India-China maritime talks signify improved ties, but quad remains key to effective Indo-Pacific strategy

India will soon discuss its views on the 'Indo-Pacific' region with China at the forthcoming second maritime dialogue between New Delhi and Beijing. This is an important development as India has recently held bilateral maritime dialogues with Indonesia and France, who have clear strategic stakes in the geography spanning the Indo-Pacific. India is soon going to hold similar dialogue with Russia as well.

 

The maritime dialogue with China assumes particular significance given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent articulation of India’s strategic vision of the 'Indo-Pacific' region at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

 

During the speech, Modi had echoed American demands for “freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with the international law”, while attacking regimes that put other nations under “impossible burdens of debt”. Both were unmistakable references to China’s rising assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea and its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, but Modi also remarked that “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests.”

 

Modi did not make any mention of the 'Quadrilateral' – an informal coordinating arrangement among India, the United States, Japan and Australia to counterbalance China’s growing power and assertiveness.

 

The origins of the ‘Quadrilateral’ or quad are very benign. The first informal meeting of the quad was held on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila in August 2007 between the leaders of India, the US, Japan and Australia. The four countries joined Singapore the following month in a large naval exercise. This was bound to draw Chinese attention, which it did. And the quad foundered over Australia’s concerns about ruffling China.

 

However, giving undue attention to the Chinese 'sensitivities' did not have any impact on its growing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific. As the Obama administration began pursuing ‘Pivot to Asia’, the Narendra Modi government also made serious attempts to ‘Act East’. Japan has been vocal against China, and Australia has come to express its growing disapproval of China’s disturbing behaviour in its strategic periphery. Consequently, the quad gained a new lease on life when officials from the four countries met on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in November last year.

 

Following Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the four held their second quad meeting in Singapore where they focused on “free and open” Indo-Pacific region and reiterated their commitment to uphold and strengthen the rules-based order. The emphasis on the role of ASEAN was a new addition this time as the countries reflected of the need to assuage concerns of the Southeast Asian countries that the formal creation of the quad would not take away ASEAN’s leading role in the region.

 

Given India’s improved relations with China in the last few months, as visible in the much-publicised ‘informal summit’ at Wuhan, India is understandably reluctant to be seen actively promoting the quad. Australia was reportedly keen to join this year’s annual Malabar Exercise involving India, Japan, and the US since Canberra believed that joining the exercise was a natural progression of the quad, but India declined to invite Australia. Therefore, the maritime dialogue with China — the second such meeting after 2016 — seeks to address Beijing’s 'concerns' over the quad dialogue process.

 

Is India making a decisive shift in its policy towards China? It is not clear whether New Delhi's sudden change in rhetoric is merely tactical in order to avoid another border flare-up with China in an election year or is driven by the recognition that India is not in a military and economic position to compete with China, coupled with growing unreliability of the US under President Donald Trump.

 

India continues to watch an impetuous American president dismantle the foundations of the US-led global order created some seven decades earlier. Trump’s notoriously reckless behaviour has been a matter of grave concern for traditional American allies and friends.

 

Recently, he chose to ignore the security concerns of South Korea and Japan by going ahead with a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whom he had derided not much earlier. After the North Korea-US summit in Singapore, Trump not only expressed his admiration for Kim but also cancelled longstanding military exercises with South Korea. These ill-advised and impulsive actions have served to undermine the trust that South Korea and Japan have reposed in the US leadership.

 

As Trump prepares to visit Europe for the NATO summit to be held on 11-12 July in Brussels, the Western leaders are also concerned. The reason is not far to seek. Trump has recently asked the US allies in NATO to pay more towards their defence and the European leaders feel that Trump would further undermine the alliance, which has been the basis of European security since 1949.

 

All previous American presidents have complained about the lack of burden-sharing by NATO member states, but it is Trump who has taken this criticism much further. Trump’s high-profile meeting scheduled with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki just a few days after the NATO summit has only added another layer of uncertainty about America’s security commitments.

 

In view of America’s rising unreliability as a partner and ally, and given Trump’s penchant for bilateral dealings, the scope of America’s strategic investment in the quadrilateral remains to be a matter of intense speculation and concern as long as he is in office. Under such uncertain circumstances, India seems to have been forced to revise its previous stance of countering China with the help of the quad. But New Delhi cannot remain oblivious to the complex struggles over ideas, power, and credibility in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. China’s strategic and economic partnership with Islamabad as manifest in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing’s growing involvement in Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives, and its brazen attempts to create frictions between India and Bhutan all have serious implications on India’s strategic interests.

 

Moreover, China wants to make sure that India remains completely bogged down in relationships of suspicion and mistrust with its neighbours only. When India signed a naval deal with Indonesia during Modi’s recent Jakarta visit, allowing the Indian Navy crucial access to north Sumatra’s Sabang port for maintaining a forward presence in the Straits of Malacca, China quickly made its anger public. A day ahead of Modi’s trip, China’s state-run Global Times asserted that Beijing would not "turn a blind eye" if New Delhi sought "military access to the strategic island of Sabang", advising India not to "wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers". Clearly, the ongoing militarisation of the South China Sea and the forward presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean Region underline the need for the creation of a resilient security order.

 

If the Indo-Pacific is regarded as the new organising principle of the foreign policies of India, US, Japan and Australia, the quad must also be viewed as its logical outcome. Whatever be the public statements from Indian policy-makers, the Indo-Pacific is essentially a geopolitical framework recognising the shift of the centre of gravity to Asia as an effective counterweight to China. The second meeting of the quad in Singapore broadly reflects the common assessment that China has become a disruptive force in the Indo-Pacific. India’s soft power has not been able to match China’s hard power as New Delhi does not seem to have any coherent response to the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s relentless efforts to expand its geopolitical reach in Asia and beyond through the use of trade and its military must consolidate the emergence of an Indo-Pacific region as a new and meaningful strategic community.

 

As far as Russia is concerned, India is undoubtedly clear that the quad cannot be a mechanism for challenging Russia’s influence in the region. Not even ASEAN countries subscribe to this notion that the quad will ever counter Russia. Modi has clarified that expanding partnership with Russia is an integral part of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. But the challenge lies somewhere else. At a moment when the prospect of China restraining its unilateralism remains doubtful, how meaningful it is to expect China to become a part of a “free, open, transparent, inclusive and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific” that India, the US, Japan and Australia are envisioning with partners from the ASEAN?

 

Despite Trump’s reckless foreign policymaking, India-US relations seem to be based on solid foundations even as there has been some perceptible coolness on the strategic front lately. Besides differences on Iran and Russia, New Delhi and Washington are also having divergent views on trade matters. The unpredictability unleashed by Trump may have adversely affected the prospects for the quad as well as dampened India’s enthusiasm for fitting the quad into the India-Pacific framework. Moreover, there has been a long tradition in Indian foreign policy to maintain the independence of its decision-making.

 

Aparna Pande, an influential Indian-American strategic expert associated with Washington-based Hudson Institute, has summed up India’s continuous search for strategic autonomy and its current predicament very well. In a testimony given to a US Congressional committee on foreign affairs in May, she argued that “India is a virtual American ally but is still reluctant to be a formal American ally... (since) ...India is different from traditional American allies whether in Europe, Latin America or Asia for whom the United States was the key security provider. India would never want that kind of a relationship.”

 

Pande’s advice to the Trump administration in this regard is perceptive: “Any short-term loss in dollars and cents or other, less significant nominal alliances, would be offset by the immense benefit to the United States of having a major, one-billion strong nation standing by its side to ensure that China and its closed system do not emerge dominant in the Asia-Pacific for years to come.”

 

India continues to maintain multiple engagements — ASEAN, BRICS, BIMSTEC, SCO and the quadrilateral — to face the challenges of a ‘polycentric’ world. While this 'multi-alignment' provides Indian diplomats with ample room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis their counterparts from major powers — avoiding markedly one-sided relations with particular groupings — it is the quad which has the potential to emerge as the most reliable mechanism to manage the challenge from China. India’s hedging approach — both seeking to contain and engaging directly with China — is politically expedient in the short run, but not without long-term consequences to India’s security, sovereignty, and status.

 

This article was first published on firstpost.com