find the idea of a partnership with a global power and like-minded regional powers appealing, it also risks alienating two key Indian allies, Iran and Myanmar. The International North South Transport Corridor is set to be launched, connecting India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Russia with Iran as the gateway. In Myanmar, India is deepening cooperation, strategically with the military, and geoeconomically with infrastructure upgrade projects, especially the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project. The possibility of China attempting to play a spoiler role in relations between India and these two countries cannot be ruled out, since Beijing enjoys far deeper ties with both Iran and Myanmar. Additionally, New Delhi may have to explain to Tehran how the Quad views Iran and why India is participating in a partnership that the Iranians may regard with suspicion, given Iran’s hostile relationship with the United States and deepening ties with China. While the military establishment traditionally has strong ties with China, the recent Rohingya crisis also led Myanmar’s nascent civilian regime to drift closer to Beijing. Additionally, with the launch of a cross-border crude oil pipeline, China has successfully bypassed the Malacca trap, making Myanmar’s geostrategic location crucial for Chinese interests. .
Third, since the Quad has been revived against the backdrop of an assertive China, formal discussions surrounding it have remained themed on a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and a “rules based order,” which are ambiguous terms, subject to different interpretations. The Quad’s objectives have been in the public domain but its operational mandate and the respective roles of the four nations are yet to be defined, thereby opening room for more speculation. As Tanvi Madan wrote in these pages last month, “The lack of information last time, stemming from the initiative’s sensitivity, created a vacuum that others filled. Creating a better understanding of the nature of the Quad can help address sensitivities, manage expectations and give officials time to develop and act on an agenda.” There is an urgent need on New Delhi’s part to clarify India’s role and ambitions to fellow Quad powers to avoid sending the wrong signals to Beijing.
Fourth, India has kept a low profile in the wider Indo-Pacific arena since it views Washington as the region’s net security provider. There are some exceptions, including maritime exercises like Malabar, trilateral groupings (India-Australia-Japan and India-US-Japan) and an exemplary strategic cooperation with Vietnam, which have bolstered India’s presence in the region. Still, 25 years have passed since the announcement of Look East (now renamed Act East), and India’s policies have not adequately acknowledged the pace of China’s incursion into the Indo-Pacific. Deeper cooperation with the Quad countries could highlight this discrepancy and put India and China in a regional competition that India is not prepared for.
In the strategic domain, there have been long delays with India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant as well as the induction of the indigenous submarine (despite the steadily declining fleet) — the two key elements of India’s maritime force projection. This raises questions not only regarding how long India would take to make its strategic footprint felt in the Indo-Pacific, but also how India would catch up with China’s expanding naval capabilities. A similar dynamic prevails in the economic sphere. In 2016, China-ASEAN trade reached US $452.2 billion (and aims to hit $1 trillion by 2020), retaining China as ASEAN’s largest trading partner, six times more than the $71 billion India-ASEAN trade. Also, Indian foreign direct investment remains meager compared to that of China, which is the fourth largest investor country in ASEAN.
Year after year, joint communiques issued by ASEAN’s foreign ministers’ meetings point to a divided house when it comes to confronting China. Even in this year’s meeting, ASEAN avoided directly addressing its disputes with China. The hesitation shows the lack of confidence among ASEAN states about whether the pledges of other powers to balance against China in the region are credible. China’s growing military capabilities are of prime concern, but the strong economic dependency China has imposed on the Asian states has also contributed to Beijing’s legitimacy, which prevents those nations from strategically hedging against China.
While Quad 2.0 promises a greater regional role for India, the situation is far more complex. Despite all the jubilation, India may find itself in a tough predicament if it walks into the Quad without addressing these issues.
This highlights the need to discuss viable ways in which New Delhi can utilize the Quad platform, and simultaneously avoid direct confrontation with Beijing. Although the grouping is in its early stages and might take an entirely different trajectory, it is nevertheless in New Delhi’s interests to think about less confrontational ways to manage the Quad.
The Quad could commence with a focus on strengthening geoeconomic linkages across the region, and this is where New Delhi needs to play an active role. Through the Quad, India should promote its flagship ventures like the Sagarmala port modernization and connectivity project and the Asian Development Bank led East Coast Economic Corridor, which aims to industrialize the entire Eastern Indian coastal belt and extend value chains to Southeast Asia. The India-Japan-ASEAN led Asia Africa Growth Corridor also needs to be formally inducted as a Quad project. A framework, probably in the form of a single coordinating authority, could be set up in order for these proposed transnational connectivity projects to be executed in a coordinated manner by the four powers, which would aid in efficient and targeted implementation of these projects.
Rather than confronting Beijing’s military muscle-flexing, a focus on stronger geoeconomic ties could help the nations of the Indo-Pacific create a “soft” hedge against China. New Delhi can play an important role by virtue of its rapidly growing economy and its emerging role in the region. To exploit both of these opportunities, it must take a strategic approach to its membership in the revived Quad.
Prateek Joshi is a researcher on Asia’s geostrategic issues, working on a project with Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), a think tank funded by the India’s defense ministry. He is thankful to Commodore (retired) Abhay Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA for his crucial inputs and analysis.
Image: State Department