After spending a decade on the pages of security studies journals, the once dissolved Quadrilateral Initiative made a comeback last month. On the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila, India, Japan, Australia and the US, engaged in a four-way dialogue about an open and transparent maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region. The meeting prompted speculation that the big democracies in Asia were again at work, trying to forge an alliance to counter Chinese naval and economic power in the region. For many in New Delhi, the quadrilateral discussion in concert with India’s strengthening developing naval ties with Quad-partners is a possible indication of New Delhi’s willingness to be part of a China focused naval compact in maritime-Asia. Others noted the grouping’s potential to pose an economic counter to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Against this compelling backdrop, Observer Research Foundation held a quadrilateral debate on November 14, 2017 to test the viability of two important propositions: 1) Can India, US Australia and Japan form a potent naval alliance to counter China in the Indo-Pacific? 2) Would Asia’s “Concert of Democracies” present a viable alternative to China’s BRI?
Speaking first in support of the naval-quad, Vice Admiral Anup Singh argued that the revival of the initiative was a sign that India’s longstanding hedging strategy was beginning to bear fruit. China’s negative perception of the quad, he noted, was a reminder that likeminded powers in the Indo-Pacific could combine forces to counter an aggressive and assertive Beijing. Singh stressed on the quad’s potential to provide a form of insurance against China’s maritime infrastructure development in South Asia. With Australia keen to participate in the Malabar naval exercises and the broadening of India’s maritime Act-East interactions, India’s security imperatives were beginning to crystallise. The onus is on New Delhi to continue with the momentum by formalising a naval-Quad. In response to a query from the moderator, Abhijit Singh, Senior Fellow, ORF, as to whether it is a rational move since China had not directly challenged India’s sovereign interests in the regional commons, Admiral Singh simply posed a counter-question: “Why should we wait for a Chinese provocation in our littorals”?
Dr. Abhijnan Rej, Fellow, ORF, sought to contradict Admiral Singh’s sanguine assessment of the naval-quad by pointing to chinks in India’s defence relationship with the US, Australia and Japan. Not only was New Delhi’s security cooperation with its partners uncoordinated, its statement issued at the completion of the quad meeting differed considerably from those of other quad members. More crucially, the absence of naval inter-operability was a sign that conditions weren’t ripe for a naval alliance. Among other things, Dr Rej noted India’s need to address three critical lacunae to operationalise the quad: missing logistical arrangements, absent intelligence sharing reconnaissance capabilities, and the inability to carry out joint-FONOPS.
Dr. Rej stressed on effective command and control as a key enabler of maritime inter-operability. Even if India were to sign on the foundational agreements, viz. CISMOA (Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) with the US, he expressed doubts if India could still be included in the US navy’s CENTRIX arrangement. In a purely maritime context, India could only hope to deter China, if New Delhi agreed to a treaty alliance with the US – a proposition unacceptable to many in India’s political system. The question for Indian policymakers then, he noted, was not whether India, the US, Australia and Japan needed to form an effective naval alliance to counter China in the Indo-Pacific (a definite Yes), but if the enterprise has any chances of surviving the political turbulence it would trigger in its wake (No – for the moment)?
On the second proposition, Jayadeva Ranade made arguments in favour of the economic-quad, squarely flagging Asia’s China challenge. Drawing attention to the PLA’s muscle flexing at land and sea in the Asian littorals, he highlighted Beijing’s bid to synthesise a maritime military strategy with an ambitious economic proposal in the form of the BRI.
With a projected strength of 350 warship and 100 submarines by 2030-2035, Ranade noted the Chinese navy was poised to dominate the maritime affairs of Asia. Worryingly for India, \BRI is poised to “link production centres in China with natural resource centres and markets around the world and girdle the globe on a China built communication pathway.” The imperative for New Delhi is to assess the aforesaid developments in light of the threats issued by China during the Dokhlam crisis; Beijing’s support for insurgency in the northeast; and a change in the PRC’s stance towards Sikkim.
The least India needs, Ranade observed, is an economic partnership with quad-partners that could line up industrial capacity and resources to counter Beijing’s BRI. In response to a query from the moderator as to why the economic-quad’s lacked specifics, he pointed to India’s cooperation with Japan in West Asia and Africa, where things appeared to be falling in place for New Delhi. If the Chabahar port and the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor are considered good starting points, Ranade concluded, with more time and operational focus, the economic-Quad would be up and running.
The last speaker, Suhasini Haidar, the Diplomatic Editor of the Hindu, sought to dispel the myth of the quad, which, she reminded the audience, had failed to take off in the past. If the “defensive” statement by the countries’ at the completion of the meeting at Manila were any indication, the new initiative, she noted, seemed doomed to flounder. Indeed, the meeting had signaled a lack of clarity about the aims and objectives of the quad, where each country seemed to be playing safe and in accordance with its own security agenda. But India, Suhasini brought out, had been especially inconsistent – marginalising Australia (through an exclusion from the Malabar exercise), and setting a debt-trap of its own in South Asia. India’s economic initiatives in its neighbourhood lacked credibility because they had provided no alternative to China’s BRI in infrastructure-starved nations like Bhutan.
It is sobering that Hambantota and Colombo ports – now part of the BRI — were initially offered to India for development. New Delhi’s refusal to undertake massive infra-projects was chiefly responsible for China’s economic penetration of South Asia. Whatever decision New Delhi takes on the future of the quad, it needs to be conscious of its own political history of never being an alliance partner of the US, nor joining any coalition to counter a third party. India, Haider asserted, would sacrifice these longstanding principles at its own peril, risking a potential “confrontation with a country it shares a 3,000 km long land boundary with.” Delhi’s best option, she noted, was to be “un-China” – not attempt to beat China at its own game.
In a lively Q&A, participants pointed to the absence of an economic backbone for the quad and the lack of political and legal infrastructure to sustain a rules-based order in Asia. In particular audience members pointed to the inability of the US to ratify the UNCLOS. Many agreed that despite the military and economic logic of the quad, it seemed unlikely the grouping would succeed in ‘containing China’. And yet, many seemed convinced about the need to warn China to heed “Indian red-lines in the Indian Ocean.”
The vote that followed reflected the tenor of the discussions in the Q&A. On the first proposition, naval-quad cynics affected an 18% swing against the motion (78/22 to 60/40). On the second proposition, the “Concert of Democracies” got a definitive thumbs-down with economic quad skeptics engineering a 12% swing (34/66 to 22/78) against the proposition.
Evidently, in the public imagination at least, India’s quad-moment has still not arrived.
This report is prepared by Tuneer Mukherjee and Premesha Saha, Junior Fellows, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.