Two recent decisions involving the Indian government are being linked to project India as joining alliances to contain China. There is no doubt that Chinese unilateral actions in the South China Sea (SCS), its threat of annexing islands belonging to other nations and imposing the nine-dash line will impact global shipping.
Added to it are its offensive threats against Taiwan and India.
This power projection by China has also brought European nations including UK, France and Germany into the region, aiming to work in unison to contain China.
The two events being linked are the recent meeting of the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and Indian invitation to Australia to join the next Malabar exercises to be hosted by India in the Bay of Bengal.
In the QUAD meeting earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Minister S Jaishankar stated, “We remain committed to upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Jaishankar also emphasized that QUAD was aiming for ‘maintaining a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.’ He did not mention China, nor did his counterparts from Japan and Australia. It was only Mike Pompeo who named China directly.
There is no doubt that the QUAD is directly aimed at China, however, it has never emerged as an ‘Asian NATO’ as China terms it. The Chinese consider the QUAD as a threat and their embassy in Tokyo commented after the meeting, “We hope that relevant countries will do more to enhance mutual understanding and trust among countries in the region, and promote regional peace, stability and development, and not the opposite.”
Since its evolution in 2007, it was India which kept the QUAD from rising to levels of foreign ministers, seeking to assuage China. Recent years were witness to China pushing India on multiple issues from blocking entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, enhancing its military relations with Pakistan, refusing to address the growing trade deficit and finally entering Ladakh.
Indian patience had finally run dry. It thus willingly pushed for making the QUAD a reality. If QUAD is to grow beyond just a ‘consultative’ body then it must draw in nations most impacted by Chinese hegemony in the region, which are the Asean countries.
For India, actively joining the QUAD may raise questions about it shedding its independent foreign policy and joining an alliance. This may not be true. The current QUAD plus which includes South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam, though aimed at China, is more than just a consultative or possibly future military grouping or alliance. It also has an economic component which could benefit India, as all countries within the group seek decoupling from China.
Officially, QUAD remains a grouping of democracies seeking to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. PS Raghavan, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, describes it as, “not a closed club or a starting point of an arc of democracy encircling China. Even less is it an alliance.
The broad objectives of its participants are political equilibrium and a sustainable security architecture.” The Malabar Exercise scheduled next month has always been viewed by China as the military dimension of QUAD. Indian hesitation to invite Australia in the past few years was more because of Chinese concerns. The current invite is an indicator that India is ready to challenge Chinese objections. The Malabar exercise aims at interoperability with emphasis on humanitarian assistance, surface war manoeuvres, anti-submarines warfare, counter-terror operations and aerial surveillance. Classically, it is enhancing capabilities of operating jointly in an adverse scenario if the situation so demands. Realistically, India has no interest to draw in other nations into its current Ladakh crisis as it feels capable of handling it. The Indian statement inviting Australia read, “as India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy.”
Australia immediately confirmed its participation. The US and Japan welcomed the Indian decision. The participation of all four members of the QUAD in the Malabar exercise is a signal to China that nations in the region are willing to challenge its hegemony and territorial assertiveness.
As India strengthens its military against Chinese pressures, it is simultaneously enhancing its ties with other nations that possess similar views. Alliances in the maritime domain are essential as this is where India remains on a weak footing. Chinese comments post the announcement of the Malabar exercise included, “the QUAD military alliance is officially formed.” Simultaneously, India does not seek a NATO type Asian alliance with the US.
Nor would India desire to be sucked into operations in the SCS unless they are of specific concern to India. Finally, India would never become a junior military partner in any US-led alliance. Indian would never allow its diplomatic ties with Russia, Iran and other nations where the US has differing perceptions to deteriorate by joining a US-led alliance.
Taken together, the enhanced levels of the QUAD and the inclusion of Australia in the Malabar exercises is aimed at conveying that major democracies in the region are joining hands to counter China.
They would seek to draw in other nations in the region as a larger security blanket intending to box in China. Currently neither QUAD nor the Malabar exercises are an alliance. They remain a grouping, a consultative mechanism aimed at China. Turning it into an alliance, soft or concrete, is a matter of time depending on the way China projects its hegemony. Its remaining a club of four nations or drawing in others, including UK, France, Germany and Asean, will be dependent on Chinese posturing. China will determine the future of the QUAD. As Brahma Chellaney stated, “If Xi’s increasing threats toward Taiwan lead to military action, then a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core, will become inevitable.”
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.