QUAD: Is India really the weakest link in US-led alliance? (Part 2)
Prime Minister Modi’s “twin” failure in effectively tackling the second wave of Covid-19 and creating chaos in procuring and distributing vaccine across the country have “battered India’s ambitions to become the ‘pharmacy of the world’.” In the context of India’s Quad ambitions, the global media is dismissive of the US high expectations for New Delhi playing a leading role in countering China in the Indo-Pacific region. But some critics are not yet ready to undermine the Indian potential to emerge as the Quad keystone in the long run.
Following the foreign ministers of the Quad countries’ first meeting in New York, India’s seasoned security affairs analyst Manoj Joshi did predict in anticipation that “the upgrading of the Quad, which formerly consisted of officials could be consequential.” But what led to India’s sudden turnaround from “cold feet” to active engagement? Joshi pointed out three factors: Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi taking initiative in organizing a UNSC meet on India’s action in J & K; cancellation of Wang Yi–Ajit Doval 9-10 September Special Representative talks in New Delhi; and most significantly India holding two military exercises in eastern Ladakh on the border with China and in Arunachal Pradesh on September 17 and October 3, respectively. Without going into further details of the process of India becoming integrated into Quad grouping since the four foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA in September 2019, suffice it to say India did surprise others by agreeing to sign what has been characterized as the unexpectedly blunt component on maritime security in the joint statement issued after 12 March virtual summit.
At another level, a pertinent question to ask is why everyone has been characterizing India as the weak link in the Quad chain? For more clarity on this, it is imperative to divide the answer in two categories. On the one hand, there are those who refer to a series of India’s domestic weaknesses to prove the point. These include factors highlighted by the Japan Times recently, such as despite being equipped with nuclear weapons which are a bulwark against China’s much superior military might, it is nonetheless true India is a poor country with per capita income of only 3% to 5% of the other three Quad nations; a weak state with a limited capacity to govern a billion plus population; and a soft state without political will to make and implement tough decisions, etc. and so on.
In addition, a lead story in the Financial Times earlier this week, headlined “India’s Covid calamity exposes weakest link in US-led ‘Quad’ alliance,” declared that the country’s coronavirus crisis and subsequent vaccine export ban have overshadowed the quartet’s first attempt to prove it is not just an anti-China military alliance. “Instead, India’s failure has created an opportunity that China is exploiting,” the FT noted. Citing Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top Asia official, the London-based financial daily wrote “despite setbacks, Washington still viewed the Quad as deeply consequential for the 21st century.”
The second set of arguments on India’s weak link status in the quartet has much to do with New Delhi’s chequered diplomatic history of involvement with the quadrilateral security dialogue. According to a January 2019 commentary published by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, following key factors need to be studied why India had been tentative in its relationship with the Quad: Firstly, partly for fear of alienating China, the India government was left jaded when Australia withdrew from the group; for the next decade until the group’s revival in 2017, India consistently dismissed appeals from Japan and the US to regroup the alliance; India’s decision to finally relent came after 1) a contentious few years in India-China relations; 2) India’s major differences over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (especially CPEC); 3) China’s rigid stand and consistent efforts to deny India’s membership in the NSG; secondly, Beijing’s protection of Pakistan-based terrorists from the UN sanctions; and third, unprecedented months-long standoff on the Doklam plateau.
Interestingly, in Beijing’s view, India’s recent change in stance on the Quad from being a “geographical concept” to “good mechanism” in Asia Pacific has provided enough dynamism to the US “Indo Pacific” concept to revive up its China containment policy. Quite in tune with what at least some scholars in China have been telling us, a US commentator recently wrote of both Indo Pacific concept and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: “QUAD was served up to spice up (the Indo Pacific) alphabet soup, as a new strategy to slow, if not thwart, China’s rise as the predominant economic powerhouse in Asia Pacific.”
Be that as it may, for several years Chinese scholars have maintained that the Quad will exist only in New Delhi’s “realm of fantasy.” Now, following the first Quad leaders’ summit in last March, perhaps it is this unseen, unanticipated and unprecedented Indian “resolve” to risk participate in US-led anti-China political and military alliances which is beginning “to touch a nerve in the Chinese psyche.” Or, it may well be that Beijing is feeling rattled by the near consensus the Indian political elite has arrived at, that China’s Galwan intrusion, Galwan Valley “massacre,” and China’s stubborn refusal to return to status quo ante in Ladakh, are reasons enough for India to admit relations with “expansionist” China have reached an inflection point and that India must teach its northern neighbor “a good lesson.”
Finally, no doubt India’s continuing failure in the fight against Covid-19 in the near term “will weigh on the quartet’s ability to tackle other issues of common concerns, such as technology supply chains and cyber policy.” Yet, as mentioned in the Heritage Foundation paper cited above, it cannot be denied that India is also driven by more pragmatic considerations. Indeed it is true India can boast of experiences (against China) other three Quad member countries can only imagine. Namely, it is the only country in the grouping with a large disputed, unsettled border with China; it is the only country in the quartet that has faced a Chinese invasion; it is the only country periodically getting entangled into long standoffs on the border with China; it is the only country whose presence in the Quad provides meaning to the US Indo-Pacific security architecture; India has been the most steadfast of the four in halting diplomatic endorsements of Beijing’s “One China” policy as way back as in 2010; finally and recently, India is the only Quad member to show resolve in staring down the PLA first during the Doklam dispute in 2017 and then again last year in mid-June in Galwan.
To conclude, of all four countries in the Quad, it is only India which is in unique position and possesses unique sensitivities against Beijing. India’s enthusiasm for taking initiative is likely “to depend less on other three members of the group and more on the behaviour of China.” Sceptics may be right in saying that the coronavirus crisis has exposed “the differential between the idea of India as a rising power and its ability to deliver on commitments.” Ultimately, what matters the most is that if the perceived threat from China doesn’t grow, India’s enthusiasm for upgrading the Quad will remain subdued. On the contrary, if it does, the gravitational pull of the Quad will grow stronger. It is that which will make India become the Quad keystone from being a weak link!