India’s muddled view

India’s muddled view

Indo-Pacific & the Quad

Ships from the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Western Pacific (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Discourse around the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has dominated the geopolitics of Asia in the past two years. Debates surrounding its semantics, the region’s composition, expanse, nature of presence/role of stakeholders and, above all, the gradually unfolding ‘Great Game’ in the region have intensified. Yet, there is a substantive degree of uncertainty, even opacity, around this geopolitical construct: the Indo-Pacific.

The two most obvious reasons for this are: the region finds itself at the crossroads of a potential power transition between a reigning superpower and a future one; and, a rapid change in the economic and politico-security imperatives of most countries in this region has led to great regional flux.

The Indo-Pacific remains the region where the countries involved are still configuring, recalibrating, re-adjusting and re-orienting their strategies, politically as well as strategically. Even as the US’ traditional regional commitment in Asia is shrinking to accommodate China’s growing leverage with other countries of the region, there is navigable space being created for middle powers, particularly Australia, France, Japan, India, the Philippines and the UK in the Indo-Pacific. This scramble between middle and great powers in the region with fast, adaptive power transitions, as also the closing of their comparative power gaps, has marked the Indo-Pacific as a competitive domain with two emerging power axes.

On the one hand, there is a re-oriented Washington along with other interests-aligned countries like Australia, Japan and India — essentially forming the Quadrilateral Security Initiative or the Quad. On the other, is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to weave countries into a Euro-Asia infrastructure and aid architecture across the Indo-Pacific. However, the two axes, even though contrary to each other, have substantive overlaps, thereby diluting any hostility due to stark, opposing binaries.

The BRI, with some 65 other countries that account collectively for over 30% of global GDP, 62% of the world’s population, and 75% of known energy reserves, and Italy as the first G-7 country to endorse the plan, is way past the critical mass of consensus needed for its success. The Quad countries are struggling to find a common purpose, amidst economic and strategic overlaps with China as well as due to their individual regional interests. This has led to the debate about the need for re-purposing the Quad.

India has been seen, at least in the western discourse on the Indo-Pacific, as the ‘weakest link’ in the Quad. Although India’s understanding of the Indo-Pacific seems conceptually inadequate to serve its desired interests and broader regional goals, there is a larger complexity involved to this reductionist understanding of India’s position in the Indo-Pacific.

India has carved out a distinctive space, with its emphasis on the principle of freedom of navigation and respect for the Law of the Sea, finding resonance with the central ideas of the Quad. However, India’s increasingly tangible cooperation with the Quad nations, its reservations about a more formalised security structure in the region, while still balancing at home, and its desire to avoid being identified with any particular group with regional security implications on the international stage, is compounding complications in India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific and its vision of the Quad.

While India has engaged with the Quad states actively in the past couple of years, since the organisation’s resurrection in 2017, it has also subtly emphasised on decoupling of the purpose of the Quad with its vision of the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi has drawn conceptual and structural policy demarcations between the Quad and the Indo-Pacific through its actions, inhibitors and statements. In the aftermath of two important informal summits at Wuhan and Sochi with China and Russia respectively, India’s enthusiasm towards the Quad appeared to have faded.

As such, New Delhi seeks to place the Quad as one of the many multilateral frameworks operating in the Indo-Pacific region, not as the regionally consequential one. Enumerating its Indo-Pacific strategy in largely ‘plurilateral formats’, India seeks to avoid restricting its Indo-Pacific strategy to the Quad at its helm, but also seeks to maintain its long-cherished principle of strategic autonomy by keeping its options open to engage with Russia in the region, as also by making conscious decisions not to provoke China.

The Quad, comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US, was invoked with intentions of a collective security group in the Indo-Pacific, among whose purposes was to provide alternative models of regional growth and prevent China from violating regional rules with the same disregard that it practices in the South China Sea. As such, India’s own position in the Quad and its intended interests in the Indo-Pacific appear contradictory to each other.

New Delhi should visualise the Indo-Pacific as a springboard to connect the ends of the two oceans across the maritime expanse of the Indo-Pacific. As New Delhi gradually seeks to bolster its presence in the region and take up the role of a net-security provider, it needs to shed its reluctance to move up to the Strait of Hormuz and beyond the Strait of Malacca. While the Quad can be converted into a vehicle to provide a much-needed security architecture in the region, its effectiveness would depend on how much clarity India adds vis-a-vis its own regional mini-lateral engagements in the Indo-Pacific.

New Delhi looks for the right balance in the Indo-Pacific between alignment and autonomy. While it demarcates the Quad from the Indo-Pacific, it risks losing a chance to create a strategic continuum, in favour of a fractured regional vision. A positive rationale to India’s purpose in the Quad is the need to view the Indo-Pacific as a strategic continuum rather than an assemblage of sub-regionally divided goals, partnerships and alignments.

The Quad provides India the opportunity to use its geographic centrality in the region to connect with the strategic ends on either side of the peninsula to enhance its security vision in the Indo-Pacific region, extending from the Gulf to the other side of the Strait of Malacca.

(The writer is Assistant Professor in International Relations, Netaji Institute For Asian Studies, Kolkata)