Quad is a strategic security dialogue to overtly realise the need for a “free, open and inclusive Indo Pacific” based on shared values and common interests. However its primary convergence irrespective of its concealed overtones, is Chinese aggressive expansionism in the Indo Pacific that has been disrupting the geopolitical stability in the region. Yet while QUAD with its several contradictions will gain more teeth with time, it is no magic wand for complacency in the Himalayas. In fact the current impasse in Ladakh is a brewing volcano that can become active at short notice. India cannot look over its shoulders either to US or Russia beyond gallery play in safe guarding its territorial integrity. A lesson nations must learn from Ukrainian conflict.
However, there are questions to be answered. Does QUAD have the strategic teeth and resource commitment for its primary focus? Can geo-economics be separated from geostrategy? Can divergent focus and contradictions of nations pave the way for a collaborative approach? Does it stir the Chinese state propaganda of a nation under provocative threat and so become more aggressive in the name of territorial sovereignty? Is that not a replay of Ukraine ignition? Does the ongoing Russo -Ukraine War bring about greater contradictions and complexities? And finally, is QUAD the panacea of Chinese turbulent rise?
The truth is international relations and liberal international order is not a linear trajectory but it’s all about slants and crosses. There are both divert and convergent national interests at the same time between QUAD nations making the relationship complex. So the art of international relations in the 21st Century is to leverage the geopolitical opportunities and converging interests for the furtherance of national interest. It is here that that the economic integration of QUAD to delink from present dependencies will hurt China more than the periodic shadow boxing.
Geopolitical bonding’s of QUAD lack the resilience with geo-economic winds blowing the Chinese way. The present time and strategic space matrices make it even more formidable. Each QUAD member contributes handsomely to the Chinese trade surplus. These dependencies are self-inflicted injuries yet political compulsions of facing the upheaval of an economic draw down. Brahma Chellaney writes in a recent article “India’s trade deficit with China – which hit $77 billion in the 12 months through this March – exceeds its defense budget, even as the two countries are locked in a dangerous military confrontation on their long Himalayan frontier”. So can you tame the fire while fueling it? These strategic ambiguities cannot be wished away and need to be addressed with a realistic and pragmatic collaborative approach even if it is time consuming but must be progressive. The launch of the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, promoting regional growth, sustainability and inclusivity in the region, is a step in the right direction. However the test will be its resource allocation and collaborative outcome to delink from any future dependencies.
The world today is witnessing the decline in US global power status and retrenchment, China’s assertive rise and incremental expansion impacting global realignments, strategic churn in Europe with a revanchist Russia; turmoil in the Islamic world with terrorism engulfing the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia and financial crisis creating domestic instabilities in South Asia. All these have provided breathing space to China for its centenary goals. If 9/11 and Covid-19 were the breathers, the Ukrainian War has given it the strategic space and oxygen to embolden itself.
Strategic ambiguity and duplicity impact the foundational construct of QUAD. US has eased the tariffs imposed earlier on Chinese imports, let China off the Wuhan hook, and now makes conciliatory gestures in the backdrop of the threat of a China – Russia economic embrace which will not only dilute US sanctions but threaten its global standing. Giving Ukraine a total of 60 billion aid essentially military in nature, US COVID impacted economy is taking a beating with unprecedented inflation, dwindling financial reserves and the dollar under threat. This has raised domestic eyebrows too. US thus lacks the capacity and resources to provide teeth to its Asia pivot. India in turn balances the QUAD hemmed by the Himalayan impasse yet reserves its principled stand on Russia in variance to other QUAD members. Australia and Japan exhibit duplicity by way of being part of China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership for its commerce benefits. Thus a path of economic bonding will have to be paved by QUAD through these ambiguities even if the starters are climate change and vaccine diplomacy.
Closer home, two years have passed since the Himalayan impasse with talks between India and China making limited headway. In creating friction along Ladakh, China has surreptitiously solidified its control on the disputed territory of Aksai Chin and its vulnerable flanks, as in the oceanic frontiers of Indo-pacific. Now both sides oppose each other with heavy deployments and improved infrastructure threatening escalation at worst and forcing a new status quo ante at best. To counterbalance the Chinese threat, India’s strategic effort has been for a collaborative global approach. QUAD has been the primary frontline of such effort due to the geostrategic importance of Indo-Pacific and similar concerns of nations therein. Yet this does not give any semblance of deterrence in the Himalayas. China’s periodic forays in peacetime by way of transgression will have to be denied any physical and psychological gains with due resolute military deterrence and astute political decisiveness to preserve its core national interests. This requires a whole of nation approach.
Deterrence is more in the cognitive domain brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction. A successful deterrence policy must thus be considered not only through the military lens, but also in political, economic, diplomatic and informational domains. It essentially means making the expected cost of aggression appear worse than the benefit of maintain peace. It is here collaborative arrangements like empowered QUAD will weigh in the mind of the Chinese in the recently enunciated concept of integrated deterrence. Integrated deterrence as a macro concept in today’s geopolitics encompasses the integration of not only all instruments of national power but also strengthening global collaborative security mechanisms for a multidomain collective response.
India for the foreseeable future will need to strengthen both its deterrence and warfighting capabilities to deter, dissuade, deny and defeat existent threats to its continental, aerospace and maritime domain while investing in equally critical domains like C5ISR, AI, IW, Space and Cyber. The truth is bridging the economic, technology and military gap is time-consuming and voids will exist in the short term. This requires outcome orientation of policies, matching resource and time sensitivities. Prudence lies in never underestimating the adversary nor over estimating oneself and keeping your gunpowder dry.
Finally, India must realise irrespective of the media hype and photo shoots, QUAD is no panacea for the Himalayan challenges. India will have to fight and win its battles itself with its own equipment. Nations cannot be “Ukrained”.
-The author is a PVSM, AVSM, VSM has had an illustrious career spanning nearly four decades. A distinguished Armoured Corps officer, he has served in various prestigious staff and command appointments including Commander Independent Armoured Brigade, ADG PP, GOC Armoured Division and GOC Strike 1. The officer retired as DG Mechanised Forces in December 2017 during which he was the architect to initiate process for reintroduction of Light Tank and Chairman on the study on C5ISR for Indian Army. Subsequently he was Consultant MoD/OFB from 2018 to 2020. The Officer is a reputed defence analyst, a motivational speaker and prolific writer on matters of military, defence technology and national security.The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily carry the views of Raksha Anirveda.