China Had Made India All-In on the Quad

COMMENTARY Global Politics

China Had Made India All-In on the Quad

Jun 29, 2021 9 min read
Jeff M. Smith

Director, Asian Studies Center

Jeff Smith is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
The Quad has been building momentum since 2019, when meetings were upgraded to the ministerial level and counterterrorism exercises were added to the agenda. Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

This flurry of activity and bipartisan support the Quad enjoys in the United States bode well for the group’s future.

India sees the Quad as one avenue to accelerate its internal balancing and enhance its military capabilities.

Those invested in the Quad’s success have much to celebrate this year.

This may well be the golden age of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), the strategic grouping joining Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Since its revival in 2017 amid rising shared concerns about China, the group has consistently defied its critics and originally modest expectations. This year, the Quad has not only survived the first major change of government among its members but has thrived—not least because India, originally the most reluctant member, is now all-in on the grouping.

The Biden administration moved quickly to dispel any concerns that it might abandon an initiative championed by its predecessor. One week after inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan praised the Quad as “a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region.”

In March, the group took a major step forward with the first-ever Quad summit. Only recently seen as a distant ambition, the four leaders agreed to begin meeting regularly in person, with plans for a first in-person meeting in the fall.

The Quad has been building momentum since 2019, when meetings were upgraded to the ministerial level and counterterrorism exercises were added to the agenda. A Quad-Plus group of seven countries was later formed to , and last year, the four countries held the first Quad naval exercises in over a decade. At the Quad summit this March, the group pointed to a new focus on pandemic response and vaccines, climate change, and supply chains alongside its legacy commitments to maritime security and a free and open Indo-Pacific.

>>> Democracy’s Squad: India’s Change of Heart and the Future of the Quad

This flurry of activity and bipartisan support the Quad enjoys in the United States bode well for the group’s future. Yet, the most encouraging omen for the Quad and a major reason for its recent success lies with India’s change of heart. Once skeptical of reviving the group, New Delhi has become a driver of recent progress as it confronts an escalating rivalry with Beijing and declining confidence in its former patron, Moscow.

In a stark reversal from the past, Indian officials are now some of the most vocal champions of the Quad and its conceptual cousin, the Indo-Pacific. They have also begun facing down criticism from Beijing and Moscow head-on. For the Quad to maintain this momentum, India’s partners must recognize the drivers of its recent enthusiasm as well as its concerns and sensitivities about the group’s future trajectory.

The pace of multilateral groups is often set by the most skeptical member, and India, by its own admission, has traditionally been the Quad’s most cautious constituent. After the unceremonious disbanding of the first attempt at a Quad in 2008—when a new government in Australia, intent on engagement with Beijing, signaled its disinterest in the format—New Delhi approached the reconstitution of the group with some trepidation.

A great deal changed in the decade between the Quad’s collapse and rebirth, however, as the push of China and the pull of India’s democratic partners simultaneously grew stronger. On one hand, India experienced growing trust and comfort cooperating with the United States and the other Quad democracies, diminished ideological attachment to its previous Cold War philosophy of nonalignment, and outspoken advocacy for the Quad and Indo-Pacific by the influentialvIndian minister of external affairs, S. Jaishankar.

At the same time, new rifts opened with China that tipped the scales toward more open rivalry. Arguably the most consequential of these fissures was a series of escalating crises at or near their disputed border, including clashes on the Doklam plateau in 2017 and in Ladakh in 2020. The latter produced the first casualties from border hostilities in more than 40 years.

Whether intentionally or otherwise, China’s aggressive behavior at the Line of Actual Control severely disrupted a delicate balancing act. For India, careful management of the border dispute was the glue holding the volatile relationship together. Now, as Jaishankar said, “if you point your gun at me, I will point my gun at you.”

“China has lost India strategically,” insisted former Indian Ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale. “If they wanted India to play a [neutral] role between them and the U.S., that is not going to happen. India is now firmly with the U.S.”

One consequence of this sea change: Long-standing Chinese propaganda efforts to discourage Indian participation in the Quad are only adding fuel to the fire—not least because the language, which alternates between bullying and patronizing, only ends up emphasizing Chinese threats. In a March column, China’s Global Times warned India’s participation in the Quad meant it had become a “negative asset” to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) groupings led by Beijing and Moscow. It warned India it risked becoming “cannon fodder,” insisting “New Delhi needs to take a more cautious attitude and think twice.”

The threats are falling on deaf ears. “The Chinese are not particularly sensitive to our concerns,” noted former Indian Ambassador to China Ashok Kantha. “Why do we have to be overly concerned about China’s sensitivities with regard to the Quad?” Another former Indian ambassador to China, Vijay Gokhale, saw Beijing’s criticisms of the Quad as contradictory and self-serving: “Contradictory, because China is the initiator of similar plurilateral mechanisms. … Self-serving because China doesn’t wish to permit any other platform that offers alternatives to the region.”

Meanwhile, appeals from India’s traditional patron, Russia, to abandon the Quad and Indo-Pacific don’t hold the same sway they once did. As Moscow embraces a burgeoning strategic partnership with Beijing, Russian officials have grown more publicly critical of India’s tilt toward Indo-Pacific democracies.

The Russian ambassador to India recently explained the Quad would be “detrimental to the inclusive dialogue in the region,” insisting New Delhi instead look to Russian- and Chinese-led exclusive dialogues like the SCO, BRICS, and the Russia-India-China trilateral dialogue.

Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly attacked the Indo-Pacific as “divisive” and designed “to exclude China.” “Our Indians friends are smart enough to understand that,” he advised in 2020.

The Indian government is not in a mood to listen. “Only a person in denial of globalization will actually contest Indo-Pacific,” Jaishankar argued in December 2020, calling it a “matter of satisfaction that the Indo-Pacific concept has gained increasingly wider acceptance.”

Grilled by a Russian reporter on whether the Quad and Indo-Pacific were designed to contain China, the Indian external affairs minister retorted: “Containment is part of your history and thinking. It’s not part of my thinking, OK? You have to get over this Cold War mindset. That era is gone.”

Perhaps most important for India, the Quad and Indo-Pacific have earned the full-throated endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The “Quad has come of age,” opined Modi at the March Quad summit, calling it “an important pillar of stability in the region.” The four countries, he said, “are united by democratic values and commitment to a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.” Notably, in the February Biden-Modi phone call, the Indian and U.S. leaders agreed to promote a “stronger regional architecture through the Quad.”

Even as New Delhi moves toward a more enthusiastic embrace of the Quad, it remains in many ways the odd man out and will continue to set the tempo as the group moves from a formative stage to one of consolidation and expansion.

This was expected. In many ways, the story of the Quad is the story of India’s courtship: an attempt to better integrate the country into the network of operational links, shared threat assessments, and common strategic outlooks already binding the United States, Japan, and Australia.

The Quad and Indo-Pacific concepts were initially pioneered by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Tokyo’s zeal for wooing India has diminished little with time. “We love India, and we want more commitment from India towards the Quad,” Japan’s deputy defense minister appealed this year. “I personally request India to commit more to protect the free and open Indo-Pacific region. We want a strong India. India is Asia’s gravity point.”

The sentiment is widely shared in Australia and the United States. Yet, the three countries haven’t entirely acclimated to India’s unique perspective and sensitivities regarding the Quad, which, in fairness, have not always been articulated with great clarity by New Delhi. What are those sensitivities? And what will it take to keep India invested in the Quad?

India’s views of the Quad are a product of its unique position on the geopolitical map: relatively vulnerable and alone on the western flank with its more powerful partners clustered safely together on the eastern flank. India is the only member of the Quad that borders China, has been invaded by China, has an active land border dispute with China, is wedged between two nuclear-armed rivals, and lacks treaty alliance commitments from the other Quad members.

As a result of this relative strategic vulnerability and its unsavory experience with the hastily disbanded Quad 1.0, India is more sensitive to the risks of aggravating a security dilemma with China without a comparable improvement in its strategic position. Were the Quad to dissolve tomorrow, Australia, Japan, and the United States would still enjoy collective defense arrangements and a qualitative military and economic edge over their principle strategic competitor. India would not.

As a result, India seeks to minimize perceptions of the Quad as a U.S.-led containment coalition, both to limit the damage to China-India relations and to enhance the Quad’s broader regionwide appeal. India has long preferred to cast the Quad in a more open, multilateral, and inclusive light. It prioritizes appeals to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and ASEAN centrality and emphasizes the importance of soft power, non-security cooperation, and diplomatic engagement.

>>> The Future of the Quad Is Bright

Most importantly, if the principle value of the Quad for Canberra, Tokyo, and Washington lies in fostering greater Indian alignment with their outlook and approach to the Indo-Pacific—and perhaps eventually creating a more formidable deterrent to Chinese adventurism—the principle value of the Quad for New Delhi is helping to address its own strategic shortcomings toward China.

India sees the Quad as one avenue to accelerate its internal balancing and enhance its military capabilities. It endeavors to acquire high-end defense platforms and foster greater cooperation in intelligence- and technology-sharing with its Quad partners. It seeks joint development of defense platforms and greater investments in its indigenous defense sector, which, to date, have been largely stifled by arcane regulations and red tape.

India also seeks greater recognition from the other Quad members for its concerns and interests in the western half of the Indo-Pacific. Privately, a consistent refrain from Indian strategists is the Quad seeks more Indian involvement in confronting China on high-priority issues for Australia, Japan, and the United States: the territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, the threats posed by Chinese espionage and technology ambitions, and Chinese repression in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong.

By contrast, its Quad partners have not always been comparably engaged with China’s belligerent behavior at the disputed China-India border and its expanding political, military, and economic footprint in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, including its burgeoning strategic partnership with Pakistan. Nor have they proposed a robust agenda for trade and economic development initiatives on the subcontinent.

Those invested in the Quad’s success have much to celebrate this year. But as they look to the future, they need to keep a finger on the pulse in New Delhi and ensure the “Indo” half of the Indo-Pacific does not go neglected.

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy