Indo-Pacific is now the focus of US foreign policy for both economic and security reasons and India can’t be kept out of DC’s game plan for the larger control of the region.
New Delhi: Oftentimes we hear no news is good news. So, is news bad news? It seems to be the case when we see so much conundrum, confusion, woolly-headed dissection and finally, questioning the logic of the Quad. So much so, some global media powerhouses even cited India’s poor economic status, inferring that India did not belong to the elite table of powerful countries. To be sure, an overwhelming majority of media in India as well as in the US has still not come to terms with the geopolitical and strategic reality of the new cold war which has engendered or rather resurrected the Quad. A simple question that begs the answer is what was the necessity to rope in India in a group in which other members are already treaty allies? The answer to this question amply underscores the rationale of India’s presence in the Quad and its pivotal position in the crystallization of the Quad as an institution with enough teeth to bite when needed. India’s geography, its military status as a powerful swing state and its status as the lone Asian power to rival China in the Indo-Pacific are the reasons why India is envisioned as a critical member of the Quad. It is this logic that has undergirded US’ interest in forging a stronger political and strategic partnership with India. This interest has also been among the few strands of American foreign and defence policy that has sustained regardless of the party that has occupied the White House over the last 20 years.
The US treating India as a “strong partner” for its foreign policy and security ties in East Asia, including the Indo-Pacific region, and keeping New Delhi at par with other Quad members like Japan and Australia, speak of President Joe Biden’s growing “personal chemistry” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It has surprised many, but the “personal chemistry factor” had actually developed and worked faster in the case of Biden-Modi than the time it took to develop between President Donald Trump and PM Modi. The flurry of phone calls between Biden and Modi and the personal meetings between top officials of the US administration with their Indian counterparts only testify the growing inter-dependence between the democracies for pure strategic and security compulsions.
Quad is just the beginning of long, comprehensive security partnership, which comes out from a common threat—the growing aggressive expansionist agenda of China and its unauthorised muscle flexing in the Indo-Pacific waters and against the ASEAN nations.
Former diplomat and an expert on India-US affairs, Professor Walter Andersen of Johns Hopkins University elaborates the “compulsion point from the US side”.
Andersen says: “Ever since his inauguration, President Biden’s growing discomfort against China’s aggressive expansion matched his predecessor President Trump on one count at least—treating Beijing as a threat for US. Where Biden differs from his predecessor is his commitment to work out issues with allies. While India has been hesitant to develop a relationship with the US that could undermine its independent room for maneuver, the Chinese attacks last year along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh has given the US an opportunity to build on its gradually improving security ties with India (such as a set of logistical agreements signed over the last several years permitting interoperability of their security forces) to reach out as a ‘friend of India’ to provide better equipment and cold weather gear—and to discuss common security concerns.”
Perhaps, this American willingness to help at a time of need furthermore provides India ability to leverage connections to the US as a subtle message to China that it can move even closer to the US if China continues to assert itself along their common Himalayan borderlands.
Andersen, who is a keen India and Asia watcher, told The Sunday Guardian that not only Biden put Quad as a frontline foreign policy matter, he also recognized the significance of cooperation among its partners —India, the US, Japan, and Australia, and talked of it as the core of a renewed US policy focus on Asia.
To follow his agenda in East Asia to confront China, he appointed Kurt Campbell, formerly the Assistant Secretary for East Asia at the US State Department and a regional expert, as the coordinator of Indo-Pacific issues at the National Security Council. Biden also made Secretary of State Antony Blinken meet on 18 February the foreign ministers of the other three Quad states to give shape to greater long-term cooperation. To Andersen, these strategic meetings of Quad partners and that too at short intervals, including the visits of Blinken and Defence Secretary Gen Lloyd Austin to Japan, South Korea and now the latter’s visit to New Delhi, is to put this Quad security cooperation beyond just a formal dialogue arrangement to a formal high level group, something many are not yet ready to put that tag on it.
But the Quad is moving in that direction to soon gain that position and regional significance. Andersen says, “Apart from officials meeting with each other, Biden himself chaired a virtual Quad Summit on March 12 where the leaders agreed to an in-person summit at the end of 2021.” Chinese assertiveness in Ladakh was a topic of consideration. Blinken and Austin are already conducting this administration’s first cabinet level travel with their trip to Japan and South Korea and India conferring with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on military-to-military cooperation and defence trade cooperation. These meetings, within just under 90 days of a new administration settling in the White House, speak more than what a section of media has been belittling the strategic significance.
India’s role and strategic significance has been well understood by the new US administration and a stronger role for New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific region under Quad cooperation is set to emerge. Perhaps, vaccine diplomacy, putting India at the centre stage by the US, is one step forward for New Delhi to play the Great Game now.
Says Andersen: “The March 12 Quad Summit sought to put the group on a more permanent basis by moving beyond security issues, though that was an important consideration. The four leaders authorized the creation of expert committees on the creation and manufacturing of vaccines for the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and enhanced trade that could draw in other Asian countries around the Quad core. These are all long-term issues that provide opportunities for long term cooperation. One area where India brings special strength to the table is in the development and distribution of vaccines—and this was recognized at the March 12 summit.”
Both the US (the International Development and Finance Corporation) and Japan (the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation) are committed to substantial financial support for India’s already impressive serum manufacturing capacity and its scientific talent who have already created two viable vaccines. Indian sources claim that India can produce up to a billion doses by 2022 and thus provide a soft diplomacy alternative to China (and one that is less threatening) in the less developed countries of Asia and Africa.
Andersen added that Quad members must work to stall and derail China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which Beijing is using to build their influence in Asia and Africa. “India, Japan, and the US have all interpreted the Initiative as a threat to their respective interests. India has skipped the two BRI conferences (in 2017 and 2019 In Beijing) and has flirted cooperating with Japan to build an alternative that has the added advantage of giving legitimate shape to a Quad plus arrangement that brings growth and cooperation without directly challenging China militarily. It also has the advantage of drawing on financial resources of the US and Japan.”
Perhaps the counter comes from India’s talk about a maritime connective project (Project Mausam) in the Indo-Pacific. It has also talked of a project linking India through Iran to Russia and Europe, but that creates potential problems for the US. Says Andersen: “These all have so far lacked financial clout, but the expansion of Project Mausam as a Quad Plus effort is financially feasible with the cooperation of the US and Japan.”
Those who are not ready to believe yet and are finding fault lines in the Quad security cooperation will soon realize that the Indo-Pacific is now the focus of US foreign policy for both economic and security reasons and India can’t be kept out of DC’s game plan for the larger control of the region. As Andersen concludes: “The US will thus remain committed to the Quad. How swiftly the four move towards closer security relations will depend essentially on Chinese assertiveness.”