The elevation of the Quad (India-US-Japan-Australia) dialogue to the political level was an overdue step. After four official level meetings, the foreign ministers of the four countries have met at New York during the UN General Assembly session.
India has had reservations about the Quad from the time it was mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as coming together of US, Japan, India and Australia as democracies to resist China’s muscle-flexing in the South China and East China Seas.
India, with its own issues with China’s aggrandisement, could not be integrated with Abe’s concept with its focus on China’s conduct in the western Pacific without linking the maritime security of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which the Indo-Pacific concept does. Once India signed on to a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Regions with the US in 2015, it accepted the security linkage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
With the US renaming its Asia-Pacific Command at Hawaii as the Indo-Pacific Command, this linkage has got reinforced in US naval plans for the region, with a much stronger focus on India. The Malabar Exercise has in some ways become the military dimension of the India-US Vision Document, though its origin in 1992 was purely bilateral. With expanding India-US defence ties, US has been pushing for Japan to join this exercise to make it trilateral, which was done in 2015. The next logical step in line with Abe’s original vision would be for Australia to join the Malabar Exercise, which it has been keen to do.
While the US is very supportive, India has so far been reticent, though India has stepped up its own bilateral defence exchanges with Australia, that has included a major naval exercise with Australia recently in the Bay of Bengal and our defence minister’s planned visit in November which might produce a logistics access agreement. India’s concern about making the Malabar Exercise quadrilateral might be to avoid the risk of India being perceived as moving towards joining a military alliance, as the other three countries are military allies.
India has so far preferred to treat the Quad at a diplomatic level, with four official-level meetings at the joint secretary level, until the latest political move. India’s cautiousness in deepening the Quad, apart from its alliance tinge, has been a degree of sensitivity to China’s concerns about it being an American move to rope India into a group intended to counter it in Asia. India may have reasoned that to maintain a balance in our foreign policy it may not helpful in the long run to allow our China policy, however problematic our issues with China, to become constrained by the interests of others, especially as we would have little control over how they pursue those interests with China.
The depth of ties of the US, Japan and Australia with China far surpasses ours.
Besides, our issues with China are much graver on land than, for the time being, on the sea, where the Quad or the Indo-Pacific concept may not render us the support needed to deal with them. Australia’s public opinion on policy towards China is divided in view of the massive bilateral trade and investment relationship. Moreover, China’s political penetration in Australia, which the establishment Down Under finds difficult to handle, might also have been a factor until now for India’s lack confidence in Australia’s commitment to the Quad beyond diplomatic messaging. Meanwhile, India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has evolved, as reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue at Singapore in 2018. The ASEAN countries are suspicious of the Indo-Pacific concept, fearing that it will undermine ASEAN’s centrality in developing a regional security architecture in Asia and push them, with the concept’s seemingly anti-Chinese thrust, to choose between the US and China, which they are loath to do.
Modi, therefore, emphasised in his speech that the Indo-Pacific concept was not a strategic one, it was inclusive and not directed against any country and that ASEAN was central to it. With Russia also opposed to the concept, believing it is directed at it too, the reformulation of our approach to the Indo-Pacific construct is intended to give us the space we need to manage our multi-vectored diplomacy in the region. We have separated the Indo-Pacific concept from the Quad, which has a broader agenda, covering terrorism, cybersecurity, development finance, etc. While arguments in favour of India being measured in its approach to the Indo-Pacific concept or Quad are not to be dismissed, the fact remains that China disregards provocatively our interests and sensitivities. From placing the Kashmir issue on the UN Security Council agenda and questioning our sovereignty over the whole of Ladakh, to mentioning Kashmir in its UNGA speech (one of only three countries) accusing us of human rights violations and renewed incidents in Ladakh, and so on, China has shown disregard towards us, without feeling responsible about maintaining a positive atmosphere before the next informal Modi-Xi summit in India. Our raising the Quad dialogue to foreign minister level has been the right move before the summit.