By Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd)
The QUAD summit is to take place shortly in Japan. It signifies the coming of QUAD in many respects. The physical signalling to China that the event is happening in its close proximity in Japan carries significance. The fact that South Korea is now planning to join the QUAD is also very important. Besides this, other countries have started seeing QUAD as a reality to counter China and have started looking towards it for a leadership role in the region. Overall, there is no doubt left that the QUAD is here to stay and grow. That is a factor which has started to weigh heavily in China’s think tanks and there will be some to and fro response to these developments.
One of the predictable responses is to weaken the QUAD and induce self-doubts in the structure. That attempt is already playing out. Chinese strategists have always believed that a strong U.S.-India relationship is suspect in the long run. They have always believed and enunciated that India is the weakest link of the QUAD’s Indo-Pacific architecture. Many Chinese refer to the structure as a three-plus one and not a quadrilateral. Surprisingly, the disruptive three plus one idea has found resonance in some circles in the USA too. They feel that Indian unwillingness to align itself to any group and the complicated history of US-India relations inhibit India to be a full-fledged equal status member of the group.
The other important point of discord being sown is that while the USA, Japan, and Australia are fully developed and rich nations, India is not so. Hence there is a huge status differential. Further, India’s inability to open up its economy like the other three in the QUAD will be an inhibitor in the long run. Very importantly, the USA, Australia and Japan have been alliance partners for long with common interoperable systems. This is seen by many that the QUAD is an imbalanced structure with India being the odd man out. Then of course there is the favourite theme of the naysayers…the advantages India accrues from the QUAD do not outweigh the disadvantages of being in it. The main disadvantage that is put across is that in case of any conflict with China, the other QUAD members will not come to India’s rescue whereas the expectation is that India should contribute to their security by taking up cudgels against China. Such doubts and thoughts are to be expected. However all this has to be seen in the larger context of issues involved.
The Indo Pacific is a handful of security problems beyond China and the connected Pacific factor. At the very top of the list is undoubtedly Chinese assertion and aspiration to exert undue influence in the Indo-Pacific. Connected to this are maritime security and issues related to Chinese expansionism through the BRI. At the western end of the Indo Pacific are issues connected to terror and energy resources of the Middle East. Iran, Afghanistan and the nuclear triangle of Pakistan-India-China also cast their shadow on the Indo-Pacific. At the centre is the crisis ridden Myanmar. Finally, the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan because of the Ukrainian crisis will have an impact in the region. Many of these relate more to India in the IOR than the others. However most of these issues need a joint Indo-Pacific approach and cannot be segregated or tackled by India alone. Further, almost all the issues need a multidimensional approach beyond the capability of one country alone. Hence building a joint approach is mandated. That should be the Indian line of thinking in the forthcoming QUAD summit.
Turning to the China factor. There is doubt that China is the most important and foremost security challenge for India. The threat from China is both direct and indirect. It is conventional and hybrid and will play out in the gray zone most of the time. In order to tackle and deter such threats, India needs the QUAD nations to pool in together to form an intelligence gathering and sharing platform and structure. Good intelligence is a great tool to ward off and deter any threat. Establishment of an intelligence gathering and sharing mechanism must be insisted upon and formulated. If this is achieved in this Summit, it will be a great step. The best form of deterring China is to put it in a two front situation. It is also recognised that amongst all big powers, it is only India and USA which have the capability to balance China militarily. The Chinese assessment is also that the USA, Japan, and Australia are relying on India to build pressure on China in the Indian Ocean, to cause a disadvantageous two-front conflict situation for Beijing. Hence this aspect needs to be leveraged in the larger framework of QUAD and formalised. QUAD should be nudged into a commitment of mutual assistance whose outlines are clear. More than interoperability, the commitment of posing a multifrontal multidirectional threat to China is of greater importance. That should be the Indian thrust line. The indirect threat through the neighbours must be tackled more through diplomatic, economic and other channels. It has to be broad based and encompass the entire Indo Pacific. It will be in India’s interest that more nations look towards the QUAD for their larger solutions. A consensual structure and method to tackle issues beyond traditional security threats needs to be evolved.
A major connected issue is to prevent Chinese expansionism. China seeks entry into the Indian Ocean as part of its Two Ocean Strategy which aims to connect the Pacific and Indian Ocean economies under Chinese leadership. It also seeks a dedicated Indian Ocean entry and exit for China from a military point of view. Any major Chinese naval presence in the Bay of Bengal or Arabian Sea is highly undesirable from an Indian viewpoint. Containment of China in this context demands that QUAD nations shore up Indian ability to prevent this expansive intrusion and block off entry points into the IOR. While the USA will invariably pitch in with military assistance other QUAD members will have to pitch in with non-military assistance. In this context it is important that QUAD focuses on countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh which are central to the Indo Pacific as also to China’s Two Ocean Strategy architecture. The QUAD summit needs to outline the contours of this vision. The importance of this facet of engagement has already been underscored by the US president who held a meeting with the ASEAN leaders in Washington. The prickly reaction from China reveals the importance and sensitiveness of the move.
The expectation that India would usher in a new wave of reform and development after opening up in the post pandemic period is manifesting itself. The international community is also looking at stable and viable long term alternatives to decouple from China. It is also well known that the only alternative to China in scale and capability is India. The Ukraine war has reaffirmed all these issues. It is time that these nebulous thoughts are converted into something concrete. To that end, the QUAD summit will do well if some definite outlines of cooperation in economic, trade and commercial spheres are scripted. The range of topics in which such cooperation can develop is unlimited. It could encompass modernizing Indian agriculture at one end and developing defence technology at the other. The QUAD could look at the clean energy sector which is not only a global concern but a major requirement for India’s constantly growing needs. The QUAD has already discussed that it should into new technology research and sharing agreements. These concepts need fleshing out. It will be really great if this summit can end up as a road map for the development of QUAD into a global growth engine. It is time for QUAD to step up from rhetoric into actionable outcomes.
India has two prickly issues to resolve with QUAD. India’s friendship with Russia will be a complication in dealing with QUAD. To that end, the other members of QUAD have to be spoken to in uncertain terms. If India is to wean away from Russia, USA and Japan have to come to the fore in making technology available to India to achieve self-sufficiency in defence and Australia must assure nuclear raw material supply. It must be reiterated that India’s dependence on Russia has developed in the first place due to a large extent of being denied western technologies. Also, the process of weaning away would be slow since any hasty move would weaken India militarily which would be detrimental not only to India but QUAD also. The second issue which the QUAD needs to be cognizant of and has to act upon is the Sino Pak nexus and issues pertaining to terrorism emanating from Pakistan. This is very important in the current times when Pakistan seems to be heading the Sri Lanka way. The complicated US-Pak relations will also impinge upon the QUAD. The QUAD forum needs to outline concrete steps to periodically rein in Pakistan and keep a strict check on the Sino-Pak nexus from going out of hand. Both these issues must figure in the actionable agenda of the QUAD.
Finally, it is fallacious on our part if we fall for the propaganda that India does not feature prominently in Chinese strategic calculations. India is high on its agenda though it chooses to deliberately keep quiet about it. Further in the post pandemic and Ukraine war period, India’s centrality in global affairs has multiplied manifold. To that extent, a large part of global growth in future is predicated on India’s overall success. Conversely, in the current geostrategic environment, India’s success is closely hitched to the success of the QUAD to a large extent. Given India’s geographic location and its military strength, ability to block the Strait of Malacca and dominance over the Indian Ocean, there is no doubt that there is no QUAD or Indo-Pacific strategy without India. When one looks at it from a bird’s eye view, it is a case of mutual necessity. In this environment of mutual necessity we need to forge ahead with the QUAD without a second thought. The forthcoming summit between the QUAD leaders presents a great opportunity for India to put out what it expects from the QUAD as outlined above so that an actionable road map of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific is visible. The time for talking is over.
(The author is the former Director General of Artillery. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).