The opposition Congress party has come a long way from believing that India should use China’s Belt and Road Initiative for its interests. Just this week, two senior Congress leaders — AM Singhvi and Deepender Hooda — advocated that India play a leading role in a more muscular Quad (a geopolitical grouping of US, India, Japan and Australia) to push back against an openly aggressive China, which tells its own story of a narrowing of political differences regarding China within India.
This week also saw the revival of the idea that Australia should join the annual Malabar naval exercises, which feature the navies of India, US and Japan. The only thing is, 2020 will have no Malabar exercise — Covid put paid to that. The earliest will be in 2021. So if India finally overcomes her hesitation, the first steps to militarise the Quad will take shape. The Quad 1.0 (2007) was almost stillborn.
But Quad 2.0 was almost a direct consequence of Doklam, even though the first statements on a “free and open Indo-Pacific” had been made by Shinzo Abe, Japanese PM. Post-Doklam, India agreed to tentative, “exploratory” meetings between senior officials of India, US, Japan and Australia, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out the contours of India’s own Indo-Pacific policy at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018. For a long time, India was reluctant to conflate its Indo-Pacific policy with the Quad, maintaining that the former was “bigger” and more “inclusive” than the latter. Every meeting ended with all four countries issuing their own statements, according to their own priorities, a telling sign that they were still not on the same page — that balancing China was the glue that held them together.
Meanwhile, the US renamed its Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. India was still reluctant to include Australia into the Malabar exercise despite deepening its defence and security relationship with Canberra.
Two things started to tip the balance : the first meeting of foreign ministers of the Quad happened in September 2019. Second, India concluded logistics-sharing agreements with its Quad buddies (Australia predictably came through right at the end, in May 2020) as well as France, which is India’s Indo-Pacific insurance policy. Then Covid and China’s creeping invasion in Ladakh happened. Covid not only showed that a virus originating in China could cripple the world, but that the world’s dependence on China was also rather debilitating. China’s invasion in Ladakh challenged India in ways it had not imagined earlier, leaving its relationship with China leaning on the reset button.
In the post-Covid world, the Quad will, if it hasn’t already, become the most important grouping for India,both in terms of building alternative supply chains, collaborating on Covid treatments, vaccines, or even helping each other find their economic mojo again. It’s in the area of defence and security that India will have to step off the fence and make some tough choices with regard to the Quad.
Military and defence strategists have already commented on the importance of building up Andaman & Nicobar Islands. So far, Japan is the only member of the Quad allowed in there. India might have to revisit this — if the US is developing Wake Island near Guam, there may be reciprocal options here in India. Especially if the Chinese are to be restricted in their access to Sittwe port in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh, and, on a larger scale, in the Indian Ocean.
India needs better defensive posts in the Horn of Africa (probably best not to add to the crowd in Djibouti) where it can challenge China more effectively. In the south-central Indian Ocean, the India-US and India-France relationships will stand us in good stead. Much greater investment is needed both in Sri Lanka and Maldives. A little display of tough love in Bangladesh would not be out of place either.
The basic point should be that if India is challenged on the Himalayas by China, which will probably not end anytime soon, India has to take the battle to the oceans where it still enjoys a slight advantage. For that, the Quad is invaluable.
Consider this: just in July, China conducted military exercises in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands. They have been intimidating Vietnam off the Vanguard reef for weeks now. Chinese Coast Guard ships have been wandering in Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands for a record 39 hours and 23 minutes at a stretch. Even the Philippines has protested against Chinese military drills in the South China Sea. “Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory… it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate,” said Teodoro Locsin Jr, foreign secretary of Philippines.
Instead of sitting at the Russia-India-China trilateral in the middle of a Chinese invasion in Ladakh, India should get more hard-headed in its approach to China. The Quad is not a panacea, but it’s shaping up as the backbone of India’s post-Covid foreign policy. The evolving geopolitical situation demands that the group displays military heft.
As Darshana Baruah, one of the foremost experts of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, observes in a recent paper for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “The rise of China across the Indian and Pacific Oceans challenges the security umbrella established at the end of Second World War and strengthened after the end of the Cold War. The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a new geographic space — bringing together the Indian and the Pacific Oceans — represents the new strategic reality of the twenty-first century.”
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