Varshini Sridhar and Gazi Hassan

With fighter jets operating in full swing over the Northern Arabian Sea, the world is watching with excitement, doubt and apprehensions. It is the second time in a month that four democracies led by India have come together to take part in the annual Malabar Exercise. The same group had failed to reach a consensus several years back on the responses to the Chinese aggression.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, primarily a security coalition, has had a tough journey from being a coalition for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to taking its present form of a full-fledged maritime security grouping. Having been disbanded in 2008 and revived in 2017, its renewed sense of purpose stems from the growing Chinese threat that has left no area in the Indo-Pacific untouched. But changing geopolitics has pushed India towards the Quad and has significantly altered its relationship with its members.

To a large extent, India’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region converge with those of its Quad partners (US, Australia and Japan). Like the other members, India also envisions a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific with a rule-based order. Although there is a tinge of ambiguity in India’s “inclusive” Indo-Pacific, the need to maintain a stable balance of power underlies the Quad’s vision for the larger Indo-Pacific region. India also takes interest in collaborative effort aiming to address common challenges across the region, such as terrorism and connectivity. Moreover, the Quad’s ASEAN centrality perfectly complements India’s Act East policy.

India’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, East Asian and West Asian regions further provides opportunities for the other Quad members to collaborate. Many of India’s projects under the Act East policy are incomplete and the revival of the Quad makes it beneficial for India to further that policy.

However, there are lingering doubts about the extent to which the Quad members agree on individual disputes with China. For instance, India along with Japan is the only Quad member to have direct territorial disputes with China. The stakes are even higher for India because of its shared border with China. How far the US and Australia will agree or even cushion these countries in the event of Chinese retaliation is uncertain. Keeping all these in perspective, it is possible that a difference in perception with regards to any of the following — country-specific conflicts with Beijing, the possibility of Chinese retaliation and the contribution of countries in terms of economic and security capabilities — will continue to influence the future of the grouping.

That further begs the question of whether the Quad will be India’s temporary go-to group whenever the conflict with China reaches an aggressive climax. While it is too soon to make a judgement, India’s perceptions of the Quad provide some insights. India has for long viewed the Quad as one of the many multilateral security groupings across Asia. Be it the Quad, or any of its engagements in the Indo-Pacific, India has been careful not to reduce it to a limited group of countries.

To India, the Quad and the Indo-Pacific are distinct arrangements and in treating it so, New Delhi reiterates its principle of maintaining strategic autonomy while also engaging with potential multilateral arrangements. Being a part of the Quad comes with benefits for India, but it also carries the risks of alignment and threat of provoking China.

Speaking of benefits, India is yet to witness any major gains from the increased engagements with its Quad partners. For now, it is possible to map out a few limited areas that India would stand to benefit from. To start with, India is likely to see major progress in defence partnerships. The joint exercises, as a confidence building measure, will help India achieve the much-desired interoperability and receive exposure to new technologies. Even the lack of institutionalisation of the Quad will also provide opportunities for India to engage with other key players in the Indo-Pacific region. The teleconference on combatting the pandemic, involving New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam, signalled a step towards this. 

Beyond economic cooperation, India has also been showing growing interest in developing defence technology, especially Artificial Intelligence (AI), space and cyber technology. The success of these technologies depends largely on academic research and skilled technology researchers. In that respect, India has a huge advantage to offer its Quad members. To support India’s defence goals, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has taken efforts to expand academic research into defence technologies. Centres of excellence have been established and defence has been incorporated into the tech curriculum. So far, DRDO has been able to attract 500 PhD students to work in their labs and 5000-10,000 student apprentices to assist its defence projects. Overall, India’s relationship with the Quad and its broader strategy will be a defining factor for the success of the grouping.        

Varshini Sridhar is Project Asistant and Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associate at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research. 

Featured Image Source: The Kootneti

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