By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard editorial comment
31st Oct 17
The idea of India, Australia, Japan and the United States cooperating in defence and commerce in the Asia-Pacific has been around for over a decade. This “quadrilateral partnership” has also been referred to as a “Concert of Democracies”, underlining its counterpoise to authoritarian China. It first gained traction in 2007, when the four countries’ navies trained together in Exercise Malabar, prompting a diplomatic demarche from Beijing, which wrote to all four capitals acerbically asking who they were training to fight against. In 2008, the quadrilateral fell victim of domestic politics after Australia elected Kevin Rudd prime minister and the China-friendly leader promptly ended further quadrilateral engagement.
Now Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the driving force behind the 2007 quadrilateral, has again mooted a coming-together of the four countries, this time to “counteract” Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which had expanded the bilateral US-India Exercise Malabar into a trilateral featuring Japan in 2016, and this year invited Australian military personnel to attend Malabar 2017 as “observers”, has signalled its willingness to include “like-minded countries” – code for Australia.
With New Delhi and Beijing increasingly at loggerheads – over issues such as China’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; Beijing’s help to Pakistan in preventing certain individuals from being proscribed as terrorists by the United Nations; India’s support to, and engagement with, the Dalai Lama, New Delhi’s public boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative, and acrimonious border confrontations such as the Doklam face-off in June-August this year – India’s participation in a quadrilateral arrangement would deal a body blow to the Sino-Indian relationship. While India must pursue its strategic interests single-mindedly without succumbing to extraneous pressure, New Delhi must carefully weigh the pros and cons of participating in such a grouping.
On the one hand, this would be a signal from New Delhi that Chinese aggression and animosity serves to push India closer to a rival camp, thus incurring a cost for Beijing. It would deepen New Delhi’s ties with three key capitals – Washington, Canberra and Tokyo – with attendant benefits in diplomatic leverage and burden sharing in defence. Finally, working with America and US allies in the Asia-Pacific would provide New Delhi significant leverage in shaping US policies in Afghanistan-Pakistan to the benefit of India.
On the flip side, India would be the only quadrilateral partner that does not enjoy a treaty relationship with the US. In the event of Chinese retaliation or provocation, New Delhi may end up alone. Furthermore, India is the only member of the proposed quadrilateral that has a land boundary with China, and a hotly contested one at that. Even if the quadrilateral provides assurances on India’s maritime security, the land boundary would inevitably remain India’s problem to deal with. Finally, if Beijing chooses to regard India’s participation in a quadrilateral as the abandonment of long-held non-alignment, China would have fewer incentives to keep India “sitting on the fence”. Instead, Beijing may feel unrestrained in propping up Pakistan as a counterweight to India.