Ever since the summer of May 1998, when India conducted five nuclear tests deep inside the Rajasthan desert at Pokhran to declare itself a nuclear power, it was not Pakistan but, surprisingly, China that was offered as the prime reason and motivation. Since then, the northern neighbour has loomed large in India’s security calculus.
The following decades saw Sino-Indian ties pass through all manner of contrary stages—beginning from a strategic partnership, to brinkmanship on a disputed border that almost led to a war-like situation. The successful resolution of the recent standoff at Doklam and the subsequent close cooperation at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen in China notwithstanding, there is nothing to suggest that either side has decided to lower their guard.
The much-talked about, proposed quadrilateral arrangement between India, the United States, Japan and Australia, that could pave the way for a closer strategic embrace between New Delhi and Washington as well as stronger ties with some key American allies in Asia, now comes as a new sensitive point. How does India go ahead with it and negotiate a rising and assertive China?
If proponents of a close Indo-American strategic partnership are keen that this could be the best option to deal with Beijing and its powerful lea-der, Xi Jinping, then questions are also being raised on India’s sovereign foreign policy choice. Others are asking on how ‘time-tested’ ally Russia is responding to such developments that steadily have been bringing New Delhi closer to Washington.
“Moscow will not applaud it, but neither will it panic,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre. He adds the proposed ‘alliance of democracies’ will probably be seen as a geopolitical construct led by the US focused on keeping China in check.
Former Indian ambassador to Russia P.S. Raghavan shares this view. “Russia has been watching the Indo-US strategic partnership grow since the early 2000s, and understands perfectly well that a major driver of it is the objective of counterbalancing China’s growing assertiveness in its neighbourhood and Beijing’s expanding geopolitical footprint.”
According to him, this objective should not worry Russia—while it is extensively tied up with China today, both economically and politically, it would not be unhappy that some other forces are working to prevent China from becoming ‘too big’ and ‘too overbearing’.
The proposed quadrilateral meeting among the four is likely to be held next week in Philippines, where major powers are meeting for the East Asia Summit. Significantly, it falls as part of a five-nation Asia tour of US President Donald Trump.
President Trump’s current “voyage”, says former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, is important as it comes at a time when he is embracing India as a strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region as a bulwark against China’s expansionist moves there.
“It is part of the open regional security architecture that we had been talking about for a long time,” says Sibal, a strong supporter of close Indo-US ties as a counter to Beijing’s rising clout. “At the moment it is not an alliance as there are no legal agreements. It is more a tactical arrangement,” adds the former foreign secretary.
While Putin’s Russia understands the China factor in closer US-India ties, it also sees the downside—being edged out by the US in India’s arms market.
Indeed, most observers call the so-called ‘Quad’ as a nebulous effort without clear signs of how it is likely to evolve in the future.
“The problem is that we need to move beyond demonstration,” says Raghavan. He points out that a quadrilateral needs continued coherence of purpose and willingness to be in for the long haul. “In the absence of either, it will not trouble China or anyone else,” he adds. Raghavan argues that “the Quad is only as good as its weakest link—and that is Australia, with its extensive economic interdependence with China”.
This worries South Block mandarins as well and could well be a reason why New Delhi is still wary about a Quadrilateral arrangement involving Australia. India would prefer a trilateral arrangement and to deal with Australia bilaterally rather than with others.
China, usually worried about any US-led initiative in Asia, however, sees a sense of disunity among the four partners. Confident of its growing role at the world stage, Beijing is keen that it be seen as playing a positive role to deal with some major global challenges, including the nuclear issue involving North Korea. Naturally, it also wants to ensure that no serious grouping with a military undertone—and targeting Chinese interests—takes place in Asia. As part of this, it has argued against the ‘Quad’, taking advantage of New Delhi’s reservations about including Australia and appealing to India’s tradition of pursuing an independent foreign policy.
India’s ambivalence about Australia being in this group stems from its past experience when, during a Malabar exercise in 2007 involving the four countries, a Labour party-led initiative in Australia forced it to withdraw from the quadrilateral naval drill to avoid hurting China’s feelings—as contributing to its insecurity of being encircled by adversaries.
No wonder then that none of the four, including India, is willing to call this a formal alliance yet, unsure as they are about its future. Even Trump has argued that close strategic partnership with India necessarily does not make it anti-China.
Others are still hopeful that a ‘Quad’ will deliver a strong message to the leadership in Beijing. “China will have to realise its ambition will not go unchallenged,” says Sibal.
He argues: “I can’t see a scenario where Australia will be too comfortable with the US withdrawing from the scene and allowing China to play a more assertive role in South China Sea and in the wider Asia-Pacific.”
Can such an arrangement impart a sense of comfort to Russia too?
“Russia would not be greatly unhappy about China’s wings being clipped,” says Raghavan. He points out that Russia is increasingly in danger of becoming a junior partner of China in its geopolitical ambitions. “Putin does not want Russia to be the junior partner of any country.”
Trenin, however, argues that while Moscow understands the China factor in the growing Indo-US ties, it also sees its downside that could adversely affect Russia—being eased out by the Americans from the Indian arms market. “Yet, Moscow is still largely committed to a friendly and cooperative relationship with Delhi,” says Trenin. “Of course, Russia has no veto over India’s moves and vice versa,” he says.
Despite talk of alliances and the US’ reassertion to claw back its influence in Asia and counter China’s increasing clout, most countries, including India, are still hedging their bet. This means that while many of them would like the US to be around, most are also cutting side deals with China, the big power near home. So, as the realignment of forces continue, ‘red lines’ are also being set, as the Russians seem eager to convey to India.
According to Raghavan, Russia would fundamentally like to see a continuation of India retaining its foreign policy independence and, in defence cooperation, ensure that Russian technologies and IPR are not leaked to the West. It continues to suit Russia’s interest that India should develop into an independent ‘pole’ in a multi-polar global order. “So you can have partnerships, not alliances,” says India’s former envoy to Russia.
As some current initiatives are likely to take a while to assume deinite shape, the continuing flux in the global world order is forcing most players in the Indo-Pacific region—housing the world’s fastest growing economies—to wait a while before making solid commitments.