India needs the Quad to counter China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific region
Vinay Kaura says India has downplayed the ‘Quad’ security arrangement and attempted to spin the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept in a way that does not provoke Beijing, but China’s growing power is still a disruptive force in the region and the grouping may be the best way to counter it.
India’s forthcoming maritime dialogue with China on the “Indo-Pacific” has assumed greater significance since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s articulation of his vision for the region at the Shangri-La Dialogue. This vision was distinct from America’s.
Although Modi echoed US demands for “freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law”, he also said that “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together … [being] sensitive to each other’s interests”. Modi made no mention of the “Quad” – an informal arrangement between India, the US, Japan and Australia to counterbalance China.
India’s ties with the US are on an upward trajectory, with Donald Trump’s administration building on work by previous administrations and with China’s unprecedented rise, particularly in the western Pacific and the eastern Indian oceans. This has led to the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” and renaming of America’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
However, recent public differences on key issues, from Iran sanctions to trade, and the abrupt postponement of the “2+2 dialogue”, suggest a new coolness in US-India relations. Given Trump’s penchant for bilateral dealings, America’s strategic investment in the Quad remains a matter of intense speculation as long as he is in office.
Therefore, it would seem that India needs to revise its stance of countering China with the Quad. Given its improved relations with Beijing in recent months, New Delhi is understandably reluctant to be seen to be actively promoting it.
But India cannot remain oblivious to the complex struggles over ideas, power and credibility in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, where China has unnerved India’s security and foreign policy establishment.
China wants to ensure India remains bogged down in suspicion and mistrust with its neighbours and does not have the strategic appetite to “act east”.
For instance, 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, China quickly made its anger public.
A day ahead of Modi’s trip, China’s state-run Global Times advised India not to “entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers”.
The ongoing militarisation of the South China Sea and forward presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean region underline the need for a resilient security order. If the “Indo-Pacific” is regarded as the new foreign policy principle of the four nations involved, the Quad must be its logical outcome.
The meeting of the Quad in Singapore broadly reflects the common assessment that China has become a disrupting force in the region. China’s efforts to expand its reach in Asia and beyond through trade and its military must lead to the emergence of an Indo-Pacific region as a meaningful strategic community.
On Russia, India’s stance remains clear: the Quad cannot be used as a mechanism for challenging Moscow’s influence in the region. A key defence partner, Russia will become increasingly vital to India’s strategic ambitions in Eurasia for connectivity and energy. Modi has clarified that expanding the partnership with Russia is integral to India’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
It is therefore reasonable for New Delhi to expect Washington to adopt a mutually accommodating position to develop a long-term vision of the Indo-Pacific region. India may hope for a thaw in America’s approach to Russia during Trump’s impending summit with Vladimir Putin this month, as neither New Delhi nor Washington benefits from Moscow being a committed ally of Beijing.
But can India expect China to become part of a “free, open, transparent, inclusive and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific”? Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has dismissed the Indo-Pacific as an idea that would “dissipate like ocean foam”.
Despite a growing divergence in expectations, Indo-US relations are based on solid foundations of broadly similar ideas and institutions like democracy and the rule of law. But Trump’s unpredictability may have adversely affected the prospects for the Quad and dampened India’s enthusiasm for fitting it into the Indo-Pacific framework to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Moreover, given India’s painful experience of colonialism and sense of victimhood, its foreign policy has a long tradition of promoting autonomy in strategic decision-making. Therefore, Modi finds it difficult to escape well-entrenched discourse and institutionalised processes in foreign policy.
The manner in which the Modi government seeks to engage Beijing on the Indo-Pacific also proves that New Delhi lacks a guiding framework for its China policy.
For India and the US, a further shift in ties could prove costly, particularly as China continues to implement its own agenda for a new global order. While India’s “multi-alignment” may provide ample room for manoeuvre by avoiding markedly one-sided relations with particular groupings, the Quad could potentially emerge as the most reliable mechanism to manage China’s challenge.
However, efforts must be made to form a broad-based alliance without polarising Indo-Pacific countries, creating a zero-sum competition.
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Vinay Kaura, PhD, is an assistant professor in international affairs and security studies, at Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan, India