Democracy’s Squad: India’s Change of Heart and the Future of the Quad
In November 2017, an international grouping left for dead a decade earlier was brought back to life. Amid mounting concerns over China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, government representatives from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States gathered that month to discuss ways to enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, marking the highly anticipated return of the “Quad.”
At its core, the Quad is a symbolic and substantive addition to an existing network of strategic and defense cooperation among four highly capable Indo-Pacific democracies that are increasingly aligned in their shared concerns on regional security. The group’s revival was a form of geopolitical signaling from the four democracies, a way to tell China: “We’re watching, and we’re alarmed.”
The first iteration of the Quad, which included a meeting among mid-ranking officials and a joint naval exercise in May and September 2007, proved short-lived. It disbanded less than a year after its inauguration. Arguably, its greatest flaw was its timing. In early 2008, China under President Hu Jintao was still adopting a more moderate “hide and bide” strategy, and the four democracies lacked consensus on the nature and severity of the challenges Beijing posed and the appropriate response.
Ironically, the Quad collapsed just as the chapter of China’s “peaceful rise” was coming to an abrupt end. Most scholars mark 2008, the year of the global financial crisis and the Beijing Olympics, as a turning point in China’s trajectory. It is perhaps a coincidence that it was also the year the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific failed to form a more united front.
A decade later, much has changed. Australia, India, Japan, and the United States are more alarmed by China’s behavior, more integrated strategically, and more aligned in their visions for promoting security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. Nowhere has this evolution been more pronounced than in India, which was once viewed as the “weakest link” in the Quad. A substantial escalation of the Sino-Indian rivalry over the past decade, punctuated this summer by the first deadly crisis at their disputed border in over 40 years, has rendered India a much more engaged and enthusiastic partner in the Quad.
Having India on board as a committed partner bodes well for the reconstituted Quad. It has already proved more durable than its predecessor, and is far more likely to endure. The group has been meeting twice a year since 2017, upgrading the level of the dialogue and adding new components along the way.
Nevertheless, lingering doubts and questions continue to shadow the Quad, including a lack of clarity regarding the group’s identity and agenda. Is the Quad an “Asian NATO” or some form of anti-China containment coalition? Does the Quad matter? Why was the format revived after a 10-year hiatus? And how has India’s evolution on the Quad changed the group’s fortunes and future prospects?
India: The Reluctant Partner
The Quad’s fate has always rested in India’s hands. Australia, Japan, and the United States are already bound by a deep network of formal treaty alliances, overlapping strategic dialogues, and intelligence sharing arrangements. Drawing India — with the world’s second-largest population, third-largest defense budget, fifth-largest economy, and an escalating strategic competition with China — into greater alignment with the other three democracies has been a priority of theirs for over a decade.
But New Delhi has long been skeptical of the Quad. The Indian government was famously disillusioned by Australia’s decision to withdraw from the first Quad. At a time when India was just beginning to experiment with closer alignment with the United States and its partners, it felt it had overextended by joining the group with little strategic benefit to show for it. The experience didn’t prevent India from continuing to bolster cooperation with the others bilaterally and trilaterally. Among other things, it invited Japan to rejoin the annual U.S.-Indian Malabar naval exercises in 2009 and to become a permanent member in 2015. Yet, New Delhi remained skeptical of the quadrilateral format, wary of alienating China, cognizant of domestic opposition to the group, and unsure of Australia’s commitment.
The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 saw an acceleration of strategic ties with the other Indo-Pacific democracies, including with Australia. In 2014, Canberra and New Delhi reached a landmark nuclear cooperation deal that ended a contentious legacy on nuclear issues, and they completed their first joint naval exercises the following year. They hosted their first joint army exercises in 2016 and India welcomed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to New Delhi for a state visit the following year, providing a boost to diplomatic ties.
The acceleration of India’s strategic partnership with the United States was even more pronounced. The two countries forged their first “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” in 2015, the same year they renewed a 10-year defense partnership agreement. In 2016, India and the United States inked a foundational “enabling” military agreement allowing for provisional use of each other’s military facilities and supplies. In June 2017, Modi became the first foreign leader hosted by President Donald Trump for a dinner at the White House. One month later, a new iteration of the Malabar exercise saw participation from Indian, Japanese, and U.S. aircraft carriers for the first time.
By contrast, Sino-Indian ties were taking a turn for the worse. President Xi Jinping’s inaugural visit to New Delhi in September 2014 was undermined almost before it began. Just over a week before his arrival, the People’s Liberation Army launched an intrusion across the disputed Sino-Indian border in Ladakh, prompting a 16-day military standoff that poisoned the atmosphere of Xi’s visit.
Xi’s decision to double down on China’s special partnership with Pakistan further strained ties with India. In 2015, a Chinese firm agreed to assume control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, Beijing agreed to sell Islamabad eight submarines in its largest-ever defense export deal, and China unveiled plans to invest more than $46 billion in a new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that traverses Indian-claimed Kashmir. Relations were further undermined in 2016 by China’s efforts to block India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a multilateral body that regulates the trade of nuclear materials, and its effective veto of U.N. sanctions on the head of a notorious Pakistan-based terrorist group.
The Belt and Road Initiative, Doklam, and the Road to Quad 2.0
As China and India sparred over these legacy disputes, by the mid-2010s three new geopolitical rifts pushed the bilateral relationship further down the path of rivalry. First, China was beginning to make considerable inroads in what India considered its traditional sphere of influence, substantially expanding its presence and activities in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives. What’s more, in each country China seemed to be aligning itself with political forces hostile to India while reinforcing corruption and authoritarian practices.
In parallel, China’s previously negligible military footprint in the Indian Ocean began growing rapidly. After initiating regular anti-piracy patrols off the east coast of Africa in 2008, in 2013 and 2014 Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines began routine deployments to the Indian Ocean. In 2017, China opened its first military base in the region at the Port of Doraleh in Djibouti. These developments fed concerns about encirclement in India and revived debate about a Chinese “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean.
Second, China and India found themselves at odds over Xi’s signature geo-economic program: the Belt and Road Initiative. First announced in vague terms in 2013, by 2017 the Belt and Road Initiative had taken shape and commanded considerable resources. Moreover, it had become intertwined with Xi’s legacy, even making its way into China’s constitution. That May, China organized a major international conference, the Belt and Road Forum, to attract legitimacy and support for the Belt and Road Initiative. India was the only Quad member to boycott the event.
India wasn’t just avoiding the initiative, it had become its most outspoken critic, getting ahead of its more ambivalent former Quad partners. India’s principal complaints related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and its implicit challenge to Indian sovereignty over Kashmir. But New Delhi had also enjoyed a front-row seat to China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” in Sri Lanka, where Chinese firms assumed control of the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease after Colombo was unable to service debt on the commercially questionable, Chinese-constructed port.
Third, in June 2017, one month after New Delhi snubbed the Belt and Road Forum, Chinese and Indian forces found themselves arrayed in the longest standoff over disputed territory in decades. The Indian military intervened when the People’s Liberation Army began extending a road south on the Doklam plateau into territory claimed by China but administered by neighboring Bhutan near India’s strategically sensitive “chicken’s neck.” During the crisis, Chinese outlets used unusually incendiary language, threatening India with an ultimatum: withdraw or be evicted by force. The 73-day standoff was resolved peacefully, with Indian forces holding their ground until a mutual withdrawal agreement was reached in August 2017. But Chinese activities north of the standoff site have since increased, and the episode marked yet another turning point in the relationship.
By 2017, India’s former Quad partners had their own mounting problems with China. Australia had become embroiled in a high-profile spat with Beijing over Chinese interference in Australia’s domestic politics, and Canberra made no secret of its discomfort with Beijing’s provocative activities in the South China Sea.
Reflecting a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington on China policy, the Trump administration entered office in 2017 determined to confront China on a range of issues. The White House advanced a tougher approach on Taiwan, the South China Sea, Chinese espionage operations in the United States, and unfair trade practices. Japan, which first proposed the Quad in 2007, had seen a steady escalation of tensions with China over their territorial dispute in the East China Sea.
In September 2017, shortly after Chinese and Indian forces disengaged at Doklam, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis traveled to New Delhi, where he acknowledged a “historic opportunity for our two democracies, a time of strategic convergence.” Weeks later, he signaled a major U.S. shift on the Belt and Road Initiative, declaring: “In a globalized world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘One Belt, One Road.’” The same month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opened another line of attack, suggesting the Belt and Road Initiative was saddling countries “with enormous levels of debt.”
Australian officials soon followed suit, refusing to sign a memorandum of understanding endorsing the Belt and Road Initiative, and articulating their own concerns, noting “infrastructure projects can come with very heavy price tags and the repayment of those loans can be absolutely crippling.” Japan also refrained from offering a wholesale endorsement of the initiative while enhancing efforts to provide regional capitals infrastructure alternatives.
One month after the U.S. shift on the Belt and Road Initiative, and three months after the Doklam crisis and the opening of China’s first military base in the Indian Ocean, the Quad was reborn. The first meeting was held in November 2017 on the sidelines of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila — the same venue where the four democracies had gathered for the first Quad a decade prior.
As the group began to meet regularly, Japan and the United States advocated upgrading the dialogue to the ministerial level. As late as September 2018, India was “politely” declining, preferring to keep the meetings at the working level. At the time, New Delhi’s ties with Beijing were ostensibly on the mend. In April 2018, Modi and Xi held an informal summit at Wuhan in an attempt to reset relations after the Doklam crisis. The summit succeeded in lowering temperatures but failed to produce any substantive breakthroughs.
By 2019, New Delhi was further warming to the Quad and the Indo-Pacific concepts, establishing a new Indo-Pacific division in its Ministry of External Affairs in April. The following month, former Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, a supporter of the Quad, was appointed India’s external affairs minister.
recognition that in the past we didn’t have that similar like-mindedness necessarily among the four partners, and over the past two years we’ve been able to demonstrate what’s changed. We have a shared evaluation of the security threats and the threats facing the region … We each have different strengths and weaknesses. We each play different roles in different parts of the globe. But we have the same approach about what needs to animate diplomacy and economic development in the region.
Two months later, in November 2019, the four countries participated in the first Quad counter-terrorism exercise in India. Then, in March 2020, representatives from the Quad assembled again for a video conference to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic. This time they were joined by officials from South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand.
Defying the Critics, Defining the Quad
In a span of two years, the Quad was revived, expanded in scope, and upgraded in representation. Yet, the group has faced no shortage of critics and skeptics. Oftentimes, the ambiguity surrounding the initiative has offered its critics ammunition to portray the Quad in whatever critical light they see fit.
Chinese news outlets have, unsurprisingly, often been highly critical of the “so-called Quad.” China’s nationalist Global Times generally portrays the group as a U.S. attempt to create an Asian NATO to contain China. It has stressed the fact that the Indian-Australian relationship “is relatively distant and weak,” and that the Quad “undermines ASEAN’s [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] leading role in regional cooperation.”
Some scholars have argued that the purpose of the Quad is to undermine China. Chengxin Pan claims the Quad is a guise to “constrain China’s rise and maintain a balance of power in their favor” whose modus operandi “has been largely fear and division.” He insists the Quad will result in “exacerbating China’s strategic vulnerability” and prompt it to “further strengthen its military capabilities.”
Just as some see the Quad as an “unnecessary provocation,” others criticize it for a “lack of real substance.” Former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon worries the Quad has yet to articulate its identity or purpose. University of Sydney professor James Curran believes the Quad is “one of the most poorly explained concepts in recent strategic memory,” a “diplomatic carcass hastily exhumed from the graveyard of Asian regional architecture.”
Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar contends part of the problem is that “people are assigning to the Quad roles and responsibilities and expectations which were never intended to be those of the Quad.” He argues:
This obsession that [the Quad] must have political-level visibility or that it must somehow be weaponized in some way — “the naval side is too weak” — I think this is just misunderstanding what it was about. It was meant as a diplomatic consultation and coordination forum of countries who have convergences, who do not agree on every issue but have substantial common ground. And to my mind you should leave it alone. It works. It has a good agenda [and] has continued to function well … The quality of relations among the Quad, bilaterally, trilaterally, plurilaterally, it’s all good. And I think the Quad kind of pulls all the threads together.
As noted in the introduction, the Quad is best viewed as a symbolically and substantively important addition to an existing network of strategic and defense cooperation among four highly capable democracies. It’s perfectly fine if the Quad is moving at a deliberative pace. For now, and by design, it remains a malleable and agile coalition, offering its members flexibility in how they tailor the group’s agenda and scope.
At this point, it’s less important what the Quad does than what it signals and symbolizes, a weather vane for the four democracies’ threat perceptions vis-à-vis China. The true value of the group lies in its potential, the foundations being laid, and the ability to restructure the scope and agenda in response to changing threat assessments.
If defining the Quad has sometimes proved elusive, it is clear what the Quad is not: an Asian NATO. It lacks the formal alliance structure, administrative machinery, and dedicated purpose of that organization. Like NATO, however, the Quad represents a group of democracies geopolitically aligned amid growing concerns about a common security challenge. And, like NATO, the Quad is not lacking in total firepower.
The combined resources of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States dwarf those of China. In 2018 the aggregate gross domestic product of the Quad, at $29.6 trillion, was more than double the size of the $13.6 trillion Chinese economy. In 2019, the Quad’s combined military budgets ($877 billion) were nearly four times the size of China’s ($261 billion). As a recent report from the Heritage Foundation observes:
The Quad represents not just a quarter of the world’s population (1.8 billion people) but a little over a quarter of the world’s economic activity [GDP]. A quarter of all global foreign direct investment flows (averaging over $380 billion a year) come from Quad countries. And by 2018, the Quad held a foreign direct investment stock of $8.7 trillion — or roughly one dollar for every four dollars ever invested abroad.
The Future of the Quad
The Quad’s return is a response to China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and its authoritarian turn under Xi. The group stands on firmer ground today because India has become a much more committed and enthusiastic partner, and because the basis for cooperation among the four countries is more compelling now than it was a decade ago.
A material escalation of the rivalry between China and India served as a catalyst for the Quad’s revival in 2017. If history is any guide, the deadly clashes in the Galwan Valley along the disputed Sino-Indian border in June 2020 will only strengthen the appeal of the Quad for New Delhi. Even more skeptical voices like Shivshankar Menon now admit “it would be reasonable to expect that the Quad will expand its activities and attempt to involve other Asian powers in them.”
India isn’t the only motivated member of the Quad. Since 2012, Japan has witnessed a steady stream of escalating Chinese encroachments around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, culminating in a “relentless,” record-breaking series of intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters for 100 straight days this summer.
Australia has in recent years awoken to the threat of Chinese interference in its domestic politics, updating its defense strategy and force structure plan in 2020 to reflect growing concerns about China. Australia has an abiding interest in preventing its neighborhood from becoming a sphere of Chinese domination and maintaining its intimate strategic collaboration with the United States. For its part, America recognizes that it will be exponentially more difficult to confront the challenges posed by China without committed and capable partners in the Indo-Pacific.
Despite crossing several key milestones, the Quad 2.0 still faces its share of skeptics, challenges, and questions about its future. For example, the Quad has yet to survive a major change of government in any of its member states. All four are currently led by conservative-leaning parties seen as favorably disposed toward the Quad. At this time, there is nothing to suggest mainstream opposition parties are hostile to the initiative. The sting of the dissolution of the Quad 1.0 still lingers. (Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden hasn’t made any definitive statements about the Quad on the campaign trail but some of his senior advisers have voiced support for the initiative).
Nevertheless, changes in government can be unpredictable, and the group may not again see four administrations more favorably inclined toward the Quad than those now in power in Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. They have used the time wisely to establish a solid foundation for the initiative. They should now focus on consolidating recent gains.
In a recent “backgrounder” for the Heritage Foundation, I offer several recommendations for enhancing the Quad’s agenda moving forward and guarding against backsliding, including: expanding cooperation on space and maritime domain awareness; inviting Australia to the Malabar exercises; coordinating to give the region more transparent and sustainable infrastructure options; issuing joint statements after each Quad meeting; organizing a Quad heads of state meeting and adding humanitarian aid and disaster response to the Quad’s agenda; inaugurating new forms of joint exercises and “group sails”; and expanding joint training with Quad militaries at U.S. facilities like Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
How far the Quad will go will depend, as it always has, on New Delhi. And today India is more likely to be open to enhancing the Quad’s agenda than ever before. Following the Galwan border crisis in June, New Delhi banned dozens of Chinese software apps, promoted a senior diplomat to be its new envoy to Taiwan, unveiled new restrictions on Chinese investments, reinforced its positions along the disputed border with China, and is rumored to be preparing to invite Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises.
With Indian foreign policy growing less deferential toward China, the development of the Indian-Australian relationship has removed another obstacle for New Delhi. Australia was once viewed in India as the least reliable and least valuable member of the group. In recent years, however, Canberra and New Delhi have taken several meaningful steps to enhance their partnership while Australia has repeatedly demonstrated resolve in the face of Chinese intimidation. It is the only country aside from the United States doing its own version of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Most important, Australia led the global charge as the first country to bar Chinese telecom operator Huawei from developing its 5G infrastructure.
With India taking the lead in opposing the Belt and Road Initiative and Australia taking the lead against Huawei on 5G — two strategic bellwethers of this era — it is notable that all four of the Quad members now oppose two of Xi’s key initiatives. In some ways, that is what sets the Quad apart: the ability and willingness of its members to say “no” and to resist Chinese coercion tactics and territorial aggression. In a growing number of Indo-Pacific capitals, Beijing has amassed sufficient levels of economic and political influence and leverage to effectively wield a veto over decisions opposed by the Chinese Communist Party. Not so among the Quad.
For these reasons, the Quad’s core membership should remain fixed even as it seeks to build functional coalitions with like-minded countries, as was the case with the pandemic response group. It will find willing partners. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, concerns about China were reaching new heights in places like Canada, New Zealand, and across Europe. The “wolf warrior diplomacy” China has adopted recently — in which Chinese diplomats make incendiary threats against the countries they serve in — is tilting the balance even further. A sizable group of countries will find value in working with the Quad if China continues alienating its neighbors and peers, including in the South China Sea.
The point of the Quad is not to launch a Soviet-era containment policy. It is to present a more united front of well-armed, highly capable, largely aligned democracies that can have a deterrent effect on Chinese adventurism and efforts to upset the status quo. The more the Quad and like-minded partners speak with a united voice, and the more clearly they articulate their core interests, the costlier it becomes for China to test or cross them. The goal is to win without fighting. The success of the Quad makes that more likely.
Jeff M. Smith is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, the author of Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century, and author and editor of Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific.