India’s critical swing power role in the Quad alliance

India’s critical swing power role in the Quad alliance

Even as war rages in Ukraine, international attention may be shifting to Asia and the consequences of the rise of China. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘Quad’), consisting of India, the US, Australia, and Japan, continue to strengthen their ties with each other as the leaders of the four powers met for a second in-person summit last week in Japan. Is the Quad evolving into a true defensive alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), or will it stop short?

India as a critical swing power

The economic weight and naval might of the Quad with a combined GDP of over $30 trillion, could yet prove to be instrumental in countering China. The Quad began in 2007 as an assemblage of the four like-minded countries, with shared concerns about a fast rising and increasingly assertive China.

With the world’s second largest Navy and the largest Air Force, as well as the world’s largest tactical missile force, China is a formidable military power. There is also little clarity over its long-term intentions. Initially, there were apprehensions about upsetting Beijing among all the Quad partners. Australia pulled out of the Quad grouping in 2008 under its then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, partly due to concerns about irritating China. India long sought to play down the potential antipathy of the group to China.

Even Japan and the United States, which are economic powerhouses with massive Navies of their own, tried to avoid antagonising China by overly emphasising the Quad in a diplomatic sense. However recently all of this changed, and the Quad returned with a vengeance.

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Covid and Chinese assertiveness

The key driver of the newfound closeness of the Quad stems from two events – China’s increasingly aggressive stance to its neighbours in the South China Seas, and the recent coronavirus crisis.

Both show China’s unreliability as a great power; it appears to be a covetous and aggressive force with scant regard for its neighbours. It is locked in disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and four other nations in the South China Seas. Most ominously, it was involved in a deadly border clash with India in June 2020 which left 20 Indian soldiers and allegedly five Chinese soldiers dead. Sino-Indian relations have never been the same since.

With trust between the two Asian giants shredded, India has now become one of the main drivers of the Quad. Indian PM Narendra Modi called the Quad a “force for good” that is committed to ‘an inclusive Indo-Pacific’ during the summit, underscoring the pan-Asian focus of the group.

Coronavirus is the other factor which has accelerated the coming together of the Quad. On March 21 last year, the Quad grouping announced a ‘Quad vaccine partnership’ to supply over a billion doses coronavirus vaccines to the developing world, manufactured by Indian company Biological E.

Coronavirus has claimed millions of directly and left tens of millions more suffering from long Covid and other associated conditions. It also devastated global supply chains, causing many multinational corporations to pull their operations out of China and into India. Setting up a supply chain that is not dependent on Beijing’s goodwill is now strategically urgent.

Within the Quad, the Japan-India relationship is critical for this, with Japanese offering India $42 billion in capital investment over the next five years, helping India to revolutionise its industrial and transport capacities. The continued movement of manufacturing from China to India and the rest of Asia potentially sets the tone for a great new industrial and manufacturing revolution. That will benefit India’s people while decreasing global dependence on China.

Indeed, US President Biden this week committed to leading a host of Asian countries in a trade deal under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a potential counter to China’s multibillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

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A true military alliance in the making?

How substantial is the Quad in the sense of being an alliance? This is a genuinely difficult question to gauge, as each country’s commitment to the Quad is grounded in their own self-interest, and the dynamics of their relationship with China. India is the only power which shares a land border with China, whereas Japan and the US increasingly anticipate tensions with China over Taiwan in the future.

It is debateable as to the extent to which India would get involved in a Taiwan war, or the extent the US, Japan or Australia would go to help Delhi defend its vast eastern border with China. Perhaps intelligence sharing between the Quad partners is as far as things will go in the event of military conflict – for now.

The Quad is some way away from being NATO, which has Article V in its charter legally committing the alliance to war in the event of a Russian attack on a NATO member. However increasingly ambitious military exercises involving all four Quad navies (‘Exercise Malabar’) as well as recent security arrangements to monitor illegal fishing (a major tool of Chinese coercion against smaller neighbours) hint at a more active and expansive military role in the future.

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Will the UK join?

Britain already has a naval representative at India’s strategically important Indian Ocean information fusion centre and has robust defence and trade ties with Japan. Australia and the US are close partners of Britain already. With billions of dollars in British trade passing through seas that are increasingly claimed by an assertive China it makes sense for London to get more involved in the region. Britain has signalled its intent to engage more with the Indo-Pacific region by sending the Queen Elizabeth II Carrier Strike Group to East Asia last year.

Lord Karan Bilimoria, the Indian-origin chief of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), also publicly called for the UK to join the Quad this year. Britain retains impressive and modern airpower and naval capabilities as well as a first-rate intelligence service, all of which would be useful to the Quad. It would certainly not be unusual for a European power to seek to get more involved with the wider Indo-Pacific. France is stationing warships in the Indian Ocean on an increasingly sustained basis, fearful of possible Chinese moves against the nearly million plus French origin people living in the region. Therefore, it is likely that the near future will see both the UK and France play a role in the Quad.

Having long faced an uncertain future, the Quad has been revived by increased regional perceptions of Chinese adventurism and a destructive coronavirus pandemic. Current trends suggest that it will drive a new economic decoupling away from China that will benefit India, as well as increased security co-operation in the naval sphere that could well see the UK get involved as a first-tier partner.

Even as NATO finds new purpose in defending European borders, the Quad takes more robust steps to becoming a powerful security and trading alliance for Asia.

Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.

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