Flashpoints | Diplomacy | South Asia

What Shapes India’s View on the Quad?

Assessing the logic of alliances outside of the West.

By Ameya Pratap Singh for
What Shapes India’s View on the Quad?

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the BRICS Business Council prior the 11th edition of the BRICS Summit, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

Scholars, analysts, and commentators on Indian strategic thought have devoted significant attention to the study of India’s “strategic autonomy” and its estranged relationship with alliances or formalized military arrangements. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – which is an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia – is widely considered the latest casualty of New Delhi’s reservations on the matter. However, contrary to the frustrations of observers in Washington, historically generated ideas and institutional norms that have illustrated Indian thinking are not vestiges of the past; instead they continue to hold a high degree of strategic value. 

From Washington’s perspective, the limited uptake for the Quad in the Indo-Pacific is a puzzling feature. The alliance ostensibly has all the key ingredients necessary to underwrite and strengthen multilateral military and strategic cooperation. First, à la Stephan Walt, the threat of China’s hegemonic regional aspirations, amplifying offensive military capabilities and aggregate power, as well as its geographical contiguity to India, Japan, and Australia should typically elicit strong balancing behavior. Also, the pressing demand to prevent Chinese transgressions of established norms surrounding maritime security and “freedom of movement” in the Indo-Pacific ought to present a serendipitous confluence of interests between these regional powers and the United States. As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated during a policy address in Washington, D.C., “[the Quad] will prove very important in the efforts ahead, ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world.” 

Second, these states also share democratic values that should further countenance their security considerations. As reasoned by the former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, it is “natural” for four “like-minded democracies” to discuss regional stability and security. The Chinese threat is not merely in the military domain. It also confronts the normative and ethical commitments of Quad countries toward liberal democracy, “open and free” trade in the Indo-Pacific, and the rules-based liberal international order. In principle, this politico-economic democratic imperative should therefore, effectively act as the ideological glue that binds these countries together by papering-over any policy discrepancies and residual inhibitions.  

However, alliance logic in the non-West, and in India specifically, is also shaped by additional factors that such linear Washingtonian reasoning fails to contend with. In fact, such ignorance has led to a one-sided apportioning of blame toward non-American members of the Quad (such as a persistent condemnation of India’s fixation with “strategic autonomy”) in order to rationalize the alliance’s deficiencies, with a consequent disavowal of any American shortcomings. 

While “hawkish” commentators often assume that the motivational cocktail of “fear” and “threat” is enough to spur balancing behavior, the Quad is a useful empirical antidote to this assumption. The role of fear in motivating state action is contingent upon the ideas, beliefs, identities, norms, and practices of regional actors and therefore, more diverse than such readings allow for. Historically, the failure of Cold War military alliances in South and Southeast Asia – such as SEATO, CENTO, ANZUS – had much to do with the unwillingness of regional powers to transform uneasy and anxious relationships with potentially-hegemonic and revisionist powers into overtly hostile and oppositional affairs. This logic, as Kate Sullivan de Estrada and Rahul Roy-Chaudhary argue in their paper titled “India, the Indo-Pacific and the Quad,” underlies “New Delhi’s… historical aversion to multilateral arrangements that can be construed as alliances, and… towards democratic collectives.” Even now, it is “the fear of provoking China at a moment when U.S. commitment to the security of the region is uncertain [that is the primary] reason for caution.” 

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Put differently, these states value their diplomatic maneuverability and the capacity to talk to everyone. This allows them – in social constructivist terms – to avoid the “stickiness” of adversarial relations and navigate complex situations without ceding their interests a-priori. The first iteration of the Quad failed in 2007 precisely because of such concerns being expressed by then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. For current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well, it was “diplomatic dexterity [that] helped diffuse tension” during the Doklam crisis with China, eventually “culminating into the Wuhan reset.” 

Additionally, as the abovementioned paper noted, this unwillingness to yield diplomatic capital is further aggravated by a lingering mistrust of U.S. military and economic commitments to the region. Integrating strategic outlooks and greater multilateral collaboration on maritime security requires member states to rely on each other to resolutely and collectively protect their interests when threatened. For instance, Article 5, which is at the heart of the NATO Charter – arguably the most successful military alliance of the modern era – states that “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently…if such an armed attack occurs, each of them…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking…such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” 

But do other Quad members trust the United States to make a comparable or even watered-down iteration of such a security guarantee for their protection? To answer this question, one need not look beyond NATO’s own fraying structure. U.S. President Donald Trump, citing a lack of burden-sharing on defense by other NATO countries, has already questioned the United States’ unconditional obligation to Article 5. In fact, news reports in January 2019 had also claimed that he was considering an inconceivable U.S. withdrawal from NATO. 

Even elsewhere, U.S. credibility as a partner seems to be on a sharp decline. Trump is the first U.S. president to refer to the European Union as a “foe” instead of an ally. Additionally, Syrian Kurds, who have largely fought the on-ground battle on behalf of U.S. forces against the global terrorist group Islamic State, were recently greeted by Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. military troops from northern Syria. The U.S. betrayal was predictably followed up by an invasion of the vacated region by Turkey, a debilitating military offensive against the Kurds, and finally an agreement between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to share territory and control in Syria.

For India and the non-American components of the Quad, these events and the Trump presidency have exacerbated skepticism and mistrust, and have consequently curtailed the prospects of formalizing a multilateral defense organization in the Indo-Pacific. Looking forward, the prognosis looks bleak. In the absence of an overwhelming display of military strength by China and concomitant disregard for diplomatic resolutions or reasoned restraint, it seems unlikely that any of these regional powers would fully align with U.S. strategic objectives in the region. Instead, these powers are most likely to leverage fuller participation in the Quad to exact bilateral concessions from China and encourage it to acquiesce – at least in part – to regional norms, by introducing stronger audience costs into the equation. Former U.S. President Obama’s policy of “hedging” – a combination of engagement and balancing – may prove more fruitful if implemented in concert. In the meantime, the Quad and its collective military potential is likely to remain dormant. 

Ameya Pratap Singh is currently reading for a DPhil in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford.