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The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also referred to as the Quad, is a strategic consultation framework between the US, Australia, Japan and India which has experienced an expansion during the current coronavirus pandemic, with the involvement of New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. This conjectural alliance, which predictably ended up being referred to as the ‘Quad Plus’ in international strategic circles, confirms a process of strategic alignments in the Indo-Pacific, but without conforming completely to the ‘alliance framework’ that the US would like to promote in the region. But how does India perceive this ‘Quad Plus’ alignment?
Fundamentally speaking, as a key member of the Quad, New Delhi would welcome the further maturation of the idea of ‘Quad Plus’. The regular weekly meeting of foreign officials convened on 20 March, initiated by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, was ostensibly aimed at coordinating policy responses to coronavirus but also marked the beginning of the ‘Quad Plus’ narrative. However, a higher-level meeting convened by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 11 May signified a grander strategic intent if only because it included, alongside the Quad nations and the Quad Plus additions, Brazil and Israel, signifying the sheer breath of the framework’s aims.
A Grander Strategic Intent
India’s support for the Quad Plus narrative is obvious. Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar tweeted that a ‘broad-based virtual meeting’ to overcome the challenges emanating from the coronavirus pandemic reiterates India’s open approach. Further, the official statement titled ‘Cooperation among select countries of the Indo-Pacific in fighting Covid-19 pandemic’ released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs on 14 May following the regular foreign officials’ meeting, reflects India’s intent to back such a proposition officially.
More profoundly, the endorsement of a ‘Quad Plus’ process indicates India’s growing embrace of an American worldview that aims to defend and strengthen a liberal international order while focusing on building an Indo-Pacific narrative that has been threatened by the rise of a ‘revisionist’ China. For a long time, New Delhi has drawn its relationship with China on a ‘power-partner’ contention. Thus, by pursuing a case-by-case approach in dealing with China over the last 15 years, India has sought to strengthen the multilateral mode of association with Beijing, in the hope of revitalising and reforming the Bretton Woods institutions to secure a more representative and result-oriented participation for emerging economies. And this continued to take place despite the growing tensions with China over boundary disputes and other geopolitical complexities such as a contested Indo-Pacific region. India’s multilateral partnerships with China in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank under the BRICS framework as well as involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, are examples of such Indian bilateral and multilateral overtures.
Acknowledging the ‘Quad Plus’ process does not necessarily mean that India will depart from these multilateral engagements with China. However, the commitment to nurture multilateral relations with China to ensure a future for emerging powers is fast receding in New Delhi. Beijing’s continued assertive behaviour on the India–China border, the promotion of friction between India and its neighbours such as Bhutan and Nepal, its incrementally-expanding maritime claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea and its aggressive approach towards Taiwan and Hong Kong: all these developments are further encouraging New Delhi to revisit its current approach towards Beijing. Trump’s recent invitation to India, along with Australia and South Korea to attend the G7 club of industrialised democracies reflects the emerging Indo-Pacific narrative in which a ‘Quad Plus’ arrangement fits well.
New Delhi’s Calculated Overtures
The strategic importance of India is continuously rising for the West. The US has acknowledged India as a ‘major defence partner’ and strengthened their defence partnership through the signing of multiple defence agreements including LEMOA, COMCASA, STA1 and the Industrial Security Annex, as well as conducting the TIGER TRIUMPH exercise and 2+2 dialogue. India’s recently concluded agreement with Australia on ‘Mutual Logistics Support’ allows them to strengthen their defence partnership while upgrading the ‘Comprehending Strategic Partnership’ and is indicative of India’s rising importance in Australia’s strategic thinking.
New Delhi has signed similar agreements with France, South Korea and the US. It has also been reported that India is planning on signing a military logistics agreement with Japan (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement), thereby covering all Quad Plus countries. The UK is proposing to expedite the process of the D10 (Democratic Ten) structure, which includes India, in order to extend the G7 networks to promote an alternative pool of 5G equipment and technologies which shows how India is becoming a major partner for industrialised democracies.
A ‘Quad Plus’ proposition compliments New Delhi’s ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific construct. India’s Indo-Pacific vision has been poised between the ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific outlook that the US and its allies would like to promote and India’s ‘inclusive’ notion of not being confined to particular maritime boundaries. New Delhi would like to enhance a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’ with the cooperation of the Quad partners acknowledging the centrality of ASEAN, and an inter-continental attachment between maritime Asia and Africa. Such an inclusive proposition is primarily drawn on a juxtaposition of idealist and realist notions of strategic thinking.
The idealist notion would imply India’s non-disengagement from China in a realpolitik world. The realist notion implies autonomous navigation, freedom of maritime movement in the Indian Ocean region and India’s emergence as a maritime power by keeping its commercial and strategic interest alive from the west coast of Africa to the South China Sea. This draws a strategic consonance with Japan in the Indo-Pacific, particularly through the envisioned ‘Platform for Japan–India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region’ that both sides aim to promote, in the hopes forming a ‘continental connect’ with Africa and Asia.
The ‘China Connect’
The coronavirus pandemic has disturbed patterns of globalisation. Yet, globalisation is deeply embedded in the emergent global order and it would be difficult for India to completely withdraw from its relationship with China. However, New Delhi realises that a commitment to a ‘Quad Plus’ narrative will not go unchallenged by China, bilaterally or multilaterally. China’s relations with the Quad countries and ‘Quad Plus’ participating countries will continue to exist.
Besides, the ‘Quad Plus’ idea is still young, existing mostly in media parlance, and lacking an institutional framework. Most of the participating countries in the ‘Quad Plus’ framework such as Brazil, South Korea and Vietnam would also be cautious in engaging in an anti-China narrative, as each of them share strong economic ties with Beijing. Still, such an idea serves India’s strategic interest in gaining power multilaterally, by strengthening its relations with countries that are critical to the emerging order.
India is poised to take advantage of the distribution of powers, extending beyond the Quad Plus countries. Such a process allows India to engage deeper in strategic, military and economic influence with countries that are critical to India’s growing fortune in the Indo-Pacific. In other words, Quad Plus supplements a ‘Corridor of Communication’ for India beyond the Quad countries, mainly with Brazil, Israel, Vietnam and South Korea, and allows it to expedite a ‘Continental Connect’ notion that its inclusive Indo-Pacific outlook has been pitching for some time now.
Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.