The geopolitical and security architecture of Asia is being altered over the years by the Chinese assertiveness that has morphed into aggressiveness. Since the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, relations between China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific have rapidly gone downhill, the most critical development was the recent standoff between India and China along the Line of Actual Control. The rise of an aggressive China with its relatively greater military power, the turbulent regional dynamics within South Asia, and an unreliable inward focusing U.S. as a net security provider for Asia have consequently led India to recognize the newly emerged need to explore an alternative security architecture and reassess its foreign policy and strategy towards the Indo Pacific Region.
China has been perceived as a significant long-term security threat by India. Its unyielding position on the border disputes in recent years resulting in the current border confrontation between the two states has deepened into a crisis since May 2020. Galwan Valley crisis can be considered as a watershed in India-China relations and the chances of a quick resolution to the current impasse appear to be dim.
Although the global pandemic has spurred regional cooperation among the SAARC member states, the bilateral relations between India and its neighbors have curdled in the last few years. Adding to the perennial antagonism between India-Pakistan, India-Nepal relations reached a new low in 2020, with the resurgence of the border dispute between them. The balancing act between India and China adopted even by the other neighbors has made it necessary for India to look for an alternative security architecture. Meanwhile, Russia, a traditional partner to India, is stuck between a rock and a hard place as it struggles to choose between India and its powerful friend, China in the current crisis. Simply by remaining neutral it may lean towards China, leaving India at a strategic disadvantage. As stated in the Nonalignment 2.0 report, “the challenge for Indian diplomacy is to develop a diversified network of relations with several major powers to compel China to exercise restraint in its dealings with India, while simultaneously eluding relationships that surpass the threat threshold in Chinese perception.” Hence, a deeper involvement of India in the Quad may be an effective step towards it.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal strategic dialogue was revived after a 10 year-long hiatus in 2017 when the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India met in Manila on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. Faced with the common challenge of a non-traditional security emergency (the coronavirus pandemic), the Quad has emerged in 2020 as a multilateral formation committed to a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific. The Quad, long considered to be a peripheral forum, came to the forefront when its four core members expanding to a Quad Plus (New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam) held multiple ministerial-level meetings to discuss the pandemic. Earlier in 2008, India with the fear of damaging its bilateral relations with China, had remained ambiguous about its participation, and committed to decoupling its IPR strategy from the Quad. However, with the present state of plummeting India-China relations, India may shed its ineffective evasive balancing strategy and be more open to the forums like Quad and Quad Plus as a pan-Asian strategic framework to reign in the proverbial bull of China. The growing strategic bilateral and trilateral relations between India and the three members Japan, the U.S. and particularly Australia (the signing of MLSA between India-Australia in June 2020) has opened an avenue for the development of a stronger and inclusive pan-Asian security architecture through Quad, with all its members sharing common values and having strong independent relationships throughout Asia.
Nonetheless, the overt China-focused narrative of the Quad could have certain consequences for India. The recent tensions and the strengthening of China-Pakistan nexus could lead to a greater backlash from China against Indian participation. Greater cooperation among the Quad could put India and China in a regional competition that India is not equipped for. India has always prioritized a bilateral resolution of its border disputes with China over a grand regional strategy. However, if China continues to challenge India along its borders, it is imperative for India to make use of the slight advantage it still enjoys in the maritime domain with the help of a grouping like the Quad to secure a vantage point vis-à-vis its dialogue with China to achieve a more effective outcome than an overtly cautious foreign policy outlook.
India’s reticence towards the Quad is consistent with its policy of strategic autonomy. India has wisely managed to stay non-aligned to any global security architecture, but, since majority members of the Quad are already in a military alliance with the U.S., it may be difficult to get into it without strings attached. India also continues to rely heavily on Russia for critical defense equipment, Iran for its crude oil and access to Central Asia, and Myanmar. Deeper involvement with the Quad and the U.S. as a consequence may alienate these key allies.
However, bringing the four powerful Indo-Pacific powers together have its obvious security benefits, whereas India’s efforts at reassuring China have relatively gone in vain. Thus, India needs to adopt a more proactive approach to its Indo-Pacific policy and shed some inhibitions against the Quad. The Quad, as a matrix of bilateral and trilateral relations provides an opportunity for India to exploit its unique geographic centrality in the region and enhance its security vision to connect with its strategic objects on both ends of the Indo-Pacific.
Thus, moving forward, if India can address its concerns, and attain clarity on its strategic objects, the Quad and Quad Plus could provide a unique opportunity for it to harness its growing strategic partnership with the democratic countries, exploit the shift of geopolitical nexus towards Indo-Pacific, and focus on stronger geo-economic ties that could help create a soft hedge against China. As the only country sharing a territorial border with China, India is central to the Quad as a member of the Indo-Pacific, and if New Delhi adopts a more a practical approach to its security policy, it may use this grouping as leverage to keep the Chinese aggression in check while also taking a step towards its great power aspirations in international politics.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Riya Arundhati Pawar is a post-graduate in International Studies from Christ University, Bangalore.