DG, IDSA Remarks at M.L. Sondhi Webinar on Regional Dynamics: Will the QUAD lead to a Coalition of Democracies
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  • DG, IDSA Remarks at M.L. Sondhi Webinar (10 September 2020)

    ‘Regional Dynamics: Will the QUAD lead to a Coalition of Democracies’

    It a pleasure to join Amb. Lalit Mansingh, Ashley Tellis and Gen. Lamba at this webinar which is also a tribute to Prof. M.L. Sondhi, a deep strategic thinker of his time. 

    International and Regional Situation

    China’s unilateralism and aggression, from the East China Sea to the South China Sea and all the way to Ladakh, have intensified contestations. China is upping the ante in South Asia by leveraging its economic power and military might. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean region is also a matter of concern, considering that the last time they were exploring these waters was through the few episodic voyages that Zheng He mounted in the 16th century.

    A putative dyad of the US and China is dominating the global discourse.


    A fundamental fact of the last two decades is that an ambitious China has been virtually seeking the expulsion of the US, and other major powers from its periphery. It regards the US presence in the Asia Pacific, especially, as an impediment to domination of Asia. This is ironic, because the US and others such as France and Britain have historically been part of the region, and the US has been a key factor in is economic prosperity and political stability after the end of the Second World War. Other European powers such as Germany who are showing interest in an open and transparent rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, also have deep stakes and are integral to the region’s future.

    One can say quite frankly that the so-called US Pivot to Asia was ineffective for years after it was announced. The 9/11 terror attacks had led the US to divert its attention to other geographies in Afghanistan, Iraq and even homeland security, leaving a vacuum in Asia-Pacific. Unsurprisingly, China stepped in with its own pivot through occupation of islands and features in the South China Sea, their militarisation and trans-regional trade, infrastructure and connectivity networks through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

    I believe that the concept of Indo-Pacific is a belated recognition of the natural spread of economic growth and prosperity in recent years over a wider region, beyond East Asia and beyond South-east Asia to include South Asia and the east coast of Africa. It is more inclusive and representative of the growing aspirations of a wider constituency. It is also a recognition of the two oceans being interconnected and interdependent.

    QUAD: Prospects

    It is in this context that one must examine the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and its prospects. As such, its genesis lies in the coordinated response developed by like-minded countries in the aftermath of the great Tsunami of 2004.

    The strategic community in China, nevertheless, has branded it an emerging “Asian NATO to target and contain China’s rise. 

    The Quad dissipated when Australia, under PM Kevin Rudd, walked away on account of Chinese sensibilities. Some would say the US was also keen not to ruffle China’s feathers at that time, seeking to work together on North Korea and Russia.   

    More recently, the QUAD has picked up momentum since 2017, with dialogue at the Ministerial level and the scope of the discourse deepening with each meeting.

    However, the QUAD has a few limitations that I should point out. Firstly, it is as yet not a military alliance. It still does not conduct a quadrilateral exercise.

    There is talk of Australia being invited to the next round of the Malabar exercise, but this may have to wait till the picture is clearer with regard to the shape of US policy towards the region after the November election, the succession to PM Abe in Japan, and, the current dust-up between India and China in the high Himalayas.

    The tensions between India and China on the land border have also thrown into sharper relief some basic facts—the first of which is that when push comes to shove on the boundary dispute, India essentially has to deal with China’s aggression on its own. There may be some moral support from other members of the QUAD, and even substantive intelligence sharing on the part of the US, but not much else can be expected. Both Japan and Australia have their limitations, and despite their recent awakening to the perils of over-dependence on China for their economic prosperity, they cannot really play much of a role in the land boundary threats faced by India.

    The focus of the QUAD then, is primarily maritime in nature. Three of the four nations involved have an exclusive maritime focus whereas India is the only one to have a dual set of threats, both continental and oceanic.

    Decoupling from China is being attempted both in trade and technology, with far more success in the latter domain. This is true even of the US, Japan and Australia, the active members of the QUAD. 

    The other issue is about the nature of hyper-powers. Hyper-powers tend to believe in exceptionalism. It is a matter for experts to study if the US’s hyper power status still often fails to distinguish between friend and foe. The US conducts FONOPs against friend and foe alike, and this list includes India, Indonesia, the Philippines and other friendly nations. FONOPS are an optical symbol of US naval potency. They deny China the satisfaction of a complete takeover of the oceanic space through fictitious claims, artificial islands, spurious baselines and unilateral ADIZ declarations. However, they have done nothing to reverse the established fact of occupation and militarisation of features in the South China Sea by China. That the US position on the South China Sea issue is now in full alignment with the tribunal award of 2016 appears to be a welcome shift towards a more enduring partnership with the Philippines.   

    As a great power, the US is capable of duality in engagement, with trade friction, human rights preaching and deeper military engagement proceeding side by side. China too increasingly seeks exceptionalism, by rewriting the rules of existing and prospective global mechanisms to accommodate its economic and military power. But it focuses more on strategies to woo constituencies and to shape outcomes. Its actions are bereft of moral underpinning. It should be little wonder then that even as the QUAD seeks to engage a broader constituency through the QUAD Plus format, there are a large number of countries across the Indo-Pacific, including smaller nations in South Asia, which find themselves drawn to China’s BRI and developmental finance, despite the obvious risks in the longer term, as compared to alternatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCI)’s initiatives.  

    ASEAN centrality is key to the idea of the Indo-Pacific. It also means accepting the inherent limitation imposed by ASEAN’s lack of consensus on China and the fact that the Code of Conduct still remains a Holy Grail. China has generally succeeded in its ‘divide and rule’ policy towards ASEAN. None of the QUAD countries are involved in the Code of Conduct negotiations, which provide China with an opportunity to create China-friendly outcomes. The fact is that ASEAN’s dependence on China has grown significantly in recent years, both for prosperity and security.

    I believe that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision still remains ideational, although it increasingly figures in the White Papers and strategic discourse of several stake-holders. The QUAD, a forum of like-minded countries for building consensus and coordination on specific issues, is not just an “attention-grabbing idea” that would soon “dissipate like ocean foam”, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once put it. It is gradually acquiring form and substance.

    As to what direction it will take will depend on the geostrategic contestations that dot the region. Ironically, China, through its behaviour, will perhaps play the biggest role in shaping the QUAD’s future. To call it a coalition of democracies at the moment is a mere statement of fact. But it is a self-limiting proposition if the QUAD intends to grow into something bigger and to build an exoskeleton that includes many more participants in the future. After all, nations in the Indo-Pacific follow eclectic systems of governance. Not all fit the standard dictionary definition of a democracy.

    In referring to the creation of a free, open and inclusive regional architecture, rules of the road, freedom of navigation and over-flight, and, ASEAN centrality, it appears that the term ‘democratic’ has quietly been dropped in some of the press releases by QUAD members, to facilitate a broader dialogue in the QUAD Plus format. In the wake of the pandemic, the QUAD countries have held regular consultations with others in the region. The QUAD Plus framework makes the structure more inclusive and acceptable. Strait-jacketing the QUAD as a coalition of democracies could be a self-limiting proposition.

    Finally, as I said before, the QUAD is not a factor in the current tensions on the India-China border. In a land dispute, we cannot expect others to pick our chestnuts out of the fire. Also, there does not exist a fixed model of aligning with the US or other powers. Alliances can be restrictive. The US itself has an array of different types of treaties and alliances. The fullest potential of the India-US relationship should be anchored in the flexibility of options available to both sides. Without a formal alliance agreement, the sum of what India and the US can do in tandem will be greater than what they could possibly do through a formal alliance.

    Both Japan and Australia’s independent response over the years to China’s provocations and aggression has never been what it ought to have been, partly because of inbuilt complacency provided by formal alliance structures, partly due to the subordination of sovereign redlines to the thresholds of an alliance partner, and partly because of profound interdependence with China.

    The US has been supportive of India’s position in the ongoing border tensions with China in Ladakh. Japan and Australia, continue to depict Aksai Chin as an integral part of China without indicating its disputed status, unlike the US depiction of Aksai Chin as disputed territory. Projections by strategic partners of India’s boundaries and territorial claim lines assume a deeper salience especially in light of a convergence of interests in the unfolding geostrategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific. Considering that the US, Japan and Australia have a growing convergence with India on the geo-strategic changes underway in the Indo-Pacific, it is an appropriate moment for them to address legacy cartographic anomalies in their maps. This will go as much in strengthening the QUAD as the logistics sharing pacts would.