Strategic dilemma: to Quad or not to Quad

India, like many other countries, is coming to terms with China’s rise. This rise has been meteoric and in many ways beneficial to the global economy. However, it has been accompanied by increasing military assertiveness, as at the trijunction between India, Bhutan, and China at Doklam. Under its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing provides state-backed financing to countries in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean Region with political and military strings attached. And China increasingly ignores established international practices, contravening freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, proliferating nuclear technologies to Pakistan, and stealing intellectual property through cyberattacks. All these actions have led to greater concern about how an increasingly powerful China will wield its power.

One element of India’s response has been to deepen its strategic relations with three other democratic maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific region -- the United States, Japan, and Australia. This engagement has usually been bilateral or trilateral in nature, encompassing both official security dialogues and naval exercises. But the notion of all four countries coming together has proved surprisingly controversial. This configuration – India, US, Japan, and Australia – is widely referred to informally as the “Quad.” The merits of the Quad have been hotly debated for over a decade. Equally, there are many enduring misperceptions of what the Quad is, what it might become, and what it is intended to accomplish.

In an earlier iteration, the Quad was actually two things. One was a one-off dialogue held in Manila in May 2007 on the side lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum featuring foreign ministry officials from the four countries. The second was a single naval exercise held in September 2007 in the Bay of Bengal – Malabar 07-02 – that featured the navies of the four countries and Singapore and involved over 25 ships and 20,000 personnel. China responded harshly to these developments, perceiving them as a form of containment. In India, these moves were controversial and there were protests supported by the Left parties. However, it was Australia that fatally pulled the plug, with the government of former prime minister Kevin Rudd announcing in February 2008 that it was no longer interested in such a formation.

Over the past decade, governments in all four countries explored the possibility of reaching an accommodation with Beijing, sometimes at the expense of a deeper strategic partnership with the other three democratic powers. This applied to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led governments in Tokyo, the Rudd government in Canberra, and at times to both the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi and the Barack Obama administration in Washington. But rather than become more sensitive to these countries’ concerns, Beijing responded with greater assertiveness, whether with Japan in the East China Sea, with Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea, or with India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. In time, all four governments began to acknowledge the limitations of engagement with Beijing and sought alternatives to better manage China’s rise.

This is why the idea of the Quad has once again gained momentum. In November 2017, officials from the four countries’ foreign ministries met once again in Manila for what India’s Ministry of External Affairs called “consultations on Indo-Pacific.” It is important to note a few things about this revived initiative.

First, it was exploratory in nature. An exact quadrilateral agenda still needs to be ironed out. The four countries must still decide what can be accomplished that is not already being done bilaterally or trilaterally. There are today much more evolved US-Japan-Australia, US-Japan-India, and India-Japan-Australia dialogues. The scope of the Quad is also contentious: India, for example, believes that a discussion on developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan is necessary for a holistic dialogue on the Indo-Pacific.

Second, the initiative is led by the foreign ministries, rather than the defence ministries or military services. Subsequently, at the Raisina Dialogue in January 2018 in New Delhi, the naval chiefs of all four countries appeared together on a public panel discussion. But at this point, quadrilateral cooperation remains consultative in nature, rather than operationally collaborative.

Third, all four parties are still using the Quad as a bargaining chip with Beijing. We will see, for example, Japan work towards a thaw in relations with China this year, and the Quad strengthens its hand. Therefore, all four parties must go into the Quad with eyes wide open. For all these reasons, much of the commentary about the Quad requiring commitments on the part of India or others, or evolving into a formal alliance, are off the mark or very premature.

Moving forward, India should not be fixated on only this four-pointed configuration as a means of deepening cooperation with like-minded security partners in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad is not a sine qua non for regional security. If, for example, more countries are to be invited to future Malabar exercises (currently involving India, US, and Japan), it would make just as much sense to involve an ASEAN member country such as Singapore or Indonesia, as it would Australia. Still, the simple recognition that India, US, Japan and Australia have shared concerns about China’s rise and assertiveness, and together have the will and capability to define the security order in the region, makes the Quad both valuable and necessary.

(The writer is Fellow, Brookings India, New Delhi).

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