The Indian invitation to leaders of the BIMSTEC grouping to attend the second swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a number of significant implications. For one, it is a sign that the current Indian establishment thinks that the SAARC framework continues to underperform and is simply not enough to facilitate India’s ambitions. For another, the attention to BIMSTEC, with location around the Bay of Bengal as its central organizing principle, can also be read as a sign of the return of a maritime focus in Indian foreign policy.
The challenge, however, is to ensure that any renewed focus on the maritime domain does not go the way of the ‘neighbourhood first’ approach of the first Modi administration.
To this end, it is important to consider afresh some of the approaches the Indian policy establishment has adopted to maritime concepts and groupings over the past decade and more. In recent years, the Indian government has been part of significant maritime groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) including its earlier iteration as the Quadrilateral Initiative, and begun using concepts like the ‘Indo-Pacific’. While these initiatives could form part of New Delhi’s ‘Act East’ Policy, it must be noted that neither the QSD nor the concept of the Indo-Pacific, as currently promoted, have India in a leadership role or even as an enthusiastic partner. Even as large sections of the strategic community in India see great promise in the QSD, there is an equally great reluctance by the government to actually declare any consistent or regular interest in the initiative.
This essay argues that rather than form groupings based only on India’s comfort level with certain countries or individuals leading them, as is the case now, New Delhi must push to create, as well as institutionalise, groupings based on certain clear principles. While membership can be ‘open’, it is only if these principles are accepted that membership should be possible. And the central organising principle of any new grouping in the Indo-Pacific must be that of respect for the idea of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, which, in turn, must be based on respect for international law, including UNCLOS. The essay uses a Chinese prism – specifically, Chinese views of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad – to argue why such an Indian approach will be more effective in deterring aggressive Chinese behaviour in the region and perhaps, even further afield.
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This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Let the Quad Die: Towards Greater Indian Leadership in the Indo-Pacific’, National Maritime Foundation, 17 July 2019.
A shorter version of this article was also published earlier as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India must create and lead a new regional grouping to replace Quad’, Moneycontrol.com, 12 June 2019.