Growing maritime competition in the Indian ocean has compelled India to engage in maritime diplomacy with the Quad countries to upkeep its commitment for a free and open Indo-Pacific region
At the first India-Australia 2+2 ministerial meet in early September, India’s foreign minister, S Jaishankar made an important clarification regarding the Quad. In response to reports in the media of Chinese attempts to portray the Quad as an “Asian NATO”, Jaishankar said that it was a seeming “misrepresentation of reality”.<1> The Quad, he averred, was but a “platform for four countries to cooperate for their benefit and for the benefit of the world…Unlike NATO, a Cold War term, the Quad looked very much to the future, reflecting globalisation and the compulsions of countries to work together.”<2>
That explanation, evidently, did little to convince mandarins in Beijing. Ahead of the Quadrilateral summit in New York in late September—the first in-person meeting of these country leaders—a Chinese spokesperson denounced the Quad as “a clique formed to target a third country.”<3> The group’s “zero sum thinking and ideological bias”, the official complained, “was unsuited for trust building and cooperation between regional states.”
Quad engagement in the Indian Ocean would certainly be useful in developing the habits of cooperation with friendly naval powers.
This is not the first time that Chinese officials have criticised the Quad. Since March 2021, when the group held its first leader-level summit and issued a leader-level communiqué, China has been wary of warming ties between Quad states.<4> At the time, Quad leaders’ pledges of commitment for a free and open Indo-Pacific region had seemed partly rhetorical. Since then, naval engagement between Quad states has intensified, making it clear to Chinese observers that the military-Quad represents a significant challenge to Beijing’s maritime ambitions in Asia.Indeed, the growing synergy between Quad navies has been all too evident. Since November 2020, when the Royal Australia navy joined the navies of India, Japan and the US for the Malabar exercises<5> in the Bay of Bengal, there have been a series of multilateral naval engagements between the Quad partners. In April this year, Quad powers joined France for exercise La Perouse in the Eastern Indian Ocean—an elaborate affair comprising complex interoperability exercises that involved carrier strike groups, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and attack submarines.<6> Quad navies met again in August for the first phase of the Malabar 2021 exercise off the coast of Guam in the Western Pacific.<7> If these were not enough to unnerve observers in Beijing, India announced it would hold a tri-services exercise with the Royal Navy in October 2021, and the US, UK and Australia revealed plans for a new trilateral alliance that will help equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. Many Chinese analysts now feel their apprehensions about the Quad stand vindicated.<8>
To be sure, many in India share Chinese assessments about the Quad. Indian political observers and foreign policy analysts, too, believe that Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar naval exercises imparts more than a military dimension to the Quadrilateral; it in fact signals unified resolve to Beijing.<9> Not only is India willing to make common cause with partners to counter Chinese unilateralism in the Indian Ocean, Indian analysts aver, New Delhi is no longer hesitant to offend Chinese sensitivities in the Western Pacific. Some theorists advocate an even more aggressive Indian response in the littorals. The Indian navy, they say, must consider “interdicting Chinese oil tankers in the Eastern Indian Ocean.”<10>
This is more than bluster. Many in India’s strategic community believe that maritime competition between China and India is inevitable.<11> The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) expansion in the Indian Ocean, they reckon, is bound to eventually contradict Indian interests. Realists say that China’s quest to dominate India’s neighbourhood would inevitably create the conditions for maritime conflict.
When the Royal Australia navy joined the navies of India, Japan and the US for the Malabar exercises in the Bay of Bengal, there have been a series of multilateral naval engagements between the Quad partners.
Yet an aggressive Indian strategy in the Andaman Seas is likely to be complicated. Aside from the fact that ‘trade warfare’ is known to be ineffective in peace-time, Indian attempts to interdict Chinese shipping in the Indian Ocean could trigger regional blowback against India. ASEAN and Bay of Bengal states are bound to view the disruption of regular shipping in the high seas as a hostile act that imposes unacceptable costs on neutrals. Targeting Chinese oil tankers in the Andaman Sea could even render Indian shipping vulnerable in the Western Pacific. So far, the Chinese navy has been careful to largely keep clear of Indian red lines. For all its assertive manoeuvring in the South China Sea, PLAN has desisted from deploying in and around India’s territorial waters or the Exclusive Economic Zones. But things could go rapidly south if India were to try and interdict Chinese shipping in the littorals.
It is worth bearing in mind that the PLAN is the world’s second most powerful navy. Chinese commanders may be constrained by the absence of operational logistics, ship-based air cover, and land-based maritime reconnaissance capabilities in the Indian Ocean—gaps that the Indian Navy hopes to exploit—but it would be folly for India to underestimate Chinese combat capacity.
Instead the Indian Navy should focus on tracking Chinese naval activity in the Bay of Bengal to preempt and prevent a Chinese build-up in the neighbourhood. In recent years, the real challenge to India has come from Chinese non-military deployments: research and survey vessels, intelligence ships, and mining vessels with underwater drones. China has also looked to leverage its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects to reduce its tactical deficit in the Eastern Indian Ocean.<12> The Indian navy then would do well to prioritise intelligence and information sharing, and maritime diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal. New Delhi should ensure Chinese-built facilities are not used as supply hubs for PLAN warships and submarines.
Quad posturing aside, the Indian navy has been careful not to engage in multilateral exercises around contested regions of the South China Sea.
China-skeptics in India, however, need not see an IN-PLAN clash as imminent or inevitable. However fraught the bilateral relationship may be in the Himalayas, Delhi and Beijing have been largely respectful of each other’s maritime sphere of interest, keenly aware of the dangers of an inadvertent flare-up. Quad posturing aside, the Indian navy has been careful not to engage in multilateral exercises around contested regions of the South China Sea. In the Indian Ocean, too, the IN has desisted from aggravating moves that could complicate efforts to ensure a peaceful land border with China.
Quad engagement in the Indian Ocean would certainly be useful in developing the habits of cooperation with friendly naval powers. The Indian navy must seek to deepen engagement with navies of Japan, Australia, Britain, France and the United States—not only to enhance interoperability, but also to acquire critical strategic technology. But India’s naval leadership must recognise the virtues of maritime diplomacy. Military signaling to China must not be an invitation to conflict, especially at a time when both sides are trying to negotiate a truce on the contested border in Ladakh.
This piece is part of ORF’s Special Report No. 161, The Rise and Rise of the ‘Quad’: Setting an Agenda for India | ORF (orfonline.org)
<1> “Quad looks into future, say India and Australia, rebuff China”, Times of India, September 12, 2021.
<2> “Quad looks into future”
<3> “China slams upcoming in-person Quad summit in Washington”, Hindustan Times, September 14, 2021.
<4> “Quad meet: China says ‘exclusive blocs’ should not 'target third party”, The Hindu, March 12, 2021.
<5> “Navies of India, US, Japan, Australia conclude phase 1 of Malabar 2020 naval exercise”, The Economic Times, November 7, 2020.
<6> “Quad navies join France-led drills in Indian Ocean”, Hindustan Times, April 5, 2021.
<8> “Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines as first initiative of AUKUS”, Hindustan Times, September 16, 2021.
<9> C Raja Mohan, “Consolidation of the Quad reflects Delhi’s political will to break free from old shibboleths”, November 3, 2020, Indian Express.
<11> Sriram Chaulia, “Malabar 2021 and Beyond: India’s Naval Pushback Against China,” The Diplomat, September 12, 2021,
<12> Abhijit Singh, “Rules-Based Maritime Security in Asia: A View from New Delhi”, Occasional Paper 266, Observer Research Foundation, August 17, 2020.
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A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...Read More +