By Arun Srivastava
How far the ‘Quad’ or Quadrilateral coalition comprising India has served the Indian interest is not yet clear. An international dialogue forum of India, US, Japan and Australia, is now emblematic of the geopolitical churn in the eastern hemisphere. With Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand drawing into the post-pandemic consultations in the “Quad Plus” format it was expected that India would get a much wider space to operate. But it does not appear to be fructifying. Instead India continues to focus on China. The geo economic agenda is yet to acquire a new dimension. The policy discourse is about blunting Beijing’s ambition to exercise regional hegemony and preventing it from bending the global economic order in China’s favour.
It is significant the foreign ministers of Quad are having their meeting in the backdrop of growing concerns over China’s military muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific and its months-long border standoff with India in the Ladakh region. China has denounced the Quad as an attempt to contain its development. Besides India’s foreign minister, the Quad meeting was attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and Japan’s Toshimitsu Motegi.
One thing that has been causing much concern is the Quad members, especially the USA, have very little to safeguard the Indian interest. It was expected of Washington that it would take the Quad to a high level. The “Quad” was given shape by the four countries in November 2017. This is the second Quad foreign ministers’ meeting, as the first such meeting had taken place in New York in September last year, on the margins of the UN General Assembly. Since that meeting no concrete action has been taken to augment its functioning. In fact only last week the ministry of external affairs had expressed optimism that the meeting of the foreign ministers would collectively affirm the importance of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
India must take the initiative and engage Quad partners on reforming China-centred economic globalisation. It would be a rare opportunity for India. Yet another area of concern has been the Quad has not come to the aid of India in drawing foreign investment into domestic manufacturing; Delhi has been unable to clinch bilateral trade deals or articulate the case for rejigging the global economic order.
No doubt while addressing the session, the Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar said that as a vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values, the member countries have collectively affirmed the importance of maintaining a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, it is an open secret that India finds itself confronting an expansive Chinese aggression on its frontiers and Beijing’s growing strategic influence in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. India must use the occasion to explore security coalition-building with its Quad partners. Though he said “Our objective remains advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region,” it is yet to be quantified.
It is yet to be seen to what extent the other member countries respond to the Indian suggestions and overtures. Jaishankar has already met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Tokyo and spoke about various aspects of bilateral ties and ways to deepen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. He also called on Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga along with his counterparts from the US, Japan, and Australia. Ii is worth mentioning that during the last few months, the officials of the Trump administration have laid out some framework for addressing the ideological, political, economic, technological and security challenges posed by China, but it also remains the fact that serious effort has been initiated to disentangling the web of economic interdependence woven over the years. At least the US and other members of Quad could have come out with some suggestions.
So far only India has taken the initiative in this directive. It has been a pioneer in economic decoupling from China; it withdrew from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2019 and opposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative first articulated in 2017. In the wake of the Ladakh aggression, Delhi has taken up active economic measures against China to limit trade and investment links. So far the US has not clearly spelt out its approach and strategy towards China. Its policy appears to be of the nature of using other members.
Most governments, and even the Quad members are deeply divided on how to manage the relationship and all are looking to US as to how it resolves the dilemmas involved. Donald Trump’s dithering clearly reflects his dilemma. He does not intend to take any action which would jeopardise the long term interests of the USA and also create any problem for the new government which would come to power after the presidential elections. Jo Biden, whose prospects for victory seemed to have improved significantly in the last few weeks, would not like to walk into the footsteps of Trump. In that backdrop the Quad would have to redesign its policy and programme.
Already indications are available in abundance that Biden would simply abandon Trump’s challenge to China and return to the past policies of accommodation. It is not that Biden does not visualise the threats and challenges that China poses to the USA, but he might change the tone and style of the stance and approach of the administration towards China as per the rules of the real politick. One expects that Biden would not like to alienate his allies, but India has to be ready to face such situation. The government would have to be more pragmatic and evolve its own independent policy separate from Trump’s line. Policymakers in Delhi, cannot force India to behave like a fellow traveller of Trump. They must take a more differentiated view in the greater interest of the country. They must prepare for a serious contestation within the Biden administration on the China policy. Already indications are there that the USA policy makers want to end the “unproductive “confrontation with China and begin collaboration to address the greatest threat to humanity.
Confusion reigns on what the Quad is and its future in India’s international relations. A feeling is gaining ground that for maintaining its god relation and loyalty to the USA , India has been diverting its policy attention away from the urgent task of rapidly expanding India’s national capabilities in partnership with like-minded partners. It is sad that an impression is gaining globally that India is abandoning its “sacred” tradition of non-alignment in favour of a military alliance with the US in order to counter the China threat. (IPA Service)