Bolder now, India showing more risk appetite in its relations with China

USS Nimitz, INS Vikramaditya and JS Izumo in close formation during Malabar 2017. Photo: @indiannavy
From face-off with Chinese troops at Doklam to being the only major country to boycott Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Forum in May this year, India appears to have significantly upped its risk appetite when it comes to its relations with Beijing.

And now, recent official statements from government bodies indicate India’s "openness" to revisiting a decade-old security framework, a move likely to make the dragon's hackles rise.

In response to the Japanese government’s proposal for a four-party dialogue among New Delhi, Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra to counter Beijing's expansion in the maritime commons of the Indo-Pacific, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on Friday said the country was open to working with like-minded countries. Besides, it has been reported that senior officials from the four countries could meet in Manila this month on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit to discuss a proposed quadrilateral.

With more convergence on ‘quad’, India indicates it may take the leap

The MEA statement does not formally announce India's entry into the proposed framework, but it most certainly indicates a change in New Delhi's policy (since 2007) of avoiding a quadrilateral security mechanism to prevent tensions with China.

"What stands out is that New Delhi is no longer defensive about outlining its priorities. There now are growing voices within the country that India should not be shy of such a quad. There is a growing recognition in the region that China is gaining ground so fast that like-minded countries will need to work more cohesively together," says Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations at the Defence Studies Department, and the India Institute at King’s College, London.

Also important is the timing of the MEA statement. It came days after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s India visit, before which he had said India and the US "must serve as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific" and that the India-US-Japan trilateral engagement in the region had room to include other democracies like Australia. This seemed to echo Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's earlier proposal of an 'Asia democratic security diamond'.

However, Washington's push for a quadrilateral has its share of challenges. "The US can only nudge India. Much would depend on its own role in the Indo-Pacific and if it will keep its security commitments intact," explains Pant. "The US will have to give a sense of greater consistency in its China policy. India will be watching Trump's forthcoming visit to China carefully. In the past, the Trump administration has indicated it might be willing to get into a deal with China. Only on not getting a favourable response from Beijing did its stand get tougher."

The idea of India, US, Australia and Japan standing on their respective ends of the Indo-Pacific as points from where stability, security and respect for a rules-based order will flow into the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, and the surrounding nations is not a new one. Now, Tokyo is proposing a top-level dialogue among the four countries.

Soon after Abe's victory in the snap Japanese polls, the country's foreign minister, Taro Kono, had told the Nikkei about the proposal on October 25. According to the report, the aim of the dialogue is to counter Beijing's maritime expansion under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by promoting defence cooperation and free trade across the Indo-Pacific waters and all the way to Africa. Kono also informed that Abe would officially propose the four-party dialogue to US President Donald Trump on November 6, during the latter’s 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia.

Stating that while an abundance of minilateral initiatives among the four nations concerned already forms a security network, Satoru Nagao, a research fellow at the Institute for Future Engineering who focuses on defence strategy, policy, and India research, says "Japan has sought to restore the concept of a quad again because these four countries are the cornerstones of this security network".

(Click here for Business Standard's detailed piece on Japan's proposed India-US-Japan-Australia 'security diamond' to counter China)

Nagao believes there is "no difference in perception" between Japan and the US over the future security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region. He places the quadrilateral within a "bigger multiple security network" that has emerged since the Obama administration.

A decline in the US’ influence, he argues, has spurred a shift – from the "old security framework", resembling a "hub-and-spoke system" of separate bilateral alliances led by the US to maintain order in the Indo-Pacific region, to a new security network architecture of numerous bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral, and other multilateral cooperative relationships, including the proposed India-US-Japan-Australia quad.

A decade ago, in May of 2007, when an India-Japan-US-Australia exploratory meeting was held for a similar quadrilateral dialogue, which eventually broke down after Canberra pulled out in 2008, the participants had reportedly decided to meet without a formal agenda and not to publicise the meeting or subjects that came up for discussion. All of this was reportedly done keeping in mind China's concerns over a possible attempt at its encirclement or containment.

This time around, however, the MEA statement, which does not mention China, comes against the backdrop of India's vocal criticism of BRI, Tillerson calling out China for being "less responsible" than India and urging the US and India "to do the needful in support of our united vision of a free, open, and thriving Indo-Pacific", and an Australia that now appears increasingly vocal about its willingness to join a quadrilateral.

The missing link

One of the reasons that a quadrilateral security architecture in the region has remained elusive is India’s reservations over Australia's participation.

Australia, for its part, has indicated it is "very interested" in a quadrilateral engagement. Pant points out the "present Australian government has indeed hardened its stance on China and Abe's victory will reinforce this trend". However, he cautions that Australia still remains "very vulnerable to Chinese coercion".

One manifestation of New Delhi’s hesitation is that it earlier this year reportedly declined Canberra's request to join the July 2017 edition of the Malabar exercise, in which the navies of India, the US and Japan participated.

However, experts feel such a refusal might not be cast in stone. While saying India does "appear averse" to Australia participating in Malabar, Nilanthi Samaranayake, an analyst at the US’ Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) who focuses on the Indian Ocean and South Asia regions, explains that "the Modi administration appears to have an open mind to altering participation in Malabar, suggesting the potential for Australia to join someday — not necessarily as a permanent member, but as a participant like Japan was before 2016”.

Citing how Japan was made a permanent member of the exercise in 2016 and the fact that Tokyo participated in the 2015 iteration even as it was held in the Bay of Bengal, Samaranayake argues that the naval drills might continue to evolve. Since 2007, India had only hosted Malabar as a bilateral exercise with the US.

While there has been no recent public statement indicating India is ready to expand the trilateral naval drills, Pant says the proposed four-party dialogue "would need to have a concrete expression, like a formal exercise".

Not a blind leap  

Both Pant and Nagao believe that Abe's Japan will push for something more substantive on the quadrilateral. With a new mandate in hand, Abe "can show his bold move", says Nagao, adding, "Abe will promote Japan-India, Japan-India-US, and Japan-India-US-Australia security cooperation more rapidly."

Washington also reportedly wants a working-level quadrilateral meeting soon. 

However, the MEA statement makes it clear that while New Delhi has "an open mind to cooperate with countries with convergence", it will do so "on an agenda relevant to us". Right at the outset, the statement also underlines that such cooperation would have to be "on issues that advance our interests and promote our viewpoint". This suggests a degree of caution and that New Delhi's participation is contingent on the proposed architecture's relevance to its interests.

The statement appears to make two things clear. First, India is no longer opposed to the idea of the quad itself. And second, it would not be out of the ordinary for India to decide on participating, given its involvement in other initiatives, including its trilateral engagement with Russia and China.

At the least, it appears that India is ready to explore the quad once again and on its own terms. 

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