In a move to counter China’s growing regional ambitions, New Delhi has now joined with the United States, Japan and Australia to help resurrect a quadrilateral grouping dubbed the “Quad”, that was first mooted in 2007 but didn't quite take off.
India’s decision to get involved is an indication of New Delhi’s own growing ambitions for geostrategic primacy in the region. At the same time, it is a recognition that the 70-year order that was guaranteed by American military might is waning as China’s hegemony waxes.
The first meeting of officials from the four countries took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China that is not only making its neighbors jittery with its expansionist ambitions, but is also raising apprehensions about freedom of trade and navigation through the waters of the South and East China Seas.
Add to this China’s recurrent quarrels along land borders with countries like India and Bhutan and it figures why Delhi – under a nationalist PM Narendra Modi – is widening its outreach to as many like-minded countries as possible to prevent a Chinacentric Asian order. Against a single-country domination in Asia, the so-called Quad advocates a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region not monopolized by a single country and serves long-term global interests, giving impetus to an emerging quadrilateral of democracies amid China's rising military and economic power.
Beijing's reaction to the idea of Quad was predictable. The Chinese Foreign Ministry swiftly issued a press note emphasizing that "the relevant grouping should be open and inclusive and not aimed at excluding a third party. We welcome the development of friendly cooperation between relevant countries, but we hope this will not be directed at any third party.” Premier Li Keqiang wrote rather cryptically in a newspaper article that “The wise expand common ground while the unwise aggravate differences.”
The reasons for China's insecurity are many. Indian journalist Zakka Jacob points out in his column that "The coming together of four democracies is in itself an implicit threat to China as it points out the stark difference in political systems of these four countries, all of whom are democracies while China is a communist, totalitarian state."
Such a multi-party alliance will also change the rules of the game in the Indo-Pacific, Jacob added. "China has a flourishing trade with all four of these countries, often with huge surpluses, that could come under question. All four countries could collectively put pressure on China to balance out the trade."
New Delhi was initially hesitant to be a part of this formation, given its current rocky relationship with Beijing, which views the Quad as an anti-China alliance. At the same time, to avoid piquing China, Delhi issued a careful statement reinforcing that the quadrilateral isn't aimed at any other country and that India is also involved in similar groupings in the region to deal with security and political issues.
There's no denying the multiple benefits that can accrue to India from this outreach. The powerful platform can advance India's interests in East Asia and add ballast to its Act East initiative under which the Modi government plans to focus on increased engagements with the regional bloc. The need for such a policy thrust seems greater than ever before given the current volatile geopolitical climate.
Policy analysts say that such a grouping becomes all the more relevant in the current transition of power in the Asia-Pacific. underlined by America’s relative decline and China’s growing clout.
Writes Harsh V. Pant in Scroll.in, an India-based news and opinion website: "Though the uncertainty around the future of international politics, norms, and institutions does impinge upon all members of the international society, the Asian states find themselves at the forefront of this transition. For them the current transition of power is not only an ideological contest over the form and nature of the international political system but is inextricably linked to their own national security imperatives in a number of ways. India, Japan, and Australia are at the centre of this strategic flux in the Indo-Pacific."
Many others feel that the quadrilateral arrangement counters China's aggressive expansion under its Belt and Road initiative although that presents a formidable challenge. China’s initiative is pushing road, rail, air and sea connections across the region, giving Beijing sway all the way into Europe and south to Indonesia and beyond. It is tying countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and others to its apron-strings through an aggressive infrastructure policy and providing the soft loans to finance the expansion.
"Quad can also pose a challenge to One Belt One Road, Xi Jinping’s ambitious connectivity plan," said Prateek Kakkar, a foreign policy expert formerly with the ministry of external affairs. "The US has already spoken about alternative financing models given the concern of unsustainable debt in many of these smaller countries because of OBOR."
Kakkar adds that the optics of such a grouping appear ominous for Xi Jinping, who has just been elevated at the 19th party Congress to the level of the PRC’s founder Mao Zedong. "The appearance of four big countries coming together seems to undermine Xi's authority," Kakkar said.
India, foreign policy analysts say, should give up its diffidence as it is now regarded as a major power with interests spanning the Asian continent. As Asia's third largest economy hosting 1.3 billion people, it is also an important player in the Indo-Pacific architecture. Hence, its days of constantly living in Beijing's shadow are over.
"In the current geopolitical scenario of shifting equations and interests, India can build on significant strategic opportunities. Rather than excluding itself from such partnerships, India should assert itself through them which will make Beijing respect it more," Kakkar argued.
However, there are staunch critics. Manoj Joshi of the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, writes that Quad's existence is being powered more by America's need to build military alliances in the region to further its own interests rather than to lend a hand to catalyse Asian solidarity.
"Mooted as an alliance of democracies, it seeks to upend everything we know about international relations, where the drivers are national interests, rather than values. Ordinarily this would not matter much since the Quad would largely be a talking shop with some joint naval exercises thrown in. But parallel to this, US President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have drawn up an overarching vision of the policy they have in mind to replace the now abandoned ‘pivot,’” he writes. "They are pointedly wooing New Delhi into what could well be a military alliance. Trump’s effusive remarks about India and the pointed rechristening of the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific are the soft sell. Like it or not, or hide it or not, the term now seems to be a means of including India in the military calculations of US strategy in the Pacific."
The US is the only country that can take China head on militarily or in terms of economic might. However, under a mercurial Donald Trump, nobody is sure where it’s headed. In such a scenario, it is plain risky to depend on Washington to steer the coalition needed to keep China in check.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based senior journalist and editor and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel