QUAD : The Persisting Indian Dilemma
What is the importance of Quad for India that there have been so much of hype…both in past and the present? What came out of the virtual summit held on 03 Mar 2022 was released as a communique, “The Quad leaders discussed the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and assessed its broader implications”. However, the press-release does not reveal the unease for which this summit meeting of the leaders was convened rather in a haste? There are no clear answers. Possibly Biden’s anxiety points to the Sino-Russian alignment in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war being fought by Ukraine at the behest of EU and NATO; and its fall-out in the Pacific Ocean…a threat to Japan islands and Taiwan.
What is this QUAD?
Post Tsunami in 2004-05, India, USA, Japan and Australia coordinated the relief response that was given the name of QUAD (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) of the four democracies. In the last few decades, Japan is feeling threatened by the ever-expanding PLA Navy’s presence in its immediate vicinity and the South China Sea (SCS), with threats to its far-flung islands. In 2007, Japan conceptualized Quad as a possible formidable group and started informal strategic dialogues with a shared objective to ensure and support a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region.
India has very little stake in the SCS and the Pacific Ocean per se. However, the Chinese intent of expansionism through Doklam, Pangong and Galwan incursions could have pushed the Indian govt to Quad to leverage against the Chinese. Similarly, Australia too is facing the Chinese challenges in its bilateral trade as well as to the Korean peninsula through SCS that China laid its claims. USA, Japan and Australia have strong reasons to keep their approach lines free in the SCS. India has only partial interest in this region.
National interests and Hesitancy among Quad members
Japan has its national security concerns against expansionist China but has been showing hesitance in selection of words to express for the fears of annoying. They have major trade agreements with China. India too has been trying to bridge gaps with the Chinese for augmenting trade for mutual benefits and also with the hope of settling the border row. In the past India had even given up infrastructure developments in the border areas along Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China for the fears of annoying them. Modi govt reversed this in the national interest that made the Chinese unhappy. Wuhan dialogue and Chennai connect failed to bring the two closer and China restarted its salami slicing in Doklam, Pangong and Galwan that led to a war like situation with military escalation for months.
India intended Quad to become a composite force in the region extending from SCS to the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean. In past, Chinese expressed their opposition to any such force taking a formal shape. That was the reason why Australia backed off from the joint Naval exercises of the Quad under ‘Malabar exercise’ in 2007. It was only after Raisina dialogue in 2018 that Australia showed a clear intent to join the Malabar group.
Quad as a Force
The progress to formalise the Quad group has been slow after Biden assumed office. Any euphoria of military/security cooperation was short-lived as US navy made incursions in to Indian ocean and also forming AUKUS…all without India being informed. This made it difficult for India to rely on US for any concerns of Maritime security whether in Indian Ocean, SCS or the Pacific. India’s expectations of being able to leverage any Chinese misadventure on its territories must have evaporated after security element into the QUAD was avoided, instead, forming the AUKUS. It is believed that the last meeting of the Quad foreign ministers in Australia had many issues among the four members incl the issues of Ukraine.
The Present Concerns
It is widely believed that the present summit meeting of Quad was to persuade India to tow the American line on the Russia-Ukraine war, flashing a possible Chinese misadventure card towards India. US knows India is no Ukraine. However, Biden’s unease is against Indian sympathy for Russia as displayed in the recent UNSC and UNGA through abstention from voting and India has strong reasons for its neutrality. Clearly, Biden is also very concerned towards Taiwan if the Chinese made a similar misadventure as Russia did in Ukraine. If USA or NATO is drawn into the Ukraine war, there could be a distinct possibility of Chinese indulgence. Even if US naval strength is not divided by splitting in Europe and the Pacific, it may be difficult for the USA to defend Taiwan in the Chinese backyard. That was possibly the main reason for this summit meeting.
If this was in the minds of USA, then we may expect the Quad to obtain some teeth by pledging security (military) elements into it. Such force may also dispel any threat by the Chinese in keeping the trade route free in the SCS. How useful it will be for India, only time will tell…but surely it may overstretch the limited Indian Navy at the cost of securing our own coastal lines in Indian and Arabian Seas.
As far as US design of pushing India out of Russian influence (and therefore supporting at the UNSC/UN) is concerned, it may be premature to say. Russia has been supporting India at the UNSC since 1971 and past supplies of military hardware have been reliable without threats or sanctions. It is difficult to say if India can rely solely on the US for its security concerns…be it against expansionist China, the terrorist threats of Pak & Afghanistan or Indian interests in Chabahar port of Iran. The ever increasing Chinese influence in the Indian neighbourhood of Myanmar, Hambantota, Gwadar or beyond are worrisome. Whether Quad is able to alleviate some concerns at least, Indian dilemma continues.