It was the Tsunami of 2004 which brought about ground-level cooperation among the countries now forming much talked about QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). Since it was heightened due to the severity of the natural disaster perpetrated by the mighty oceans its alleviation raised the flag and need for collaboration but the true grit and direction had been missing. Efforts were made and waned as the rising of China was still not considered toxic.
By 2017 it was becoming increasingly clear that Beijing was hell-bent on exercising its hegemony in the South China Sea as it also blatantly refused to abide by the judgment of the International Court of Justice in favor of the Philippines while ingressing into the disputed islands with others. It has territorial issues and disputes with all its neighbors. It has its own perception of LAC ( Line as per the Chinese) and 9 dash line which will continue to threaten peace in the region which will become a more powerful and dangerous theatre of competition.
Chinese behavior and quest to conquer the numero uno position has activated QUAD and other organizations including overt security partnerships between the US, UK, and Australia (AUKUS). No wonder two Summits in a span of six months of QUAD leaders were held one being virtual and the other physical in Washington DC.
Such high-level interactions and consequent statements “The spirit of Quad” and the fact sheets prescribing a definitive work plan are somewhat unprecedented. It is indicative of serious challenges from pandemic to the critical technologies and value chains to integrity and freedom of the Indo-Pacific in all of which comrade Dragon happens to be an underlying factor and actor.
India obviously faces China both on land and sea and increasing hostile Chinese activity in India’s neighborhood compels it to look for alternatives that might help it protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national interests. Business as usual with Beijing is increasingly becoming difficult for New Delhi despite her stated and practical approach of “Competition with Cooperation”.
On the land borders India, despite repeated rounds of discussions and ministerial dialogues preferring dialogue over the dispute, is holding the Chinese aggression back for over a year now as the violent Galwan incident awakened the Indian defense and security establishment to the real threats of even a two-front war on her western and northern borders.
The security of the country is not a matter of choice and history is a lesson. Moreover, China’s ambitious Beijing and its China Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as its “String of Pearls Strategy “to expand its global geo-economic influence but in the vicinity are directly aimed at containing India within South Asia while blatantly encroaching on her sovereignty.
It is also a fact that none of the four countries -especially India has overtly subscribed to the idea of containment of China but has unflinchingly underscored the need for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific ( FoIP) and a rule-based maritime order where Oceans are treated as a global good and commons. But who creates the hurdles to this seemingly innocent expectation is amply clear. Therefore, whatever QUAD does or an AUKUS emergence propels is a symptom of the deep-seated malaise in the international governance matrix.
China is of course concerned but tries to dismiss it away as sheer froth and is working to exploit the differentials and divergences from among its adversaries. With two of the QUAD members, Australia and the US, who have been quite vocal about Chinese intransigence, joining the new nuclear submarine driven security alliance has also irked another major Indo-Pacific power in France for both geopolitical and purely economic reasons as it finds an Anglo angularity in the new designs.
Actually, there are nearly half a dozen Indo-Pacific-centric strategies enunciated by several European countries individually and collectively while the transatlantic rift acquired salience in the wake of the Franco-Australian (AUKUS) episode leading to the recall of French Ambassadors from Canberra and Washington DC.
President Biden has been trying to repair the mistrust with Macron while his Secretary Blinken was able to patch up an institutional mechanism with the EU to coordinate on Indo-Pacific and Transatlantic issues. But for the moment no one is on the same page. The even US is indulging in “Strategic Competition” with Beijing which implies competing where you should and collaborating where you must.
In fact, the onset of AUKUS from India’s perspective augurs well due to its very nature and QUAD can also absolve itself from the blind accusations of targeting China militarily. From Shangri La to New York India has maintained that it does not perceive the QUAD as China-centric. But the Chinese write a complicated script and surely do decipher the one and if they wish to play by the rules of the international governance they might as well continue to benefit from the western largesse.
Also, India can continue to exercise her strategic autonomy as it is part of an umpteen number of cross-cutting and even competing plurilateral alignments and arrangements i.e. JAI (Japan USA and India); France, Australia, and India ( currently defunct but Macron spoke to Modi and will be trying to sell their nuclear submarines to India after losing to Morrison ); BRICS and RIC and SCO where Russia and China are predominant. Even a JRI with Japan, Russia, and India may be in the offing.
Bilaterally New Delhi manages its relations quite well with all major players in the Indo-Pacific where it has become a preferred node. From the QUAD’s current focus India could gain hugely in becoming the first reliable and resilient global and value supply chain in vaccines and healthcare and even semi-conductors while becoming an integral part of critical technologies and rare earth in this North-South collaborative matrix.
New Delhi has also carried forward its bilateral naval exercises with the US since 1992 into a trilateral with Japan and now since the last year along with Australia in a quadrilateral format. In fact, the last Malabar was just concluded this week. Not only that it continues its bilateral military and naval exercises with all major countries as the interoperability enhances preparing it to deal with any eventuality.
For India to have credible deterrence in the Indian ocean and its perception of the Indo-Pacific it is imperative that its sea power and navy have to play a key role. It, however, fully realizes that India will have to fight her own battles and be ready for them at all times.
We are living through uncertain times and multiple global challenges from Terrorism to pandemic to the economic downturn to climate change that stares at us for which global solidarity may be a prerequisite which is more present in its absence as real politics and unilateralism tend to dent it all the time.
This article Trigs on Track- Diplomacy Unwound-AUKUS – The QUAD and the Malabar first appeared in The India Observer
About the Author
Anil Trigunayat, former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.