India should beware as ‘the Quad’ evolves toward an informal military alliance in Asia

by: Sarang Shidore

The escalating U.S.-China conflict over trade and technology is garnering international headlines. But the emergence of a U.S.-led embryonic military alliance, also involving Japan, Australia, and India, ought to be equally worrying to those opposed to a new global cold war. Known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialog, or “Quad,” the grouping may hold its first-ever joint military exercise next month. India, which faces an assertive China on its borders, may have the most to lose in this evolution. But India is also best positioned to limit the Quad’s trajectory and should do so before it is too late.

The Quad was first proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who resigned this week due to health issues — in 2007 but the idea went dormant thereafter. The United States and Japan revived the grouping in 2017, arguing that China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative needed to be countered by a rival infrastructural push. Meanwhile, the traditional term “Asia-Pacific” in U.S. security discourse was replaced by a newly constructed geography — the “Indo-Pacific” — combining the Indian and Pacific Oceans and their littorals, and the U.S. Pacific Command renamed the Indo-Pacific Command.

In time though, the Quad has shown itself to be less interested in building highways and power plants and much more in joint patrols and military exercises, coupled with diplomatic rhetoric of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and a stress on common democratic values. India’s already-close defense relationship with Washington has effectively become trilateral, with Japan being included on a permanent basis in the annual Malabar military exercise. If Australia is included in this year’s exercise as anticipated, it would effectively mark the Quad’s coming-out party as a military alliance.

The Quad’s member states have denied that it is an alliance, or anti-Chinese. That is misleading. For one, Australia and Japan are already part of the formal, decades-old hub-and-spoke system of U.S. alliances in Asia. This does leave India as the odd one out. However, we no longer live in a world of new, formal military alliances. Most states prefer to keep their security partnerships flexible. Yet this does not eliminate the evolution of coherent security structures and informal commitments.

The Quad is an example of the form alliances of the future may take — with no formal mutual-assistance treaty, secretariat, or even a website. But a clear identification of the common adversary, deep inter-operability, regular adversary-specific exercises, and cooperative ventures to build up each other’s capacity can make informal alliances sufficiently potent. The gap presented by India’s formal ally status in Washington is being rapidly made up through deep Indian involvement in the U.S. defense architecture, undergirded by arms sales and pacts facilitating logistics and communications inter-operability between the militaries, further supplanted by an agreement with Australia.

In fact, Washington embraced the new geography of the “Indo-Pacific” precisely to bring India into the fold of the U.S.-led security architecture in Asia. It was a way to expand the hub-and-spoke alliance system in Asia. India presented a challenge for Washington — it was not only not a formal U.S. ally, but it also possessed a stubborn tradition of strategic autonomy from the days of its founding as an anti-colonial republic in 1947. India also has a major capabilities gap with China, which made it sensitive to rushing into an overtly anti-Beijing alliance. This included staying well clear of disputes to which it was not a claimant state, such as the South China Sea. There were many cooperative aspects to the India-China relationship on multilateral trade, climate change, and global norms.

Three factors have darkened this competitive-cooperative dynamic. The first is the rise of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in New Delhi in 2014. A hard nationalist, Modi early on placed his bets on Washington by recklessly wading into the South China Sea dispute. He also struck a deep rapport with fellow Asian nationalist Abe — and took an overt position critical of China in his first visit to Tokyo as prime minister. Continuing localized Chinese incursions culminated in a serious military stand-off high in the Doklam plateau adjacent to Bhutan in 2017, in which China largely prevailed. After a brief thaw in ties, India resumed its military forays into the South China Sea, even as Chinese incursions stepped up on the border. India also strongly opposed the BRI.

The second factor is Washington’s increased determination to counter the rise of China. Its roots are in the Obama era with Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea as a key tool. President Trump’s anti-globalism has opened a new front on trade, but the simultaneous revival and gelling of the Quad indicates that the military dimension is no less prominent.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vast concentration of powers and his embrace of an assertive domestic and foreign policy is the third driver. Beijing and Islamabad inked the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a part of the BRI, annoying New Delhi. But Chinese incursions into buffer zones on the India border and the subsequent clash leading to the death of 20 Indian troops in June 2020 was a key setback. These were the first fatalities on the disputed India-China border since 1975. More than two months later, China continues to hold its newly acquired territory.

Thus, developments in Washington, Beijing, and Delhi have together accelerated the drift toward a new cold war in Asia. The greatest proximate danger is the formation of defined, adversarial military blocs, which would harden rivalries and enhance chances of violent incidents. Should Asia be dominated by contending military blocs, weaker and frontline states will face the greatest dangers. India fits this description well.

But India’s idiosyncratic status in the Quad also gives it unique leverage for limiting the grouping’s evolution. India could do this by vetoing further militarization of the Quad. Most immediately, this would mean the non-inclusion of Australia in the upcoming Malabar exercise, and maintaining the current approach of not issuing joint statements at Quad summits. More proactively, India could push the Quad toward its original political-economic understanding. New Delhi  could also strengthen ties with its non-Quad partners with strategic ties to China. As I have written elsewhere, Russia and Iran are key here. Russia, in particular, has deep interdependencies with India. Persuading Russia to join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy is however unlikely to work.

A policy of restraint in New Delhi does not equate to naivete. The role of ASEAN — and Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia in particular — should be made central to a policy of resolved restraint. These countries (as also U.S. ally South Korea), hardly China’s clients, have wisely stayed away from the Quad for a reason. India has spoken of the centrality of ASEAN to Asian security, but has failed to translate this into a meaningful strategy.

If China is indeed inherently and immutably aggressive, a new cold war in Asia may be unavoidable. But very rarely is the world divisible into a neat contest between good and evil. Democracies can be offensive power-maximizers and autocracies defensive security-seekers, and vice versa. Moreover, adversarial relationships can be constructed and deconstructed. India’s choices could help nudge Washington toward a grand strategy of restraint in Asia — critical to prevent vigorous economic competition turning into open conflict and warfare.

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