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India has the most to lose if it doesn’t embrace the Quad

Posted By on November 8, 2018 @ 11:00

The revival of the Australia–India–Japan–US security quadrilateral (informally known as the Quad) is anticipated to be a key plank of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy. In theory, deeper cooperation among four powerful democracies with similar anxieties about China’s rise should strengthen a balance of power that favours the preservation of the rules-based order across the Indo-Pacific. The sceptical viewpoint is that India remains the weakest link: New Delhi is unreliable and will protect its strategic autonomy at any cost.

A case can be made for scepticism. Despite apparently warming to the idea, India again refused Australia’s request to join the Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan held in June. It’s likely Sino-Indian relations had something to do with it, given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to ‘reset’ relations with China after the resolution of the Doklam border crisis in August last year. More substantively, Modi might have feared that further upsetting China could have provoked Beijing to hit India where it hurts most: by helping Pakistan stir up additional trouble in Kashmir and along the disputed borders between India and China.

Even so, enduring strategic concerns will eventually force India to adopt a more strident policy against China, and the Quad will become an increasingly important grouping to that end. New Delhi’s fear of encirclement has been heightened by Beijing’s disregard for India’s claims to a sphere of influence over its neighbours and direct moves to undermine this influence. The role of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ in securing access to potentially dual-use ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka is well known, with India fearing that they could be converted to military uses in the future. Beijing’s gunboat diplomacy in the Maldives in February, ostensibly to prevent potential Indian intervention in that country’s constitutional crisis, brought home the growing Chinese intrusion into India’s sphere of influence. This is a competitor who spends around four times more than India on its military according to 2017 figures.

There are reasons why the Quad will become more compelling for New Delhi despite its historical and rhetorical commitment to strategic non-alignment.

First, the other three Quad members are the most formidable naval powers operating in the Indo-Pacific, other than China. Both the US and Japan represent sources of cutting-edge military technologies and are likely to share some of that with like-minded countries as part of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Australia may not be a direct source of such technology, but its own naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean—particularly in the areas of maritime domain awareness and submarine warfare—should not be underestimated. Australia too has the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, which could be developed into important strategic territories.

Second, cooperation with Quad countries will help India to fill gaps in maritime domain awareness over the vast Indian Ocean. This may be in the form of access to military technology designed for this purpose (for example, India’s introduction of US P-8 surveillance and strike aircraft), development of jointly used military infrastructure (bases, ports, airstrips) and information- and intelligence-sharing. On the latter, India’s signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement with the US in September  allows it to obtain secure and encrypted defence communications and data equipment from Washington, as well as access to real-time data-sharing with the US and other friendly forces.

Third, India knows that its greatest long-term challenge and threat is Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean and not land-based disputes with Pakistan. Deepening maritime cooperation within the structure of the Quad will help institutionalise ‘strategic discipline’ in this context. Indian pre-eminence in the Bay of Bengal is apparently a priority for the Modi government. If that’s so, deeper commitment to the Quad—an essentially maritime grouping—will help New Delhi keep its eye on the ball and prevent attention and resources from being diverted back to the army to be absorbed by permanent spats with Pakistan.

Indeed, the maritime division of labour among the four countries allocating resources and capability to areas and zones where they have an advantage makes sense. If India can persuade the US, Japan and Australia to support New Delhi’s desire to emerge as the preeminent security provider in the Bay of Bengal within a Quad structure, then that’s something every Indian government would support in a post-Modi era.

China’s emergence as an Indian Ocean power is narrowing India’s choices, which New Delhi only intermittently recognises. It remains the weakest link among the Quad countries. However, the Quad is becoming a more important grouping for India than for the US, Japan or Australia.

Will India soon emerge as champion of the Quad rather than reluctant participant? Yes, if New Delhi chooses self-help over self-harm.

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[1] ‘reset’: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/india-blinked-first/

[2] resolution of the Doklam border crisis: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/learning-lessons-not-scoring-points-doklam-standoff/

[3] 2017 figures: https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex

[4] strategic territories: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19480881.2017.1328016

[5] Indian Ocean power: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/chinas-power-growing-indian-ocean-24607