India's Choice: Bilateral and Quadrilateral?

In this article, Aayush Mohanty examines India's foreign policy choices in response to increasing Chinese assertiveness in Asia. The two choices are that India pursues closer bilateral ties directly with the United States, or with Australia, Japan, and the United States through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. 

Aayush Mohanty
June 29, 2018

The first Quadrilateral Security dialogue, an informal dialogue between India, the US, Australia, and Japan in light of growing Chinese assertiveness in Asia, took place in 2007. However, shortly after, Australia left the group. Together with the global financial crisis in 2008, the forum was rendered ineffective. Between 2007 and 2017, India, due to its unique geographical location, growing economy, and active military, has had growing relations with the US, Japan, Australia, and China. However, there is a certain amount of distrust between India and China, similar to that which existed between India and the United States during the Cold War.

China’s economic and military outreach in the last ten years since the Global Financial Crisis is starting to bother the US position in Asia. In response, The United States Senate  passed the ‘Taiwan Travel Act,' and released a new National Security document using the term Indo-Pacific rather than Asia-Pacific. The Pentagon changed their oldest and biggest naval fleet’s name from US Pacific Command (PACOM) to US Indo-Pacific Command. The examples mentioned above are indicators of the US seeing China as a rising threat to its position in Asia. At the same time, the reboot of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in the Philippines in late 2017 was another indication that there was collective concern regarding China’s increasing heavy-handedness in the region.

The significant issue with the US perception after the Cold War ended was that the focus was never on China directly, but was instead based on making sure that the US stops any hyper-rivals from challenging its global military and economic outreach. There was an early attempt to define this issue by President George Bush in the year 2000,when he mentioned that China is a “strategic competitor”. However, the War on Terror and the Iraq war gave China the space to expand while the US was busy in the Middle East. Initially, US National Security policy did not take into consideration rapid technological advances, intellectual property infringement, and the possibility of massive trade deficits, with China.  Now however, Trump has started calling China a “strategic competitor,” like his Republican predecessor in the White House. While the US has military alliances with Japan, South Korea, and has a significant naval presence in East Asia, it has underestimated the extent of China’s economic and military outreach efforts. More importantly, China’s defiance of international law as far as freedom of navigation in South China Sea  is concerned has put US and ASEAN on notice, an error India cannot afford to make as it closely watches growing Chinese Navy activities in the Indian Ocean.

China’s policy of outreach is to approach those who are not happy with the West, think that the West has not been fair to them, or think that the West is interfering too much in other areas of the world. In South Asia, China is doing the same in approaching India’s neighbours. China is willing to provide financial, technological, and military assistance, although it is not at par with the US as far as the amount of arms sales and technology transfers are concerned.

India has good historical and, economic relations with Japan. India has started holding bilateral military exercises with Australia (AUSINDEX) and has great cultural ties with the country as well. The same can be said of India’s relationship with the United States of America in the last decade. However, the nature of the relationship which India shares with these is bilateral. India is a responsible nuclear power, and has always had an independent foreign policy, which in the last years 70 years has slowly evolved from idealism to pragmatism. 

India should capitalize on the mistakes being made by China, as it did by now having a strategic relationship with Vietnam. China’s push to be more involved in the international arena has led to them making blunders: these include distancing themselves from Vietnam due to the dispute in the South China Sea,  not restraining North Korea, unwarranted military developments in the South China Sea, and its constant support of Pakistan when it is proved time and again that they harbour terrorists and sponsor terrorism in Afghanistan and India. This reckless approach could lead to derailing Xi Jinping’s plan of China being a dominant power by 2049.

The Chinese security apparatus is determined that they will not go through the same humiliation as their predecessors faced after the Europeans defeated the rulers of China in the 19th century, and the Japanese invasion and colonization of the 20th century. However, China has not been involved in any international conflict for the last 30 years and is not likely to go ahead and declare war on the other claimants of South China Sea. But, it is important to note that China has forcefully taken islands from Vietnam and the Philippines. These skirmishes or conflicts started by China have not yet escalated to a war-like situation and loss of life. Chinese intentions about following the rule of law became evident when they did not respond to the International Court of Justice ruling over the island dispute with the Philippines. 

As far as India’s land borders with the Chinese are concerned, constant incursions by Chinese Army Patrols and showing parts of India as their own is a significant bilateral issue. Another key issue is the Chinese government giving stapled Chinese visas to people in Arunachal Pradesh, which China considers as a part of their territory, even after repeated requests to drop the claim. In the international arena, India has been denied entry by China into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, even though it was given membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group, three out of the four non-proliferation regimes. China has also been blocking India and the US’ move to put Mashood Azhar in the UN Global Terror list under the Al-Qaeda sanctions committee of the United Nations Security Council. 

India needs to focus on indigenization of defense equipment production to reduce its reliance on outside support. India has always focused on projecting soft power, which has worked out because of the Indian diaspora living in Australia and The US. To project itself as a growing power more efficiently, India needs to have an indigenously developed technologically advanced military hardware and software, making the diplomatic process easier for India to negotiate tough deals, especially with its increasingly hostile neighbours. 

Trump’s unpredictable foreign and economic policy, Japan’s Article 9 debates, and Australia’s reliance on Chinese investments make the Quad an unenthusiastic and uneasy commitment. India not inviting the Australians for the Malabar Exercise is a sign of India not being enamoured by the prospect of the Quad, at least not yet. India is the only country amongst the ‘Quad’ which shares a land boundary with China and has no military alliance with the US. This raises the question of whether or not when push comes to shove, will the other members of the ‘Quad’ put their weight behind it? India needs to take a bilateral standand rely on its now expanding army of diplomats, years of goodwill, and its image as a responsible nuclear power in the most volatile part of the world to gather support against China’s ever-increasing dominance in South and South East Asia. 

The Quad should be seen as a forum between four countries who believe in the rule of law and in upholding the Freedom of Navigation in the Indo-Pacific region as they vehemently oppose the Chinese building artificial reefs and military infrastructure and for ensuring free trade in the area. India wants China to follow the United National Convention of Law of Sea (UNCLOS) as they did while solving their maritime dispute with Bangladesh in 2014. India, with its growing economy, and massive consumption capacity, sees benefits for everyone in the South China Sea.  Even if the Quad does not become a military alliance in the future, it will be an excellent platform for the four stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region to check China if it throws its economic and military weight around. However, if this security dialogue ever takes a turn towards a military alliance, India should not engage at all, and even if it does nothing more than provide political support, India should be given to ensure the rule of law is upheld in the international order which is now being repeatedly flouted by China. 

China’s aggressiveness has to be dealt with through a mix of idealism and pragmatism. It is imperative for India to distinguish sectors between these two schools of thought. India’s peaceful stance has been taken advantage of before by China. While China is a part of the liberal world order, it more focused on commercial purposes than on the international law which helps maintain peace and stability. It’s massive loans to developing or underdeveloped countries have led to the creation of debt traps, and there is uneasiness regarding their global infrastructure project named the “Belt and Road Initiative”.  The direction which Quad will go to depends on Chinese actions. If China is more assertive in the South China Sea, flouting international treaties and laws, and more importantly opposing freedom of navigation, then India along with her Quad partners, have to collectively stand up against China’s increasing assertiveness. 

Aayush Mohanty is a Research Associate at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank based out of New Delhi. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect with the views of the VIF.