It’s Balance of Power, Stark and Simple

The undercurrents of the global balance of power are going through a dynamic churn. India finds itself amid a situation reorientation and strategic manoeuvres are called for. Multidimensional cooperation within the QUAD is the way forward. 

The resuscitation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply the QUAD, is perhaps India’s main foreign policy thrust in the last five years. New Delhi may not like to tom-tom it publicly, but it clearly understands the strategic ramifications of its recent actions. This is in the larger framework of New Delhi’s incremental alignment towards the United States and like-minded partners in the Western world. The QUAD grouping, which consists of India, United States, Japan and Australia; has significant players in their own might, with varying degrees of regional influence in the Indo-Pacific. It’s no one’s guess that the strategic glue which holds the QUAD together is China. 

However, India’s current realignments are not entirely a linear progression of its own history. In the 1950s, then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had romantic ideas centred around “Asianism” and a shared vision for India-China cooperation, magnanimously encapsulated in the Panchsheel doctrine. It was only after Chinese incursions in Tibet followed by the 1962 war, that India awoke from its realpolitik holiday. As the United States drew closer to China with the help of Islamabad’s mediation, India had little choice but to double down on its partnership with USSR, which reached its zenith during the 1971 Liberation war of Bangladesh. Periodic lip service to non-alignment was the norm, however India had slowly started adjusting itself to the balance of power dynamics of the day. 

The post-Cold War period witnessed the rise of the unipolar movement and some sort of a modus vivendi was reached between India and China. Both had their own concerns about the United States. China knew that its long-term competitor was the United States, whereas India had its own notions of safeguarding its much touted “strategic autonomy” which ostensibly was imperilled by closer rapprochement with the United States. A multilateral manifestation of these concerns was the BRICS forum, consisting of Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, allegedly created to balance the American might of the unipolar structure.

This multilateral arrangement was coupled with the modus vivendi reached between India and China which demonstrated itself in the form of Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreements that heralded a temporary calm on the Himalayan front. All along the way, the Chinese got into bilateral negotiations only to buy time and alter the balance of comprehensive power in their favour. The Chinese used negotiations for tactical gains, to create perplexity and sow confusion, and not for successful outcomes.

Galwan marked a watershed in India’s relationship with China. It signaled a new period of armed co-existence, a fragile equilibrium between India and China. We don’t know when this equilibrium might rupture, but we do know that the principal theatre of competition will be the Indo-Pacific. This is where the QUAD’s resuscitation fits in. Regional players like Australia and Japan, along with South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia are alarmed by the increasingly belligerent outlook adopted by the Chinese in the region. The ASEAN feels the heat too, especially after expansive Chinese claims in the South and East China Seas. 

All said and done, given its precarious environment, India seeks to reap tangible benefits from its deepening partnership with the United States. Intelligence, logistic and diplomatic support from US and its Asian allies has been valuable, especially in the context of a live border with China. The United States also stands behind India’s line on Kashmir in the UNSC, has blocked Chinese attempts to rake up the issue and has publicly endorsed India’s participation as a permanent member of the UNSC. The US also supports India’s counter-terrorism measures along with pressurizing Pakistan which is backed by Beijing. The US has also simultaneously facilitated India’s integration with the global nuclear order after signing the landmark Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008. These are reasons why India naturally seeks American cooperation that has provided a fillip to the QUAD.

The Chinese, for their part, have been quite bellicose in their narrative against the QUAD. Since 2007, during the earlier incarnation of the QUAD, the Chinese conjured up the moniker “Asian NATO” and have spread a vicious narrative against the grouping. This includes dismissing it as mere “sea foam” and even denouncing it by raising alarm against “small cliques” in the region. Deep inside, the Chinese understand that closer cooperation between the United States and India-a potential powerhouse- is inimical to its strategic interests in Asia as well as its own balance of power dynamics in the world. Therefore, preventing such cooperation is a strategic goal of primary importance to Beijing. Beijing seeks to become the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific, along with the desire to neutralise American naval superiority in the Western Pacific. This proclivity has been accelerated due to some important reasons.

First, we are witnessing a fundamental shift in the world’s centre of gravity from the Atlantic-Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific. Second, balance of power relations between US and China are narrowing and the rise of Chinese comprehensive national capabilities is gathering pace. The Chinese are also building a parallel world order in trade, technology and finance that seeks to selectively reduce its vulnerabilities to American leverage. 

India, on the other hand, needs to internalise the fact that China has already risen. China doesn’t consider India as a bilateral power in its own merit and analyses everything India does through the lens of Sino-US rivalry. Therefore, it wants to bind India into the regional subcontinental framework, in pursuit of while it is constantly arming and encouraging its “all weather” partnership with Islamabad. It considers India in the same league as Pakistan and wants to pin India’s attention to its western neighbour, constraining India’s energies in the subcontinent. This naturally helps China concentrate on its strategic rivalry with the United States.

Former Indian Ambassador to China and later foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale put it conspicuously while acknowledging that China, especially the ruling Communist Party of China is a great believer in the fundamental geopolitical idea of balance of power dynamics, however vociferously they might oppose it publicly. There inherent behaviour and ideas are amply demonstrated by Chinese history. In the post-World War II period, we witnessed early Chinese warmth towards the USSR, followed by the détente with the United States under the Nixon administration when the struggle of ideological supremacy broke out with USSR. This was adroitly followed by close economic cooperation with the United States under Deng Xiaoping, which later continued with the advent of the unipolar movement. Thus, enhancing national interest through forging partnerships which suit contemporary needs is a long-established maxim in Chinese manoeuvres. 

Finally, we need to acknowledge that the QUAD holds significance for the United States as well. It serves the basic purpose of the United States to signal unity of resolve among democracies and like-minded partners to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The QUAD coalition helps the Biden administration’s desire to emphasise on alliances and partnerships, especially those which aid American efforts to stymie the expansion of its China conundrum. From an American perspective, the QUAD’s utility will increase significantly if the QUAD matures from its incremental approach and focuses on its security partnership, which will be crucial if Sino-American relations deteriorate further and take a confrontational military dimension. In the medium to long term, the US might also want to see greater synergies between the AUKUS and the QUAD. 

Having said that, it would be noteworthy to remind ourselves that the QUAD is not conventional alliance, but a solution to an institutional void in the Indo-Pacific geographical rubric. The QUAD has an ambitious role chalked out for itself. This role includes a wide gamut of responsibilities and initiatives in various areas other than security. Broad areas of mutual interest include trade, infrastructure, health, climate change, emerging technologies and maritime security. The Covid-19 pandemic also induced the grouping to increase coordination in areas like vaccine delivery, disaster response and supply chain resilience. 

Some initiatives have assumed particular significance in the recent summits of the QUAD. One of them includes the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness that aims to work with regional partners for active response to humanitarian and natural disasters and combat illegal fishing. The IPMDA mechanism will work on the collaboration of regional information fusion centres in the Indian Ocean region located in India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. 

Another initiative includes a collective approach to enhanced cybersecurity through sharing threat information, identifying potential risks in supply chains for digitally enabled products and services. The QUAD also seeks to advance interoperability and security through cooperation on 5G supplier diversification

There are also some ideas which are still in the nascent stage. A prominent example includes commitment to extension of more than $50 billion in infrastructure assistance and investment in the Indo-Pacific over the next five years to plug infrastructure gaps. Experts feel that these moves are in the context of providing alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative which has faced criticism for creating debt traps and unsustainable infrastructure. 

Other agendas for enhanced cooperation in the future include elevation of maritime security cooperation to more advanced naval exercises and operationalising finalised logistic and support agreements. Cooperation in the outer space domain technologies, data sharing and space situational awareness also holds potential. The QUAD can further help itself by pursuing lateral cooperation with other regional players through the framework of issue-based coalitions to create a broader web of cooperation between like-minded countries. South Korea, New Zealand and France are countries that have significant convergence with the issues concerning the QUAD. 

If the QUAD wants to position itself as a dependable and credible institutional initiative in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to walk the talk on the ambitious role that it has envisaged for itself. Developing synergies and not letting disagreements get into the way of broader policy initiatives, in context of the Ukraine crisis, will be the key for the robust growth of the grouping in the unsettled waters of the Indo-Pacific region.

The undercurrents of the global balance of power are going through a dynamic churn. India finds itself in a situation where external reorientation and strategic manoeuvres are called for. It is largely in India’s interest to engage with its partners across regional and multilateral forums to play a balancing role in the existing world order. The QUAD grouping is a step in the right direction. After all, it boils down to the balance of power

[[Photo by 首相官邸, via Wikimedia Commons]]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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