by Lt Gen Prakash Menon
The US Navy’s Seventh Fleet statement of 7 April 2021, after the freedom of navigation operation off Maldives in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone or the EEZ, even if legally valid, and watered down later by the Pentagon Spokesman, was unwarranted and seems indifferent to the sensitive phase in India-US relations. Post the statement, it is understood that China’s defence attaché in New Delhi went to town pointing out the US’ treatment of India as a rebuke of a subordinate. The possibility of this poke in India’s strategic eye being a lower level gaffe cannot be ruled out. But if it was earlier sanctioned by the US Secretary of Defence, then one can surmise that it was meant to convey who is the boss. That would be unfortunate for India-US relations because a reluctant New Delhi has now finally shed its inhibitions with regards to the Quad. The US seems to have misunderstood India’s political stance, especially New Delhi’s understanding of the nature of Quad.
In India’s view, the resurrected Quad is a platform that has four partners at its core with others being invited to participate, depending on common interests. Therefore, the specific issues that relate to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Vietnam, Philippines or any effected country, could be potentially co-opted. Such flexibility can be a fruitful method for the Quad to adopt.
For sure, the Quad is not a military alliance — the attack on one nation does not mean attack on the other. This makes a huge difference. It is also the case that apart from India, all other members have military alliances with each other. But India has made it very clear that the Indo-Pacific conception is not based on a grouping aimed at any particular country and views it as promotion of principles for regional governance by seeking a free, open, inclusive and rules-based order.
The joint statement on 12 March 2021, titled the ‘Spirit of the QUAD’ at the conclusion of the first-ever leader-level summit of the alliance declared, “We pledge to strengthen our cooperation on the defining challenges of our time”. Those challenges are aplenty but it needs no great imagination to conclude that most of the challenges involve China.
The Indo-Pacific is now the locus of what is a modern re-enactment of an ancient geopolitical truism that economics cannot be separated from politics. The flag follows trade and in time, transmutation of market competition leads to military frictions.
Thus far, geo-economic tensions in the Indo-Pacific region may have been the primary form of interplay aimed to increase influence among other Asian nations. This was so because infrastructure development had not kept pace with easing of trade barriers — a hallmark of globalisation. However, attempts to address the infrastructure issue have been generating geopolitical tensions and infrastructure has emerged as a frontier of geostrategic competition.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — that connects Asia, Africa and Europe — has been its major instrument for increasing its influence at a global scale Among the Quad, Japan has waged a lonely battle through its primary infrastructure thrust named Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI). There is enough slack for the Quad to coordinate infrastructure building in the Indo-Pacific. Several ongoing projects can be dovetailed after evolving a geo-economic blue print that can also deliver geostrategic outcomes for the grouping. But this has to be carried out when the scene is shifting from geo-economic tensions to military frictions in maritime areas off China’s coastline.
It is nearly a given that China’s continued assertion of its so-called historic rights in the Western Pacific is going to become the stage for increased military frictions, especially in the maritime spaces of East Asia and South China Sea. But before China makes any further economic military moves, it could first spend time in a phase that could be described as driving the wedge and chastening the flock—read the US, its allies, partners and the ASEAN.
Beijing Will Touch The Pressure Points
Driving the wedge would mostly apply to members of the Quad. India and Japan are in many ways vulnerable to both the carrot of economics and the stick dressed in different forms of power that can range from cyber to direct military action. Militarily, China can act against Bhutan with which India has a treaty, preparations for which may already be underway. Japan is a treaty ally of the US. India is not and must, therefore, cater to defend on its own. Although it may depend on Quad partners for intelligence, geospatial inputs and political support. Australia’s vulnerability is primarily economic.
China could also bring indirect pressure on India through other states. Russia has been, for some time now, echoing China’s views on Quad. It is well possible that the Russian stance is an outcome of its growing economic and political dependence on China. Moscow is aggravated by US-led sanctions post its actions in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014. China’s encroachment in Central Asia, which is the traditional area of Russian influence, will remain a complication in China-Russia relations and one that could provide amongst others, a source to maintain India-Russia relations on an even keel. During the recent visit of the Russian foreign minister to India, Russia once again expressed concerns regarding India’s involvement with the Quad. India has stood its ground about its strategic autonomy and tried to assuage Russia’s anxieties. At a fundamental level, the India-Russia relations are historically deep, but the current re-alignment at the global and regional level calls for deft handling by both sides.
China’s ‘driving the wedge’ strategy could also include Germany, France, United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. All of them have, to varying degrees, substantial economic engagement with China. Germany, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and South Korea being relatively more vulnerable due to various structural vectors in each of their relationships with China and the US. Militarily, all are treaty allies of the US, and therefore, economic coercion would be preferred. Taiwan, meanwhile, could be a case on its own and one should not be taken aback if China tests the US by a surprise capture of one or two of its offshore islands.
Create Trouble In India’s Neighbourhood
Beijing’s ‘chasten the flock’ move will be primarily aimed at ASEAN and India’s neighbours. ASEAN is collectively China’s biggest trading partner. Geographic proximity and economic clout of China has, so far, kept nearly all nations of ASEAN sitting on the fence. Any attempt by the Joe Biden administration to change the equation will entail China making examples of one or two of these countries. Among India’s neighbours, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka may feel the pressure to keep India preoccupied.
However, China would have learnt from Ladakh that coercion, particularly among nuclear powers, is hostage to the risk-taking ability of the opposing leadership, especially if the stakes are territorial. To expect that it can push India into a subordinate relationship, is a belief Beijing has to jettison. But the US would also have to be mindful that the Quad can deliver only if it is a grouping of equals and not a US-led posse.