Looking Beyond China: Strengthening Bilateral Relationships in the Quad

In early June, a “virtual summit” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, led to the signing of several agreements that have significant implications for regional security. The call for a deeper maritime partnership between the two countries and an important agreement on mutual logistics support in each other’s military bases come against a backdrop of bilateral tensions in both the India-China and Australia-China relationships.

Chinese transgressions on the Line of Actual Control between India and China have been ongoing over the past month and while this is not a new phenomenon what was notable was that these transgressions took place at multiple locations in Sikkim and Ladakh, indicating perhaps, a new phase in bilateral tensions. Australia-China relations, meanwhile, are in a particularly difficult phase. Canberra’s push for an independent international investigation into the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic attracting furious reaction from Beijing which accused the Australians of playing proxy for the United States. In the inflated Chinese view of themselves, no country accusing China of wrongdoing has any agency or rationale of its own but is always serving American interests.

Talk of a post-Covid world order often centres around the decline or the retreat of the US from global leadership implying that the field is clear for China to pursue its ambitions to take over with even greater speed. However, as countries like Australia and others like France and Germany – despite the general failure of a collective response from the European Union – have shown, a vacuum created by the US does not necessarily mean that liberal democracies elsewhere will not stand up to China.

Under the circumstances, New Delhi too, has a responsibility of standing more strongly with other democracies both in rhetoric and in action.  It is a responsibility that it has often fought shy of with the argument that China is a neighbour and one with which it has an active boundary dispute and that India must, therefore, be much more careful in its responses. This argument is no doubt an important one but it has also over time become an excuse for inaction and a lack of creative thinking. The failure of the first iteration of the Quad comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia is a case in point – more than any other country, it was India that needed a countervailing coalition against China’s rise given the increasing gap in capabilities with China. And yet, India simply did not put in the effort required to save the grouping.

Strengthening the Bilateral Leg

Quad 2.0 has proceeded more determinedly even if slowly but the Covid-19 pandemic now offers an opportunity to step up the pace. The issue now is of ensuring that Chinese pressure does not derail its development yet again.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the way forward might be to focus more on the bilateral prongs of the Quad.

To take the example, of just India and Australia, each nation has substantially more important economic ties with China than they do with each other and this is a significant shortcoming of the relationship. Further, the political and intellectual elites in Australia are nowhere near as united on the challenges from China as their counterparts in India. Chinese diplomats are adept at exploiting such differences and divisions.

The response to these weaknesses should be to double down on improving the scale and scope India-Australia interactions, to invest ties with greater ambition, especially in bilateral and multilateral defence cooperation. No matter how careful New Delhi and Canberra try to be, China’s worldview is such that it views any cooperation between democracies, as threatening the legitimacy of its ruling Communist Party. Beijing will, therefore, always try to weaken and undermine such ties by a variety of means ranging from threats to blandishments.

To start with, it is time that Australia became a full participant in the Malabar naval exercises involving the Indian, American, and Japanese navies. New Delhi has declared its willingness to include Australia but a final decision is possibly being delayed over concerns that this would complicate the resolution of the ongoing LAC standoffs with China. However, it is precisely such ‘caution’ that Chinese actions seek to induce and which encourages further Chinese pressure. India’s relationships with each of the members of the Quad have intrinsic worth of their own and should not be understood as always being tied to the state of India’s ties with China even if this might influence immediate-term transactions and engagements.

Such an approach would also lead to less worry in New Delhi about such contrasting ways as the Americans and Australians have adopted with respect to the LAC standoffs. While Washington has referred to the standoffs as part of a larger Chinese pattern of aggressive behaviour including in the South China Sea, Canberra chose to call it a bilateral matter between the two neighbours. Instead of reading these differences as a shortcoming of the Quad, they should be read as signs that the Quad’s members are becoming increasingly confident about referring to each other’s problems with China. This can only be a good thing and undercuts Chinese efforts to portray its actions as one-offs with specific countries instead of the world seeing them as part of a pattern of general assertiveness and lack of respect for international norms and laws.

Towards Greater Flexibility

Simultaneously, New Delhi should both expand and move beyond the Quad and be willing to engage its members in other minilateral engagements in the region.

A Quad+1 arrangement has been talked of for some time. Certainly, the Quad by itself does not make sense without some sort of active involvement of or engagement with countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, each of which is at a different stage of confrontation with Chinese territorial aggression in the South China Sea. India should also deepen trilateral engagements with Australia that involve Indonesia, a common neighbour to both, and France, another resident Indian Ocean power.

Some of these initiatives are already underway but as always, are in danger of falling by the wayside given India’s limited diplomatic capacity in terms of both personnel and financial resources. The MEA by itself will not be able to pull off the job.

This then calls for better utilization of the latent diplomatic capacity of India’s armed forces, and particularly of its Navy, in the Indian Ocean region. This would immeasurably strengthen India’s weight in multilateral security arrangements such as the Quad as well as open up other avenues for bilateral and multilateral cooperation that would promote Indian interests.

This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Looking Beyond China: Strengthening Bilateral Relationships in the Quad’, International Affairs Review, 9 June 2020.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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