Quad Game: As Indo-Pacific Anarchy Reigns, India Must Play It Safe
Even as the Quad at the ASEAN summit raises hopes, India should be cautious about its own strategic interests.
The world keenly followed the coming together of global leaders in Philippines where the Indian Prime Minister attended the ASEAN and East Asia summits. On the sidelines of these summits, he met with the leaders of the US, Japan and Australia – Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe and Malcolm Turnbull.
This put focus on the revival of the famous grouping of democracies, called the ‘Quad’ – the coming together of these three countries along with India to form an alliance in the region.
Not enough time to read? Listen to the story here:
The Quad: Stillborn in 2008
In its initial avatar, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among these four countries was stillborn – it died in 2008, just one year after it was initiated on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum. It is believed that the reason for its premature demise was Australia’s withdrawal from this grouping after pressure from China. Ten years later, in 2017, leaders of these four countries met and revived the Quad.
On this discussion, India issued a press briefing outlining:
The discussions focused on cooperation based on their converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity... They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries....
This explicit mention of the Quad meeting and what it desires to achieve shows that a lot has changed since 2008.
Fear of Chinese Unilateralism
In 2008, the Global Financial Crisis punched holes in US hegemony, particularly in Asia, which had largely remained unchallenged since 1945. In Europe, a series of economic crises and political turmoils have compelled the region to turn inwards.
The biggest changes occurred in Asia – which was staring at vacuum upon some retraction by the US and Europe. Having long been termed an “emerging” country, China under Xi Jinping claimed its position as a global economic leader and started testing the waters with its neighbours on a range of issues.
China singlehandedly took on a group of its neighbours on the South China Sea issue and has kept India vigilant at its border. A few weeks ago, Xi Jinping acquired massive domestic political capital as he got his name immortalised in the Communist Party’s Constitution.
This, coupled with China’s overlooking of international law on South China Sea, its continuous shrug to India’s action on Masood Azhar and its attempt to get a seat in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and Japan’s likely amendment of the Article 9 of its Constitution, has created a rather volatile situation in the region. The fear of China’s unilateralism in the region became an actual threat, rather than the distant speculation as it was before 2008.
Trading of Regional Sovereignty
As per international relations theorist David Lake, sovereignty is a tradeable good. Now as an anarchic system in the Indo-Pacific – in which nations pursue their own self-interest following a shift in power relations – plays out, balancing will happen based on trading of sovereignty. Sovereignty takes various forms, but the Westphalian description of sovereignty – wherein external actors are excluded from acting within another’s geographical territory – is most relevant in the Indo-Pacific region.
In signing these treaties, both countries traded their sovereignty with the hegemon of our time – United States – as they balanced against the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.
Such trading of sovereignty led to a rearrangement of hierarchy, not only in Asia but also globally, with the US at top of the stack.
Coming back to current times, with anarchy prevailing in Asia, regional hierarchy is up for grabs again and therefore, sovereignty will be traded at higher frequency and volume till we see order in the Indo-Pacific region. This Quad is potentially an effective multilateral instrument through which sovereignty might be traded until we find a regional hegemon.
Why India Should be Cautious of the Quad
One can advise that India should tread cautiously into the Quad for a variety of reasons. First, India’s self-interests vary from the interests of the three partners. India’s focus on regional peace, economic growth and connectivity is a shade different from their focus on “freedom of navigation” and the “rules-based order”.
Second, India has very carefully managed to stay out of the American global security alliance architecture. Since three out of four partners are already in a military alliance, it would be a tough call for India to resist being drawn into the security alliance with the US.
Third, India’s relations with China, the two large emerging economies with long border connectivity amid the liveliness of the Pakistan and Kashmir issue and India’s position on Tibet, make it more complex than a zero-sum game. India also shares many common interests with China at the bilateral, regional, and global level.
Fourth, India is not the primary stakeholder in issues wherein the US, Japan and Australia are pitted against China.
In conclusion, the present unfolding of regional affairs in Indo-Pacific is a live case-study on international relations theories. Such a study would only help policy-makers and IR enthusiasts to comprehend current affairs more objectively. Based on such comprehension and India’s foreign policy objectives, one would recommend that India accept the Quad with open arms but a cautious eye.
(The writer is a Public Policy Specialist with NITI Aayog and can be reached @dhardevashish. The views and analysis expressed in the article do not reflect the views of NITI Aayog. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(Breathe In, Breathe Out: Are you finding it tough to breathe polluted air? Join hands with FIT in partnership with #MyRightToBreathe to find a solution to pollution. Send in your suggestions to email@example.com or WhatsApp @ +919999008335)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.