Rajan Kumar & Shu Uchida
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the QUAD Leaders’ Summit at Tokyo on 24 May, 2022. Decisions taken at the summit are being considered crucial, as they will have far reaching regional and global consequences. Besides the war in Ukraine, two other developments make this Summit special: first, the formation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with 13 initial members; and second, the first-time presence and participation of Australia’s newly appointed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Experts had raised apprehensions about Australia’s foreign policy under the Australian Labour Party (ALP) government as the ALP had taken a sympathetic view of China. It had also been building strong ties with China in the past. However, Prime Minister Albanese, has assured the members that there would be no change in Australia’s policy and it would remain committed to the Quad.
The Biden team will make a concerted effort to iron out the differences and garner support for Ukraine. In the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine; Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo are united in their stance against Russia, as they consider it to be an aggressor. Thereby, each supporting the imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Russia. The three nations have offered logistic, diplomatic and economic assistance to the Ukrainian government against Russia. In contrast, New Delhi has taken a different position on the crisis in Ukraine; and it continues to abstain from the Western initiatives of condemning Russia in all the international forums. On several occasions, New Delhi has expressed its reservations about condemning Russia and isolating the latter from the global economic order.
In his remarks at the Quad Summit in Tokyo, President Biden dwelt upon the Russian aggression in Ukraine and underlined its geopolitical and security repercussions for the global order. In his words, the world is “navigating a dark hour in our shared history”. He sought to project the war as a ‘global issue’, and his support to Ukraine as being pivotal to the survival of the ‘liberal international order’. While three of the Quad leaders underlined the value of cooperation, and seemed more concerned about issues specific to the Indo-Pacific region; India, on the contrary, seems to be the odd one out, due to its position on the matter of Ukraine.
New Delhi too had its reasons for refusing to join the Western camp – First, it does not view the war between Ukraine and Russia as a conflict between democracy and autocracy. From India’s perspective, China, as an authoritarian state, is a bigger threat to the liberal democratic order than Russia. Also, Russia now, is a declining power as far as its global influence is concerned especially as its economic influence is limited to Eurasia. Despite its powerful military; it can no longer play the role that the former Soviet Union played in global politics. New Delhi does not subscribe to the Western narrative that President Putin is trying to revive the Soviet Union.
Second, Russia is pivotal to India’s strategy of regional balancing. More than emotions, pragmatism is at work. Western states do not encounter the prospect of a possible axis of Moscow-Beijing-Islamabad on its borders. For the European countries, managing Russia itself is such a huge concern. For New Delhi, both China and Pakistan are claimants and occupants of India’s territories, and both have also fought several wars with India to achieve those objectives. Beijing and Islamabad would therefore be happy to drive a wedge between Russia and India. Imran Khan’s recent visit to Moscow validates such fears. Iran is another country with which India has had close historical ties. This relationship too will come under tremendous strain if New Delhi abandons Moscow.
Russia also views India as a positive balancer in the region. The convergence of their interests brings the two countries together. New Delhi would not allow a Moscow-Beijing axis to work against it. In its recent border conflicts with China, it ensured Moscow’s neutrality through hard diplomatic efforts. It does not expect Moscow to come to its rescue in its war with China. It is well prepared, militarily and diplomatically, to deal on its own with any such eventuality. Moscow is also receptive to its concerns on its border. It allegedly played an instrumental role in bringing both India and China together through overt and covert diplomacy.
Third, the government in New Delhi finds it challenging to follow the Western sanctions on Russia. It is under immense pressure to control the inflation caused by the rise of energy prices and the disruption of supply chains. In normal circumstances, it would have avoided importing oil from Russia, which in any case is insignificant. However, the situation has become alarming in South Asia. Petrol prices have already crossed the red line of Rs 100 per litre. Any further escalation will ruin the prospect of the government’s re-election. Regimes in Pakistan and Sri Lanka paid the price for ignoring the inflation quandary. Till now, India has managed to escape the economic crisis. While it is growing well at the moment; if the crisis in Ukraine lingers, the consequences will be far-reaching and highly detrimental towards the end.
Finally, New Delhi considers Washington’s approach toward Ukraine to be short-sighted and bereft of any long-term vision. In its view, the real threat to the US hegemony and the liberal global order comes from China. Therefore, it is willing to cooperate with the trio nations of the US, Australia and Japan in the Quad. At the same time, India is also being extremely cautious and guarded in condemning Russia. It does not see a direct correlation between the crisis in Ukraine and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
New Delhi does not stand with Russia either. A careful analysis must also consider the change in India’s approach in the last few years. In the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, New Delhi maintained that “Russia has legitimate interests in Crimea”. However, in the case of the ongoing crisis, New Delhi does not reiterate that kind of language. It is guarded and cautious in condemning Russia but maintains a safe distance from the latter. In the United Nations General Assembly, T. S. Trimurti as India’s permanent representative, stressed about the states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. He noted that a powerful state should refrain from threatening its weak neighbours. It was a coded message to both Russia, and its neighbour China. New Delhi fears that the Russian aggression in Ukraine might encourage China to engage in similar misadventures in the South China Sea, especially in Taiwan.
Western states believe that harsh sanctions on Russia will deter China. Clearly, New Delhi is not convinced with this argument. It does not consider sanctions to be a real deterrent. Previous sanctions did not stop Russia, Iran or even North Korea from taking hostile measures. They will have far less impact on Beijing. It will require hard-core economic measures backed by a committed military to dissuade China from advancing in its neighbourhood. Ironically, the Biden administration seems to be working on a proposal to lift some of the Trump administration’s tariffs imposed on Chinese products. The intended purpose is to ease inflationary pressure on its economy. But it also demonstrates how the US cannot decouple its economy from China. Removing tariffs would amount to surrendering Washington’s economic leverage on Beijing.
In a significant announcement, the Quad leaders announced the formation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with 13 initial members: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Taiwan has been left out of the grouping. The IPEF is a long-awaited initiative, the origin of which can be traced back to the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) proposal. The Trump administration dumped that initiative. Meanwhile, China signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with Australia, Japan, South Korea and the South East Asian states. There was a genuine concern that some of these states would become dependent on China. The IPEF will provide an economic foundation to the Quad and reassure the South East Asian states of the US commitment to both trade and investment in the region.
Among the Quad members, India’s closest ties are perhaps with Japan. They have a format of annual summit meetings, and areas of friction are very few. In April 2022, however, India denied the request of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) to collect aid for Ukraine. A C-2 transport plane was supposed to collect relief items by a U.N agency in India, and transport them to Poland and Romania. India’s denial came under serious criticism in Japanese society. Since Japan is such a friendly country, such issues should have been tackled in a better way.
To sum up, New Delhi considers the Quad a pivotal organisation in the Indo-Pacific region. Its differences over Ukraine with other members have not impacted its attitude towards the Quad. In its view, the Ukraine issue is distinct from the concerns arising in the Indo-Pacific. Finally, the formation of the IPEF is a landmark achievement of this Quad Summit; the pros and cons of which will constitute a lively debate in the coming days.
(Rajan Kumar teaches in the School of International Studies, New Delhi.
Shu Uchida is an Assistant Professor at Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan.
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