by Bhavdeep Modi (Project Manager, Red Lantern Analytica)
On March 12, 2021, the Quad, while issuing a joint statement, said that it is “united in a shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific”. It further stated that “today, we pledge to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyberspace, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as maritime domains.”
This statement by the Quad after its first “leader-level” summit showed the world that in the aftermath of Chinese aggression and expansionism in a post-pandemic world, it has come together to deliver a message of unity.
However, with the world economy battered and a volatile environment in the region, the concerns regarding Chinese expansionism and adventurism continue to rise- the recent European Union (EU) backlash against China, rising tensions with the US, and continuous aggression towards India, are a few examples.
Keeping the Chinese threat in mind, the Quad needs to do more and also explore convergences in other multilateral arrangements that can ensure the peace and stability of the region. And in doing so, it needs to take cues from India, whose role in the Quad so far, has been nothing less than exceptional.
India, in leading the global vaccination drive, containing China and regrouping the Quad, has shown the world that it is ready to be a superpower while being a responsible team player. New Delhi offers the Quad a rare opportunity to gather an alliance of “like-minded democracies” in an era of multilateralism
The Chinese Threat
2020 saw the world get engulfed in the coronavirus pandemic. The virus, which spread from Wuhan in China, had various countries blaming Beijing for not containing its spread and also demanded an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. Moreover, recent reports of China planning on weaponizing the SARS coronaviruses back in 2016 have also seen a surge of backlash against Beijing, and for the right reasons.
As the pandemic spread to the whole world, China employed a strategy of deception, distraction, and disinformation to attain its goals of expansionism and establishing hegemony.
China implemented a new National Security Law in Hong Kong, suppressing dissent there and bringing it under Chinese control. At the same time, Beijing took aggressive aerial maneuvers around Taiwan, along with wolf warrior diplomacy, giving rise to concerns of a possible military takeover of Taipei in the future. It has also ramped up the ante against the United States over its militarization of the islands it built in the South China Sea. Of course, the trade tensions with Washington continue. Similarly, countries like France, the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand, the United States, and recently, the EU, have also highlighted the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
However, China’s military move against India at the Line of Actual Control in Galwan in June 2020 is what served as a wake-up call to the world about Beijing’s intentions. It brought the attention of the concerned nations towards Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific as well.
India, the Quad, and China
The Indo-Pacific, in recent times, has become a region of great power contestation, with two-thirds of container trade of the world passing through the region and rising powers like India, China, Japan, Australia, and France. In Indian EAM Dr. Jaishankar’s words, “The Indo-Pacific naturally means different things to different powers, but it undeniably is a priority for all of them.”
The United States has been continuing its pivot to Asia under Biden; the United Kingdom recently announced a similar pivot to the Indo-Pacific under the “Integrated Review”; the EU also concluded on its idea of the Indo-Pacific, and ASEAN adopted its outlook on the region back in 2019. Apart from these nations, India, France, and Australia have been traditional powers in the Indo-Pacific.
Nonetheless, it is the Chinese overtures in the Indo-Pacific that have caused global concern. It has pledged USD 400 billion to Iran; is pumping money into Pakistan via the China Pakistan Economic Corridor; is building influence in the African continent; and militarizing the South China Sea, thus deploying large naval assets in the region. The shared concern is about Chinese “duality” wherein it combines geo-economic and geopolitics to obtain control of strategic chokepoints (case in point Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka).
India, in this regard, played a leadership role in exposing the Chinese designs to the world. The border standoff with India in 2020 saw New Delhi cobble up diplomatic support against Chinese expansionism, especially in the Indo-Pacific. What eventually the world saw was the Quad coming together in its shared vision for the Indo-Pacific, while also talking about technology, maritime concerns, and building supply chain resilience.
India showed the way by responding to China with an iron hand and banishing the fear of Chinese backlash, leading other countries to start taking similar approaches, thus effectively isolating China.
The Way Forward: Building Multilateralism
Economic recovery and building a coalition on regional security are tantamount to world peace in the post-pandemic world. Major global powers, at this point, accept the need for multilateralism, barring China. Naturally, other major powers are willing to find avenues for building a security architecture in the region, based on multilateralism.
For this purpose, the role of India becomes critical in the world. Even though the world has appreciated India’s role in vaccine development and distribution, and New Delhi standing up to China, more needs to be done. New Delhi offers a host of opportunities that can lead to a win-win situation for both India and the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific.
As the Quad emerges as the most critical security grouping, focus also needs to be made on other multilateral forums for economic and military cooperation, with India as a core player in them.
Firstly, the economic dependence of countries on China and has led nations to look for building supply chains away from Beijing. To accomplish this, the importance of the Blue Dot Network (BDN) comes into play. Hailed as a counter to China’s BRI, the group consists of the US, Japan, and Australia and aims to improve infrastructure investment standards. Since the pandemic, debates around India’s inclusion in the BDN have increased, since the 3 members are New Delhi’s Quad partners as well. India’s inclusion in the BDN provides it with a partner that can provide a solid base to build supply chains, and will be equally effective against rising Chinese “debt-traps” in the region.
Secondly, exploring the possibility of India joining the Five Eyes Alliance, an intelligence alliance comprising of the US, New Zealand, UK, Australia, Canada), makes for a rational choice as well. The Five Eyes Alliance already has a working relationship with India. A US Congressional Committee in 2019 also appreciated India’s role as a third-party partner in the Indo-Pacific. Even in 2020, the Five Eyes, India and Japan jointly supported backdoor entry to apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram. While India’s inclusion is still being debated, even in New Delhi, one cannot deny that there is a lot of room for cooperation for the involved stakeholders.
Thirdly, forums like the BDN, Five Eyes, and the Quad have also increased the likelihood of Quad Plus becoming a reality in the future. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, the Quad held virtual meetings with New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam to discuss the response to the pandemic. This led to anticipation regarding the Quad Plus and even the possibility of France and Germany as possible inclusions in the future. While it yet remains to be seen whether the Quad will get institutionalized and eventually expand, the common concern for China and the rising importance of the Indo-Pacific opens up a lot of doors for countries to converge on in the grouping.
Lastly, with the anti-China threat at an all-time high across the globe, India and the Quad also need to tap the Milk Tea Alliance. With social media being a tool for building diplomatic support, India and others can benefit from the online communities of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar.
Thus, to truly build an “open and free Indo-Pacific”, what is required of countries is to better understand India’s ambitions and its vision for the Indo-Pacific and the world. As the global calls increase for building a coalition of “like-minded nations”, the focus of the Quad should be to establish a regional security architecture that, while accepting the Chinese threat, should cater to other geopolitical concerns as well.