India in the Quad: insider or outlier?
2 Apr 2024|

The Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship conference on geopolitics and geoeconomics, was held from 21 to 23 February this year, and discussions on and around the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) took centre stage. Indian Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar summed up his opening remarks at the inaugural Raisina Quad Think Tank Forum, stating ‘The Quad is here to stay. The Quad is here to grow. The Quad is here to contribute.’ However, India’s commitment to double down on its ties with Russia, coupled with the potential impact of Japan’s new security bill on India–Japan relations, raises concerns over India’s suitability and reliability as a partner within the Quad alliance.

The Quad is a diplomatic partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the US initially formed in 2004 to provide humanitarian relief and disaster assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2017, the focus shifted to the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing assertiveness there. Over the years, the Quad has formed multiple working groups. While member nations have progressed bilaterally and trilaterally, substantial collective progress is missing. Security cooperation between the four members looks more like a symptom of regional instability than a solution.

The Quad essentially suffers from the drawbacks of minilaterals. Minilaterals are voluntary, non-binding and consensus-based, and, therefore, while the motivation to shape policies and actions is present, they lack effective implementation mechanisms. Minilaterals are issue-specific partnerships with shared interests and security concerns, as is the Quad, but the national interests and priorities of individual countries might take precedence, resulting in poor execution efforts. India’s relations with Russia could be a classic example of national interests being embedded in strategic decisions.

Even though India has historically trodden the path of non-alignment, rising geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific region have made it imperative for India, as a key player and middle power, to actively participate in alliances in counterbalancing China’s growing assertiveness. Consequently, India claims to have shifted to a multi-aligned strategy by playing a moderating part in the Quad, the G7, the G20, the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The State of Southeast Asia 2023 survey shows India’s improved standing as a trusted partner in the region: it jumped from the bottom to third place when its approval rating doubled from 5.1% in 2022 to 11.3% in 2023. However, it’s crucial to evaluate India’s evolving foreign policy, given its challenges in upholding international law, as seen in its responses to events such as the Russia–Ukraine conflict and the Myanmar coup in 2021.

What might possibly explain India’s current approach? India’s porous borders have presented a longstanding and significant security concern for the country. Sharing borders with six countries (Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh), India faces a diverse range of threats, from armed infiltrations to insurgency and smuggling activities. The 2020 Galwan clash and continuing Myanmar border challenges underscore the need for ongoing vigilance and decisive action. Strengthening border infrastructure is therefore a top security priority, shaping diplomatic and strategic ties. For instance, following the Galwan clash, India expanded its security cooperation, inviting Australia to join the US–India–Japan Malabar exercise for the first time since 2007. This could also explain India’s longstanding ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’ with Russia. India–Russia relations were initially bolstered after the Soviet Union helped to mediate a ceasefire between India and Pakistan in their 1965 war. Ever since, India has relied on first the Soviet Union and then Russia for its military equipment, and, while India aims to diversify its defence procurement, reducing dependency on Russia might not be an option. At Raisina, Minister S Jaishankar advocated for strengthening ties with Russia, stating ‘It makes sense to give Russia multiple options’ and arguing that shutting doors to Russia could push it closer to China—a scenario undesirable for regional stability.

Looking ahead, shifts in the political landscape and the policies of member nations could add to the Quad’s challenges, amplifying doubts about India’s role in the alliance.

First, amid uncertainties over political leadership changes in Quad countries, including the possibility of a second Trump administration in Washington, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is probably well positioned for a third term. Modi’s re-election would mean a continuation and even a doubling down of India’s current approach to foreign policy matters and alliances, including the Quad.

Second, Japan’s new security bill could have indirect implications for India’s suitability as a Quad partner. Recently, Japan’s cabinet extended support to the Security Clearance Bill. When it’s enacted, the bill will certify the government’s and the private sector’s handling of sensitive economic information, including data on critical infrastructure, advanced chips and cybersecurity. The bill is expected to bolster Japan’s national security and promote further international collaboration.

The passage of the bill also stands to strengthen Japan’s ties with its Quad partners, particularly the US and Australia, by enhancing its credibility as a partner and facilitating greater information sharing. However, that may inadvertently strain relations between Japan and India, moving Japan closer to the other Quad partners and positioning India as an outlier and limiting India’s ability to cooperate, share intel and build trust with the partners. India, unlike Japan and Australia, is not an ally of the US and emphasises its strategic autonomy. India–Japan relations were initially strained when the main promoter of this bilateral relationship, Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe, was assassinated in 2022. Coupled with differences in policy approaches to the Ukraine–Russia war, that affected bilateral security cooperation, especially when India refused to land transport planes of the Japan Self Defence Force to carry UN stocks to support Ukraine. Nevertheless, India is still considered to be an important partner for Japan, as underscored at the recent Raisina roundtable held in Tokyo, where both the nations agreed to ‘step up‘ economic and security ties.

What could be a few possible ways to improve the effectiveness of the Quad?

One possible way could be to adopt a hybrid structure, keeping the ad hoc and flexible nature of minilaterals but having a governing body bounded by some legal framework to guide the implementation process and hold member nations accountable for progress. The governing body could consist of a rotating chair and secretariat selected from the member nations. Under each chair’s term, certain deliverables could be laid out as goals. At the end of the term, the member nations could organise a sitting to discuss successes and challenges.

Another mechanism could be to narrow the scale and scope of projects being undertaken by the Quad. That would allow countries to prioritise their most important issue while scoping out the feasibility and funds for the solution.

Finally, improving India’s credibility within the Quad could involve strict information-sharing protocols, including adopting standardised formats for exchanging information.

Adopting such measures will help build a framework that allows all member nations, including India, to contribute more effectively.