by Mohamed Zeeshan
In March, leaders of the “Quad” countries – the United States, India, Japan and Australia – came together for a momentous summit, resulting in their first-ever joint statement. This was a milestone for the Quad, after years of struggling to get off the starting blocks. A key factor in the Quad’s reinvigoration in recent months has been India’s sudden enthusiasm. For years, New Delhi had dragged its feet on elevating the Quad to a more proactive forum. That changed in the aftermath of tensions with China last year, which forced India to turn to the US and its allies.
Yet, the Quad is a very significant departure from the established norms of Indian foreign policy. This is the only arena where India sits with the US and some of its closest allies, in a context clearly driven by sensitive geopolitics. Although India has taken pains to underline that the grouping is not an “Asian NATO”, the truth is that China is the primary reason for the Quad’s existence. Take the summit, for instance. When the Quad leaders met in March, they decided, among other things, to collectively invest in boosting India’s capacity to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines. The US and Japan are reported to be providing financial support for the effort, while Australia will take care of logistics.
The key strategic objective of this initiative is driven by competition with China: the Quad hopes India will help counter China’s vaccine supply and influence, especially in Asia.
By some estimates, China has sent over 60 per cent of its global vaccine supply to Southeast Asia. Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Cambodia and Brunei are reported to have received over 2 million doses as donations. India’s vaccine diplomacy, the Quad hopes, could help balance Chinese influence in the region.
The Quad, therefore, is a violation of India’s philosophy of staying out of geopolitical rivalries in order to steer clear of alliances with competing parties which could restrict New Delhi’s strategic autonomy.
New Delhi seems to be conscious of this, so it is now moving from a posture of non-alignment to what academics call multi-alignment – by striking up multiple partnerships on both sides of the table. India has started to balance its engagement with the Quad by reaching out to its own key rivals, China and Pakistan. In recent months, India reached an understanding with China on de-escalation at the Himalayan border, and returned to an old ceasefire deal with Pakistan.
It also signified that it is willing to do much more than just de-escalate tensions: it agreed to hold an anti-terror exercise with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes both China and Pakistan.
Several short-term factors make these overtures feasible. Pakistan’s economy has been battered by Covid-19, leading to a reorganisation of its government’s immediate priorities. Meanwhile, the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan means that the future of Afghanistan is a more pressing priority for Pakistan than hostilities with India. For its part, China, too, would not be opposed to any understanding that encourages India to move away from America’s influence, especially as tensions continue to rise between Beijing and the new Biden administration in Washington.
But there is a limit to how much trust an emerging power can build by being part of competing blocs. Forging partnerships with geopolitical competitors intuitively sounds like a good thing. But it also hurts the credibility of that country in both camps.
At best, the country is no more influential than a bystander in a street fight; at worst, it is seen by both sides as an unreliable partner – a risk of sabotage. India is too large a country to step in the middle of a geopolitical see-saw without making either side wary of its presence.
New Delhi will also need to make hard decisions based on its own interests and those of other partners. Meaningful collaboration and trust-building is harder without strong common interests. Despite the factors that are currently permitting a thaw in relations, India still has fundamental problems with both Pakistan and China that are unlikely to stay swept under the carpet for long.
With Pakistan, there is the struggle over Kashmir, as well as differences over cross-border terrorism. With China, there is the competition for influence in South Asia, not to mention conflicting world views (at present, for instance, India and China are unable to agree on the restoration of democracy in Myanmar).
The Quad, on the other hand, provides India with significant incentives to build its national power and domestic capabilities. The effort to boost India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity shows that the Quad can be moulded into a willing long-term partner in solving India’s developmental challenges.
Its key interest in doing so would be to prop India up as a counterweight to China in the Asia-Pacific. But India’s heightened engagement with rival blocs, such as the SCO, could undermine the Quad’s willingness to invest in the country.
India might not be able to sustain its multi-alignment strategy for long. Its interest in being part of competing blocs will significantly undermine its efforts to find allies and partners to invest in its own development. New Delhi should instead pursue a more sustainable strategy based on an analysis of long-term interests.