On March 12, the leaders of four countries — the US, India, Japan and Australia — signaled the emergence of a new coalition that would be active in the affairs of the “Indo-Pacific.” This was announced at an online summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, briefly referred to as “Quad.”
In their joint statement titled “The Spirit of the Quad,” the leaders said they had a shared vision for an Indo-Pacific that is “free, open, resilient and inclusive.” They described their partnership as a “spark of hope to light the path ahead.” The leaders moved beyond maritime issues to talk about cooperation, vaccine development, technology and climate change.
China has condemned such initiatives by “enclosed small cliques” which are sowing discord by hyping up the “China threat.”
The Quad has had a wobbly evolution. Starting in 2004 as a core group to respond to maritime disasters, it briefly pursued maritime security cooperation in 2007, and then went into hibernation. It was resurrected in November 2017 as Donald Trump shaped a coalition to confront the threat from “rising” China. Since then, the coalition has moved rapidly to ministerial conclaves from 2018 and then the summit this month.
Each Quad member has specific concerns relating to the challenge from China and believes this group provides a platform for “credible deterrence” against what they see as China’s “malign” behavior. The US views China as an emerging threat to the world order that it has led since 1945 and, in a broader historical perspective, as a possible challenge to Western domination over world affairs.
Japan has a dispute with China relating to the Senkaku islands, while also sharing US concerns about China’s aggressive regional posture. Australia is viewing with trepidation China’s naval presence in its immediate neighbourhood, while being unhappy with China’s tough posture in its trade dealings.
India is the only Quad member that is not part of the west Pacific space, and it also shares a 3,500-km undemarcated land border with China. It has been drawn to the coalition by several challenges — China’s increasing influence in other South Asian nations, the expanding presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean and its presence in various ports. These are seen as encroachments into India’s strategic space. The border standoff with China at Ladakh from April 2020 is viewed as the latest affirmation of China’s hostile intentions toward India.
There is no doubt that the rise of a new power with the potential to overturn the global order creates reverberations as supporters of the existing order strive to maintain the status quo. The rise of China had led the US to “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific about a decade ago and, as China’s prowess has recently expanded in economic, military and now technological areas, to strengthen its side by roping in regional allies.
India has been the much sought-after partner for this emerging coalition. Votaries of the US-led coalition have been highlighting the “threat” from China over the past few years and have built defense ties with India that have included massive purchases of US defense equipment, bilateral agreements that have boosted interoperability between the two forces and regular military exercises to coordinate strategy and tactics.
This is perhaps what motivated China to give India a rude geography lesson — a reminder that its principal security challenges lie not in the Indo-Pacific but on the unresolved land border.
While it makes sense for Japan and Australia to work closely with the US to safeguard their interests in the west Pacific, the Quad hardly serves India’s interests — it only drags India into a competition zone where it has no stake, while aggravating tensions with China.
The Quad has other serious deficiencies. Quad members do not even agree on the territorial definition of the Indo-Pacific and have no shared strategic vision. They have no idea what role each of them will play in the face of an economic or military challenge from China, given the substantial economic ties that each member has with China. Certainly, the Quad can do little to curtail China’s global economic clout.
The Quad pays lip service to seeking a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific, but ignores the fact that its principal partner, the US, has a long record of flouting all rules in pursuit of its interests.
The Quad is long on rhetoric, short on substance. What it has done is to encourage China, in tandem with Russia, to build an alternative partnership across Eurasia and the Middle East to promote regional security and, through the Belt and Road Initiative, pulling the region together into an integrated political and economic space for mutual benefit.
India needs to decide where its long-term interests lie.
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University in Pune, India