Recently, a lot of controversies circled around the new informal alliance of India, United States, Australia, and Japan- collectively called the “QUAD”. But is it really capable of confronting Beijing?
On September 9, India and Japan inked a ‘military logistics agreement’ in a telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Abe. This makes Japan the 6th country with whom India has such an agreement – the other 5 including USA, Australia among others. Thus, India now has military logistics agreement with all the QUAD Countries.
The present geopolitical context – heightened Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (SCS) and parallel exercises in the Indo-Pacific including a trilateral exercise between USA, Australia, and Japan in the Philippines Sea and Indo-US Naval Exercise in the Indian Ocean Region; antagonism on the LAC between India and China, proposal to include Australia into the Malabar Exercise between India-USA-Japan, and related incidents, have raised speculations in China of the QUAD turning into an “Asian NATO”.
The QUAD, which today is seen as a joint front against China, ironically, was originally born in response to the humanitarian aid and rescue efforts coordinated between the constituent countries in response to the havoc caused by the 2004 Tsunami. Eventually, that time, the “QUAD” concept was handed over to the UNO but it’s idea as an effective policy instrument was sown into the four member countries. In 2017, the QUAD received policy considerations in response to the reassessment of the growing threat from China by the US, and also by India in the context of the Doklam standoff. And now, the profound changes the world order has seen in the backdrop of the pandemic has made QUAD an imperative concept, especially for India and for various other southeast asian countries, who look up to this informal alliance as a ‘big brother’ to call for assistance in case of ‘mishappenings’.
As a counter to China?
This viewpoint is being consciously threaded by India as part of a much larger jigsaw puzzle. Considering the fact that India is the only QUAD country that shares a land boundary with China, QUAD as a counter to the PLA can be a useful, but not the only policy instrument to the challenges we face today. It might be useful in the maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific region to deter China in the future, to set the rules of the road in the Indo-Pacific, and to ensure that they are maintained; but India remains largely on its own in dealing with the border challenge vis-a-vis China. Moreover, in 2018, the Indian Prime Minister Modi categorically stated that New Delhi sees the Indo-Pacific as a “geographical concept,” not a “strategy or a club of limited members” to counter a particular nation. Therefore, India has been vary in underlying QUAD as a gang up against Beijing.
Alternative to the BRI?
In the recent meetings, QUAD members have discussed “connectivity, sustainable development, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and maritime and cybersecurity, with a view to promoting peace, stability, and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected Indo-Pacific region”. This emphasis on “connectivity” is seen by many as a coordinated effort to provide financing and sustainable alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, this proposal has not made a headway, but the member countries have bilaterally coordinated on infrastructure projects in their spheres of influence such as India and Australian efforts in the Pacific islands, India-US coordination in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, and India-Japan joint efforts to develop projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Recently, Thailand also announced that QUAD members have shown their interest in building the Kra Canal, an ambitious project to provide an alternative shipping lane connecting the Thai Gulf to the Andaman Sea.
Other multilateral Organizations
Experts sometimes point out the contradictions of India being a member of QUAD, SCO as well as BRICS which are seen seemingly at odd with each other. But these contradictions could be managed by India and gives it the necessary flexibility in its strategic planning and geopolitical relations. The fact of India being a member of SCO and also the Russia-India-China (RIC) provides for a good rationale for more active engagement with the QUAD Countries. Also, this multi-participation in contradictory organizations is important for India to keep its ‘all weather friend’ Russia on board. Thus, India having multiple partnerships gives a much needed cushion to the idea of QUAD being a counter to China.
Thus, the fact that India’s External Affairs Minister has categorically stated that “India will not become a part of any alliance” answers India’s stand on the QUAD. But, it’s an effective, but not the only strategic tool in India’s repertoire in dealing with Beijing’s misadventures into its borders, or use it as a pressure card- like it recently did by sending more warships to South China Sea after the Galwan clashes. Moreover, the new concept of ‘QUAD Plus’ which talks about adding several other democracies in QUAD such as New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam would increase the scope of engagement from more or less military exercises to other domains such as humanitarian assistance, relief works, disaster aid – the motive for which QUAD was originally formed.