Quad grouping: India's guarded bid to contain China

A few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined the Asean and East Asia Summit leaders for a gala dinner at Pasay City in Manila on November 12, two diplomats in his entourage - Pranay Verma and Vinay Kumar - walked into a room at the Philippine International Convention Centre.

Verma and Kumar, who head the East Asia and South divisions, respectively, at the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, went into a huddle with the diplomats from Japan, Australia and the United States. The meeting marked the re-launch of the quadrilateral initiative by the four nations – over a decade after its prequel had been launched in 2007, ironically, in Manila itself.

When the diplomats of the US, India, Australia and Japan had met in Manila on May 24, 2007, and launched the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, it had deliberately been kept a low-key affair. None of the participating nations had issued any official press-release, let alone coming out with a joint statement. Beijing had issued a démarche to Washington, New Delhi, Canberra and Tokyo before the launch of the quad, conveying its concern over what had widely been seen as a move by the four nations to gang up against China.

The quad launched in 2007 had a very short life. A few months after the national elections in Australia in November 2007, the new Labor Party government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had buckled under China's pressure and withdrawn from the four-nation initiative.

The re-launch of the quad this month, too, was not a very high-profile event. The four participating nations did not go gung-ho with a joint statement but issued press releases separately. They rebranded the "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue" of 2007 as a "Consultation on Indo-Pacific." They all called for a "free and open" Indo-Pacific, clearly indicating that the primary objective of the Quad 2.0 remained the same as Quad 1.0 – containing China's hegemonic aspirations and military muscle-flexing in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Unlike Washington, Tokyo and Canberra, New Delhi, however, dropped from its press release certain phrases, which are often used in international diplomacy to needle China - like the calls for "respect of international law," "peaceful resolution of disputes" and "a rules-based order" in the Indo-Pacific. While the US referred to the "shared democratic values and principles" of the four nations, India carefully avoided even tacitly referring to the quad as an alliance of democracies against the communist China.  

New Delhi, in fact, responded cautiously even when the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono proposed the revival of the quad last month. India has been trying to bring its troubled ties with China on track after the recent 72-day-long military face-off between the two nations at the Doklam plateau in western Bhutan. New Delhi remains concerned over Beijing's expansionist aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region and its "String of Pearls" encirclement strategy in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the neighbourhood of India. But it is also keen to avert any action that could derail its engagements with Beijing.

Measured stance

What also made New Delhi wary of the Quad 2.0 is the lesson it learnt from the untimely demise of the Quad 1.0. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government in Australia may withstand the pressure from China. But if the November 2019 elections bring the Labor Party back to power in Canberra, the new dispensation could again pull out Australia from the quad to return to a policy of accommodation with China. Shinzo Abe, the original proponent of the quad, has just been re-elected as the prime minister of Japan, but the pacifists in his country will continue to seek a more accommodative tie with China.

It is, however, the inconsistency and incoherent policy of US President Donald Trump's administration in Washington DC that has put the biggest question mark on the survival of the quad. When Trump embarked on his 12-day-tour to Asia on November 3, many expected that he would return to the White House after reassuring the US allies and friends in the continent that his "America First" policy did not mean that Washington would cede its regional dominance to China.

Earlier this year, Trump himself vowed to work with Modi to "enhance peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region." His secretary of state picked up the thread and elaborated the new US strategy for Indo-Pacific while delivering a speech in Washington DC on October 18. Tillerson rapped China for disrespecting the international law, subverting the global order, undermining the sovereignty of its neighbouring countries and for pursuing predatory economic policies. He not only called for greater cooperation between the US and India in the Indo-Pacific, but also mooted the idea of reviving the quad as a bulwark against a hegemonic China.

But when Trump arrived in Beijing after visiting South Korea and Japan, he noted that the US and China should work together on global issues as they were the two "largest economies and important engines of global economic growth." Many in New Delhi were worried as the American president's words subtly hinted at a throwback to the old idea of US-China G-2, instead of promoting the Indo-Pacific narrative. His host, Chinese President Xi Jinping, told him that the Pacific Ocean was "big enough to accommodate China and the US."

New Delhi also noted the US president's comment at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting  in Danang, Vietnam, where he said that his administration would not "let the US be taken advantage of anymore." Trump's words were anything but reassuring for America's allies and friends in Asia. His comment brought to the fore the contradiction between his "America First" policy and the move to build a coalition of Indo-Pacific democracies as a counterbalance to a rising China.

No wonder, India remained guarded even as it joined Japan, Australia and the US to re-launch the quad. Briefing mediapersons in Manila on November 13, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was at pains to play down India's participation in the four-nation initiative. He sought to drive home the point that India – like China, the US and many other nations – had been taking part in many plurilateral parleys and the quad had been added to the list as just another similar initiative.

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