The Quadrilateral and India
With the anointment of Xi Jinping as the philosopher ideologue at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 18th, 2017 he has been formally recognized as a worthy successor to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. While overwhelmingly voting for another five-year term for him, the party congress has unanimously accepted the policies followed by him during the last term and the vision that he has outlined for China for the future. The packing of the Politbureau and the Central Military Comission (CMC) with all his choices is indicative of a crushing defeat for dissent which was reported to be growing within the party. In fact, epithets like ‘king’ or ‘dictator’ are being commonly used to aptly describe his status within China today.
Be that as it may, there is a need to analyze the path followed by China in geopolitical and geostrategic affairs during Xi’s current term to discern the shape of policies that China is likely to pursue in the coming five to six years. The growing Chinese assertiveness evidenced in their unilateral declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), promulgation of the nine dash line as the extent of Chinese territory in South China Sea (SCS), occupation of hitherto disputed islands in SCS and their conversion to military bases are clear indicators of expansionist Chinese designs.
Non recognition of the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in case of Spratly islands and aggressive actions all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India indicate that China would go to any lengths, including defying established international order, to achieve what it covets. It also signifies the death of the ‘peaceful rise’ theory propounded by China earlier and emergence of a more hardened stance including use of force to bolster its claims in SCS, East China Sea, Indian Ocean and all along its land borders. Xi’s vision for China in the coming few years, outlined at the party congress, further confirms adoption of this stance in its dealings with the neighbourhood in particular and the world in general.
With the unfolding of such a scenario, the options before the weaker neighbouring countries are limited. They can accept Chinese hegemony and give up their claims with regard to any territorial dispute they may have with China, thus buying peace at a price. Secondly, they can approach the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as Philippines did to get a decision as per international law. Of course China refused to accept the decision since it was not favourable to it, but its non acceptance has shown China in poor light resulting in loss of face to which it is highly sensitive. Thirdly, the weaker nations could resort to cooperative security and pledge to come to each other’s aid in case of a threat to their security. This is an option which provides a Hobson’s choice as members of such a grouping would be clearly seen as anti China. Purely for this reason, a number of them would be hesitant to join.
The Quadrilateral is one such grouping which was mooted by Australia about 10 years back. However, due to muted response from prospective members, it lay in hibernation till its recent revival, thanks to increased Chinese aggressiveness. Deliberations among the US, Japan, Australia and India on the sidelines of recently concluded East Asia Summit at Manila have been ongoing to take the proposed grouping forward since in principle the four have accepted its formation.
We need to analyze the motivation for the prospective members in joining in the proposed quadrilateral. The US, as the major power of the globe, sees China gradually expanding its reach in to the Pacific and Indian oceans and emerging as a global rival to US domination of the international scene in the middle to long term. It would, therefore, like to contain China and delay if not stop its emergence. In Japan and India, it sees two strong economies whose territorial integrity and security would be affected by growing Chinese expansionism and would be prepared to resist Chinese hegemony. It would be ready to support them thus enabling them to overcome their military weakness vis-à-vis China. In Australia, it sees a pro western trusted ally which believes in a rule based global order and is concerned about its security due to Chinese expansionism. Supporting these three from a safe distance enables the US to achieve its goal without getting physically involved.
Since the onset of the Trump presidency, however, the signals emanating from the US are ambiguous and confusing at best. While the US may be pushing for the quadrilateral on one hand, its withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is hardly understandable on the other, especially since TPP was also expected be a bulwark against Chinese designs in the Pacific. Likewise, NATO too is feeling vulnerable due to Trump’s recent pronouncements of ‘America First’ and insistence on greater spending by NATO’s European partners. In fact, how the US handles the ongoing North Korean issue and the support it provides to South Korea may well be an indicator of its future response in case of threats to its regional allies.
Post Second World War, Japan has depended on the US for its security. It has shunned nuclear weapons and maintained only self defence forces. However, Chinese claims to Senkaku islands which are part of Japan, have posed a threat to which Japan feels highly vulnerable. Of late, Chinese ships have been coming threateningly close to Senkaku islands leading at times to ugly confrontation. Additionally, any Chinese expansion towards the Pacific is bound to have a direct impact on Japan. Joining the Quadrilateral ensures support of the other members and has a deterrent effect on an aggressor.
Australia is militarily not so strong. Its pro West stance is well known. Its vulnerability to future Chinese expansionism is worrisome making it dependent on western support for security. Therefore, it would be more than willing and happy to be a part of the proposed quadrilateral. However, there is a contradiction between its economic and security requirements. Economically, China is its biggest trading partner. Thus, while keeping security considerations in mind, it would not like to derail its economic relationship with China. This factor would have a bearing on its commitment to the quadrilateral.
India has been a reluctant late entrant to the Quadrilateral. In the past it had shied away from joining the grouping on the grounds of retaining its autonomy in decision making and a mistaken belief that peaceful rise of China is not a threat to its security. It did not wish to be seen as anti China and thus, ruffle its more powerful neighbour’s feathers. However, greater China Pakistan coordination of anti India actions coupled with aggressive moves by China all along the LAC as well as in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has led to a reassessment of the security threat and virtually pushed India towards embracing the US backed Quadrilateral.
While discussions about the eventual shape and charter of the proposed grouping are still ongoing, the predominant role of India as a frontline state of the Quadrilateral cannot be in doubt to discerning observers for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, India like China, is growing at a fast pace. At some point in future, the trajectories of the two growing economies are bound to cross each other’s paths. The healthy competition currently between them inherently has seeds of confrontation which can turn ugly at short notice. After all, economic space is not infinite. History is replete with examples of erstwhile colonial powers turning against each other for securing economic gains.
Secondly, the festering Sino Indian boundary issue has been a constant source of friction between the two for the past 70 years. Even after 19 rounds of Special Representative level talks, no solution seems to be in sight. On the contrary, China’s growing aggressiveness, evidenced in Ladakh and Doklam lately, points to a considerable increase in the possibility of a standoff between them.
Thirdly, the nexus between China and Pakistan has been growing constantly over the last 50 years. Their coordinated anti India stance at all international forums has been in evidence for years now. Opposition to declaration of Hafeez Saeed as a terrorist by the UN and India’s entry in to the NSG are two recent examples. The list is endless. China today is the biggest supplier of military hardware to Pakistan. There is no doubt about Pakistan’s animosity towards India. Boundary differences between the countries raise the spectre of a two front war being thrust on India.
Fourthly, two members of the proposed quadrilateral i.e. the USA and Australia, do not face a direct threat but are basically opposed to Chinese hegemony and expansionism. Of the other two i.e. Japan and India, while the former is keen to defend its sovereignty against Chinese claims to Senkaku islands, the juxtaposition between India and China all along the over 7000 km long land border is much more complex and has its own volatile dynamics. Also, it is India which is perceived as a big obstacle to Chinese expansionist designs in the IOR.
Thus, while the concept of collective security against a powerful and expansionist China is basically sound, its implications from an Indian perspective have tremendous significance. India also needs to weigh the consequences of being exposed to the initial onslaught of a powerful adversary coupled with collusive support from our western neighbour in case of a confrontation.
To what extent is the security of each participant guaranteed in such an arrangement? Would the US intervene if China starts a war on the Sino Indian border? Would the cooperative security enshrined in the Quadrilateralbe limited to providing military aid and diplomatic support by those not involved or would it imply their total participation in case of attack on one of them? These are basic questions for consideration by the proposed grouping before it takes shape. Past experience in similar treaty alignments like SEATO and CENTO does not generate much confidence.
Prior to the Second World War, Britain led by Chamberlain and its allies France and Russia, time and again sacrificed smaller nations of Europe at the altar of naked German aggression in order to avoid war and preserve their own national security. The USA entered the war on the side of the allies only after Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. These instances highlight the fact that nations resort to war only when their own national interest and security are directly threatened. Would the proposed Quadrilateral follow a different template?
In view of the possibility of being exposed to a two front war and military superiority enjoyed by China, it makes good sense from the Indian perspective to enter in to cooperative security arrangements with other likeminded nations of the region. However, such groupings at best have a deterrence value. When push comes to shove, it is open to speculation as to how many nations of the grouping would come forward to assist a country facing a major onslaught!
This is where the aspect of being self sufficient in security matters is important. Ultimately, every nation has to ensure its own security. No wonder then that Japan is seriously thinking of rearming itself in view of heightened Chinese threat. Likewise, European nations are constrained to spend more on their militaries with Trump’s threat of US scaling down its involvement with NATO.
While going forward with the proposed Quadrilateral, India needs to hasten its efforts to achieve self sufficiency in security matters. This implies enhanced spending on defence in the face of other competing requirements of the country. However national security is non negotiable and we would have to tighten our belts to find resources for the same.