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CWA # 448, 31 March 2021

NIAS GP Debate on Quad
India's Endgames, Roles and Limitations in Quad

  Apoorva Sudhakar

The tilt towards the Indo-Pacific via the Quad can act as a launchpad for India's Act East policy. While India has, for long, campaigned on the Look East and Act East policies, the outcomes have been limited. It is high time India starts acting on the above policy

On 12 March, the historic "leader-level" Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad summit, was held virtually. Following the summit, the President of the United States, and the Prime Ministers of India, Japan and Australia, released a joint statement titled "The Spirit of the Quad." 

The statement outlined the need for cooperation between the four members on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and economic cooperation. While these areas are certainly important and, the focus of the Quad did not change, the need for a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and the necessity to "counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond." 
By reiterating on a "free and open Indo-Pacific," the Quad leaders, without naming China, highlighted the need to counter the country's growing influence in the region. 

India, being closest to China and with the recent military clashes at the border, has assumed part of the responsibility to keep in check China's expansionist move. What role does India play in the Quad initiative? 

Three roles for India in the Quad
One could identify three roles for India. First, India's naval power. During the Quad summit, the countries recalled that the first coordination in 2004. During the Tsunami, the four navies had come together for relief measures then. This incident set the stage for India to display its naval capabilities and efficiencies among the four countries.  India had previously introduced its brainchild, the Malabar exercise, in 1992. The subsequent membership of the US and Japan, and more recently, Australia joining the exercise, has reflected India's upper hand in operating in the Indian ocean. 

Second, the geographic location. Geographically, the ASEAN countries seem to be the centre among the Quad members. However, their hesitation to commit to the Quad (due to their relations with China), has made India the next best choice. India also shares a huge land boundary with China. 

Third, the economic potential of India. While economic cooperation through the Quad has not been formalized yet, India can project its manufacturing capabilities to the other three members. All four countries are heavily dependent on China for trade. Therefore, without a viable alternative for trade, countering China is tricky. This is where India can use its skilled labour market. 

Quad and India's Endgame
India has presented the above advantages to the Quad, in order to gain the support of the other members. This is one of the first instances wherein India has openly joined a platform aimed at countering China. Before, India had been hesitant to initiate steps that would not go well with China. 

What changed now? One, the growing Chinese aggression in the region. This is evident in the frequent border skirmishes, and the latest military confrontation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) could have pushed India to adopt the Quad way. New Delhi cannot afford to engage in long drawn bilateral confrontations with Beijing without support from strong partners. 
Further, as C Raja Mohan explains, in an opinion in The Indian Express, India sees Quad as an element necessary for her strategic autonomy. He identifies eight trends that have evolved concerning China and says that "the Quad summit is an important part of India's response to the extraordinary challenge that China presents... Delhi's current enthusiasm for the Quad is about limiting the dangers of a unipolar Asia dominated by China." Strategic autonomy has been a cornerstone of India's foreign policy, and through its Quad membership, India, as Minister S Jaishankar said, has recognized the benefits of working with different powers. 

The tilt towards the Indo-Pacific via the Quad can act as a launchpad for India's Act East policy. While India has, for long, campaigned on the Look East and Act East policies, the outcomes have been limited. It is high time India starts acting on the above policy. 

What about India's limitations in the Quad
For India, the prospects of Quad look promising. However, every strategic move involves risks and limitations. In this case, India has the following limitations. 

First, the vaccine diplomacy. On 12 March, India seemed to have an advantage in the much-discussed vaccine diplomacy. It was expected India could become a manufacturing hub for the Indo-Pacific. However, the domestic demand has pushed India away from accomplishing its export targets. Not only could this prove risky for countries dependent on India, it can further push China up into the vaccine diplomacy arena. 

Second, geographic periphery. As mentioned above, India has the naval advantages in the Indian Ocean region, which China is eyeing. However, the maritime focus of the Quad, has much to do with the South China Sea. The maritime concerns of Japan and Australia have precedence in the Quad, over those of India. 

About the author
Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in South Asia and Africa, climate change and human-wildlife conflict. As part of the Pakistan Reader Initiative, she also regularly studies Pakistan's domestic politics, radicalization and group identities.

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