Can India join hands with Japan, Australia & U.S. to confront China

Rise of ‘Quad’ (quadrilateral) between India, US, Japan and Australia has raised eyebrows in Beijing but whether the move to join hands between four is feasible and workable in the prevailing regional and international circumstances needs a close look.

Dr. Satish Misra

When the idea of ‘Quad’ between four Asia-Pacific countries came up in 2007, it did not get much traction because neither India under the Congress-led UPA government was ready to embark on a confrontationist course with China nor Australia was ready for it. Beijing at that point of time raised a scare calling it an “Asian NATO” and ensured that it was not pursued further.

After a decade, under US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Quad is again in circulation with the first meeting of officials from the four countries taking place on the sidelines of the ASEEAN summit in the Philippine’s capital Manila. The meeting ostensibly discussed growing might of China and Beijing’s assertive designs in the region and beyond. China, under its President Xi Jinping whose stature has grown after the recently held 19th Party congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), is evoking apprehensions and fears among countries of Asia-Pacific.

In times of waning might of the US and waxing power of China, there is instability in the region. Experts feel that there is an urgent need to have a rule-based Asian architecture of security in which every nation irrespective of its size or economic stature has a similar equity in the system and feels confident in participating in the system.

At the same time, China has border problems with many of its neighbours. These countries feel that unless checked in time China may threaten their unity and sovereignty.

China was quick to react to Quad. The Chinese foreign ministry, in its press statement, stated that the “relevant grouping should be open and inclusive and not aimed at excluding a third party. We welcome the development of friendly cooperation between relevant countries, but we hope this will not be directed at any third party”.

In an expression of subtle anger, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was more direct when he wrote in a newspaper article that ”The wise expand common ground while the unwise aggravate differences”. Experts are differing in their assessment of Quad. Strategic writer Brahma Chellaney, supporting the idea, said that time has come to put the ideainto action. Otherwise, cost is going to be very high. “The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. The US-India-Japan-Australia strategic trapezium is best placed to lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific and make sure that liberalism prevails over illiberalism”, he said.

In his incisive comment on ‘Quad’, Senior Fellow at Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies Abhijit Iyer-Mitra says it “may be a wonderful thing for the other three countries involved with robust militaries, developed economies, and high value manpower”.But “for India, which shuns the world’s main cash cow, and distrusts the world’s main weapons manufacturer” the Quad “is simply taking delusions of grandeur with all the attendant costs and none of the gains”.

From all accounts, India, though it participated in the talks on Quad, yet it is not rushing into it, as it is evident from the statement. New Delhi said that the quadrilateral is not aimed at any other country. India is also involved in similar groupings in the region to deal with security and political issues, the statement said. Four countries did not issue a joint statement after the meeting but instead opted for issuing separate statements.

Coming together of democracies in the Asia-Pacific region that can act as a bulwark against an assertive nationalist China is being quoted as one of the pluses of Quad but democracies have their own intrinsic weaknesses.

On the one hand, there is a wavering Donald Trump whose consistency no one can vouch and on the other, if there is regime change in Australia and Labour party is again voted to power then the Quad may again be doubtful. During his recent visit to China, the US President lavished praise at the Chinese President possibly hoping that Beijing would take effective steps to reduce the adverse bilateral trade balance. Trump’s visit ended up in MoUs for deals worth $ 250 billion-bigger than the total of all commitments that he received from all countries since he assumed charge.

Moreover, Trump cannot afford to be over-critical of China in the light of the Chinese investments in the US financial bonds. China’s vast holdings of US government debt stood at $ 1.15 trillion in June this year that means in simple terms that America owes more money to China than any other country. Without the relatively cheaper Chinese goods, Walmart would have to close down resulting in loss of jobs. Can Trump afford this kind or risk?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose doggedness resulted in a meeting of the foreign ministers of the four countries in Manila, may falter in the next election bringing and bring the Quad crashing down. There is uncertainty and instability in the world. Therefore, one has to tread carefully. It would be wise to focus on country’s nighbours. India’s domestic strength alone can raise its international profile. The country, therefore, must focus on ensuring peace and social harmony because that alone can ensure steady economic development. Without economic resources, New Delhi would be an odd man in the company of other three that have high per capita income levels.

In the backdrop of a tumultuous international system, India needs to move slowly watching developments closely and avoid rushing into arrangements that may have long-term consequences.

While formal alliances evoke suspicions, informal arrangements and evolving understanding may accrue more benefits in the long-term.

 

Dr. Satish Misra is a Veteran Journalist & Research Associate with Observer Research Foundation.