The announcement on October 19, 2020, that India had invited Australia to rejoin the Malabar naval exercises alongside Japan and the United States was a key moment in the evolution of New Delhi’s defence diplomacy. It was a statement of how fearless and committed the Narendra Modi government remains when it comes to securing India’s geostrategic interests. It was yet another reminder that a staunchly nationalistic ‘India first’ is the driving factor behind foreign policy in the Modi era.
To understand why the extension of Malabar back to its originally envisaged quadrilateral format is significant, one must revisit the basic premise of the ‘Quad’ dialogue mechanism as a loose coalition of likeminded countries that shared a common unease about China’s hegemonic ascent.
The Quad was conceived and launched in 2007 by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a fervent nationalist and charismatic right-wing political leader who saw the Chinese challenge with supreme clarity much earlier than any other international figure. It was thanks to Abe’s persuasive skills that the Malabar exercise of 2007 in the Bay of Bengal featured navies of all four Quad members, plus Singapore, for the first time ever.
That combined show of force put China on notice that a new counterbalancing force was shaping up to limit its military expansion and push it back to regionally acceptable boundaries. Beijing was so rattled by this plurilateral demonstration of geopolitical will that it immediately issued diplomatic protests and threats to the Quad members to cease ganging up against it.
By 2008, the early promise of the Quad was deflated as Abe was overthrown in Japan’s unstable domestic political arena, and India’s then feeble Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, developed cold feet about angering China. Malabar went back to bilateral and trilateral mode, with Australia left out, and it was not until 2020 that the quadrilateral staged a comeback.
Even as a diplomatic forum, Quad stagnated throughout the Manmohan Singh years as a low-level conclave of bureaucrats. Modi had a hand in reviving it in 2017 and the group began humming again only from 2019, when it got upgraded to a ministerial level dialogue. A proper heads of government summit of the Quad countries is yet to take place, but it is a logical next step that will happen as greater political resolve to save the Indo-Pacific from Chinese imperialism takes root.
Before Modi came on to the scene with a robust foreign policy vision and gave the Quad a new vigour, China took advantage of the strategic opening provided by a weak and disorganised opposition. It built artificial islands and military bases all over the disputed South China Sea, penetrated the tiny Pacific Island nations through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), interfered in Australia’s internal politics and society, cornered Japan by blocking rare earth mineral exports, gained mastery over poorer Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines, and extended the reach of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy all the way to the western edge of the Indian Ocean.
The freedom China enjoyed to run amok in the Indo-Pacific for over one decade was well captured in the admission of the US Navy in 2018 that Beijing had pretty much established control over the mineral-rich South China Sea and that it could not be dislodged “short of war with the US”.
Had there be a strong Quad military and economic structure in place uninterruptedly from the beginning in 2007, the colossus of China that we see today would not have arisen so rapidly. China’s success in leapfrogging towards its authoritarian President Xi Jinping’s goal of ‘national rejuvenation’— which includes restoration of a world order where the US is marginalised, China is dominant at the centre, and the rest of the countries in Asia are subordinate to China— was enabled by the absence of a countervailing collective of countries that acted in concert to raise the costs of Chinese aggression.
Here, one must appreciate why a fraternity of four in the Quad form is a more formidable barrier to China’s hegemony compared to trilateral or bilateral cooperative mechanisms. Australia’s absence had reduced the punch and X-factor in Malabar exercises for the past 13 years. Under the courageous Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose nationalism resembles that of Modi and Abe, Australia can bring unique assets to the struggle to curb China’s belligerence.
The Morrison government is significantly ramping up its defence spending with pledges to spend $270 billion over the next ten years. It still has considerable influence in the Pacific Island nations, where China is encroaching through the BRI. So, Australia’s presence will mean the ‘Quad’ gets teeth and a wider canvas on which to counterbalance China.
Bilateral or trilateral military cooperation have limitations in terms of geographical scope and ‘jointness’. When military exercises scale up to become quadrilateral or bigger than that, they have greater strategic value because they signify the advent of a robust ‘coalition of the willing’ to confront military expansionism by rogue powers.
Malabar’s new avatar will increase the constraints on the PLA Navy in the Indo-Pacific. If Malabar eventually expands to include Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, the three most powerful militaries of the ASEAN group, the ‘Quad-plus’ formation will be complete and it will sow doubt in Xi’s mind about the wisdom of his present aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific. Quad-plus can eventually compel China to course correct on its brash foreign policy.
One often hears from high-ranking officials of Quad countries that it is not a military alliance and that talk of an ‘Asian NATO’ is unfounded. Compared to the US, which under President Donald Trump has severely criticised China and declared a de facto ‘new Cold War’ against China, the remaining Quad members tend to be less vocal in attacking China. India, Japan and Australia are geographically more proximate to China and hence would prefer to let their deeds do the talking instead of getting into an undiplomatic war of words with Beijing.
But just because the Modi government does not issue scathing anti-China rhetoric the way the US does, one must not conclude that India is scared or anxious about not upsetting China. India’s threat perception about China has multiplied many-fold since the standoff in eastern Ladakh in April 2020. In earlier periods, the value of the Quad used to be more like a tactical bargaining chip for India to convey to China that if it did not respect India’s national security red lines, India could enter into an alliance-like formation to counterbalance China. Now, all that signaling business is over. It is obvious to India that China does not respect India’s security and sensitivities. So, holding back on the fuller strategic blossoming of the Quad and hedging on operationalising it is no longer a smart approach. India wants more ‘jointness’ in the Quad without qualms now.
In the past, the tragedy of the Quad had been buck-passing. Each member country said it was ready for more coordinated strategic action, but believed the others were hesitant. India did not feel it got full and unconditional backing of the other three Quad members to go on an alliance-like offensive to push back China. Even now, despite the Quad maturing, India understands that the other three have their own complex relationships with China.
But this year, with the coronavirus-induced military and economic adventurism of China, all four members of Quad realised that China poses serious geopolitical threats. The era of cooperation-cum-competition with China is gone because China has changed into an aggressor power. All four Quad members now realise that the only way to have leverage over China at this stage is not to play nice and talk cooperation with it, but to show that expansionism will be resisted.
Undoubtedly, China has brought it upon itself with its reckless militaristic threats and maneuvers. Instead of dividing the Quad and keeping its members limited to halfway measures, China has unintentionally given a new strategic fillip to the grouping. Beijing is particularly vexed with Australia and India, which have become bolder and less inhibited in challenging Chinese might. With Modi and Morrison leading the charge, it will be hard for China to break down the Quad and Quad-plus initiatives as it did in 2007-2008.
The future for the Quad lies not only in making Malabar-type joint naval activity more permanent and continuous, but also conceiving non-military instruments that can match China’s BRI in the Indo-Pacific. Quad-financed infrastructure projects and economic connectivity missions in poor nations along the vast maritime rim of the Indo-Pacific will be effective alternatives to Chinese ‘debt trap’ diplomacy.
Imagine the quality of Japan, the technology of the US, the ingenuity of Australia and the human resources of India, all pooled together to assist a country like Myanmar, Fiji, Sri Lanka or Maldives. China will not be the only ‘game in town’ if the Quad coheres and endures.
Prime Minister Modi knows that the Quad is a principal element of India’s foreign policy destiny. As long as he is in power, China cannot take Asia for granted. He showed China once in 2017, during the Doklam standoff, and again in 2020 in eastern Ladakh, that a ‘new India’ will not hesitate to take forceful measures to deter aggression and prevent bullying of smaller countries. The Quad is the longer-term institutional manifestation of the Modi government’s pursuit of a multipolar Asia and a multipolar world. May more power accrue to it.
(The writer is a Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His most recent book is ‘Trumped: Emerging Powers in a Post-American World.’ The views expressed are his own)
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