Chimera Around the Quad Quandary

After the second India-China Maritime Affairs Dialogue held in Beijing last week, it was made clear to China that the evolving India-Pacific strategy was not aimed at China’s containment. It was also stated that both countries discussed perspectives in maritime security and cooperation, with New Delhi elucidating the contours of the Quad Quadrilateral dialogue India-US-Japan-Australia which was dismissed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as “headline grabbing” and “foam on the ocean that would dissipate soon”. Modi’s keynote address at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue helped allay apprehensions about the Quad’s target being China. There has been considerable confusion about the strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific as also of its possible military content and configuration. The belated elaboration follows the reset of India-China relations at Wuhan and the unprecedented uncertainty and unpredictability over Trump’s capricious actions that call for discretion and caution over any rash geostrategic commitment to the US which are perceived as directed at China.

India-US relations have seen an upward trajectory, driven by extensive military and economic engagement. In Trump’s first policy declaration on South Asia and Afghanistan in August 2017, he praised India for its stabilising role in Afghanistan. In the US National Security Strategy paper of December 2017, India figured as the US’ global and most favoured defence partner. With China, the narrative has been marred by glitches, aberrations and hostility. The Modi Government, in pursuit of a muscular policy, which ignored the asymmetry in national power, found to its discomfiture that a risen China was leave alone being containable, not even receptive to India’s legitimate asking for clarification of LAC. This deviation from the established policy of keeping the boundary question on the back burner (Special Representatives reached an impasse after 19 rounds of conversations on a political solution to the boundary question) maintaining peace and tranquillity on LAC and while managing other contradictions, getting on with trade and commerce. Still there were border conflicts at Depsang, Chumar that culminated with Doklam. Given India’s unenviable two-front challenge, a temperamental Trump and looming uncertainty, the Government sought a recalibration of relations with China. Normalisation of ties with Beijing needed clarification on Indo-Pacific and Quad. Rewind to the first edition of the Raisina Dialogue, 2016, New Delhi. Admiral Harry Harris, the US Pacific Commander, in his keynote address, invoked the Obama-Modi Joint Strategic Vision Statement of 2015 which identified Asia-Pacific (including South China Sea and Indian Ocean) as the key lifelines requiring freedom of navigation and open skies. Harris called the region Indo-Asia-Pacific and proposed to India “we need you, your leadership”. He added, “let us be ambitious together”. He raised two issues: The Quad and joint patrolling anywhere in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea or “anywhere our leaders decide”. In Raisina 2017, Harris renamed Asia Pacific as Greater Indo Pacific and continued with the strategic seduction of India by inviting it to sign the two remaining foundational agreements Communication, Compatibility and Security Arrangement and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation. These two are unlikely to be inked anytime soon. At Raisina 2018, Harris called China a “disruptive transitional force in Indo Pacific”. Although Harris retired this year, he ensured his command was redesignated as the Indo Pacific Command.

Indo Pacific translates differently to different countries in the region. At Shangrila, Modi said, “India does not see the Indo Pacific as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means directed at any one country”. While Quad was not mentioned, strategic autonomy was. Actually, it was our own Commander Gurpreet Khurana who coined the term Indo Pacific before anyone else as linking Indian Ocean with West Pacific through Malacca Straits. The Quad similarly has a history dating back to 2007 and was mooted by Japan’s Shinzo Abe. It was formally revived in 2017 with its first meeting at Manila as a Track I dialogue of junior level officials. India is the only country that does not have a permanent presence in the Pacific Ocean like the other three; and is the only one to share a land border with China. It is also the only country not part of any military alliance. In the four separate statements after the first Quad, Free and Open and Rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific appeared as a common objective.

The second meeting of the Quad last month in Singapore shared objectives in areas of connectivity, development, regional security, including counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and maritime cooperation. The centrality of Asean was highlighted. Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba said that Quad does not have a military dimension. He also said that there were no plans for joint patrols with the US or any country which is not a maritime neighbour of India. The strategic community is divided on India joining the Quad with a military and security architecture whose object is to counter China’s hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. They cite China’s fait accompli of creating militarised islands in South China Sea as designed to breaking out of the first island chain which they say, must be checked and rolled back.

Last year, the External Affairs Ministry hailed the Indo-US partnership in maintaining stability in the Asia Pacific region after Trump declared India as a leading global partner in his National Security Strategy paper. For the last 20 years, annually, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, has strenuously scouted in vain for an Asian security structure akin to Nato. For the Indo-Pacific at best one can conceive of a regional maritime cooperative security structure which is not threat but capability based to meet common challenges in the Indo-Pacific with India focusing on the Indian Ocean. India has made substantial unilateral concessions to China to secure the Wuhan summit and to ensure the Government is not diverted over the next 12 months from its single-minded goal of winning the next election. Inviting Trump for the Republic Day is a minor risk compared to the accompanying institutional gains. Given the lack of full deterrence, India has to constructively engage with the US, China and others to preserve strategic autonomy through multi-alignment.

Chimera Around the Quad Quandary – India has to play the balancing act. It must constructively engage with the US and China to preserve its strategic autonomy through multi-alignment for more information visit :