The very purpose of the Quad – to serve a collective answer to the Chinese hegemonic attitude in the Indo-Pacific region – will remain ineffective unless India upgrades it to a military level, but the question is, why has India refrained from giving the Quad a military makeover?
Quad – An Answer to Chinese Hegemony
The Quadrilateral grouping in the Indo-Pacific region was formed in 2007, comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, on the initiative of Japan, with a strategic naval exercise code-named Malabar 07, in which Australia, the US and India also participated. The Quad has been perceived to be a deterrent against the Chinese hegemony in the recently constructed and highly contested Indo-Pacific region. It was recently revived in 2017 in a regional summit attended by the four powerful nation states. High hopes were attached to the inclusiveness and effectiveness of the Quad grouping which will serve as an answer to the Chinese question.
The Chinese challenge to the maritime architecture of the Indo-Pacific comes in the form of reclamation of islands and features, and in many cases, artificially rebuilding them. This activity has so far been in the South China Sea, though there are emerging reports that suggest that China could build artificial islands near the Maldives as well. Beijing has gone on to install weapons systems and build runways to land military aircraft in some of them. Beijing’s Indo Pacific strategy is — as American strategist Robert Kaplan is fond of reminding — similar to how the United States sought to control the greater Caribbean through the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823.
The attributes of the Indo-Pacific are also highly appealing. The region comprises at least 38 countries that share 44 percent of the world’s surface area, include 65 percent of the world’s population, and account for 62 percent of global GDP and 46 per cent of the world’s merchandise trade.
The Indo-Pacific has all the ingredients to generate regional trade and investment opportunities, thereby benefitting the people of the region. However, the region is highly heterogeneous in terms of economic size and level of development, with significant differences in security establishments and resources. It also faces complex challenges in terms of economy, security and the environment.
Moreover, it underlines the rising significance of maritime geopolitics in an increasingly integrated world. Economically, the Quad strategy is regarded as an answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is establishing a China-centric trade route.
Why is India Refraining from Upgrading the Quad to Military Level in the Indo-Pacific?
Amid the increasing salience of the Indo-Pacific with regard to various institutional initiatives in New Delhi and other great powers involved in this contestation, one issue that has remained relatively unnerving is that India so far has refrained from giving a militaristic narrative to the Indo-Pacific. Over the years, since the Indo-Pacific concept gained traction, it has refused to give it a military colour, but the issue at hand is what has held back New Delhi from upgrading the Quad grouping to military, particularly naval, engagements.
In the inaugural 2+2 meeting held in Washington DC in 2018, India refused to upgrade the Quad grouping talks with Washington from joint secretary-level delegations. Some possible reasons could be attributed to New Delhi’s apprehension to upgrade the Quad to naval cooperation.
Firstly, India has a special attachment with China in the trade and commerce sector. India currently wants to concentrate all its energy in resolving the trade dispute with China with which India maintains a burgeoning trade deficit of a whopping $53 billion. China is India’s second-largest bilateral trade partner, with bilateral trade surpassing the $95 billion target in the fiscal year 2018-19. India’s refusal to join the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) was mainly borne by the hawkish considerations that joining the free trade bloc would open the floodgates of cheap Chinese and South Korean goods. The opening of a high-level trade dialogue mechanism in the second informal summit with China at Mammallapuram was seen as the first part.
Secondly, given the fact that China is involved in a bruising trade war with the United States, India must aggressively vie to serve as the new destination for Chinese investment, despite the deep-rooted antagonism to Chinese products from various segments of New Delhi’s policy areas. The reality is that China is an important destination for investment and since the Indian Economy has fallen to a six-year low of 4.5% GDP in Q2 OF FY19-20, the Chinese investment and investment from other regions of the world becomes all the more imperative.
Thirdly, there is the contentious unresolved border dispute with China which India has signalled its willingness to discuss. At the second informal summit between India and China at Mamallapuram, off Chennai (October 11-12, 2019), China’s President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “In accordance with the agreement on political guiding principles, we will seek a fair and reasonable solution to the border issue that is acceptable to both sides.” But a look at the past will show that the 2005 “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” agreement was a ray of light in an otherwise dim process of talks that began in 1981. It signalled that both sides had substantially converged their positions on the overarching principles that would guide a resolution. The agreement declared that a “package settlement” was the only way forward along with mutual recognition that this would involve only minor territorial adjustments. Yet, the exercise got suspended in politics soon after and both sides have since been unable to engage in meaningful negotiations.
Fourthly and most importantly, the Indian navy is clearly playing second fiddle to the PLAN in the Indo-Pacific which has already bolstered its presence in the strategic region. What is worrying is that India, the region’s principal security provider, is still playing catch-up. The Indian navy’s indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1) has been facing chronic delays, with plans for the IAC-2 on the backburner — following steadily declining budgets, technological hurdles, and enduring holdups by the Ministry of Defence. Despite Admiral Lanba’s (Ex) assurances in recent weeks, there is a fear that the third aircraft carrier could be indefinitely delayed.
The bigger challenge for India comes from the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indo-Pacific. China’s anti-piracy contingents in the Western Indian Ocean (as the principal part of the Indo-Pacific region) are now invariably accompanied by a PLAN submarine. These Chinese subs are known to regularly conduct patrols in India’s near seas, collecting critical operational information.
Hence, unless the top policy makers in the South Block understand that if India wants to play a major role in the Indo-Pacific region, it is imperative that military ties are upgraded with the Quad grouping, various initiatives such as naval exercises, war games aimed promoting freedom of navigation messages, aggressively protecting India’s seaborne trade in the Indo-Pacific region and applying the time-tested carrot-and-stick approach to China in the form of greater investments and more market in exchange for greater leverage in the Indo Pacific are adopted, India will continue to lag behind in the great power contestation.