WITH BEIJING watching the India-US engagement closely, India decided to cautiously approach its engagement with the quadrilateral countries — including Japan and Australia — in the Indo-Pacific region, where an increasingly proactive and assertive China is active in the maritime domain.
Sources told The Indian Express that the United States wanted to upgrade the level of engagement between the quadrilateral grouping to the level of foreign secretary, but the Indian side politely told them to keep it to the joint-secretary level — which is at least two steps lower than the proposed engagement.
In November last year, the quadrilateral grouping was revived after a decade, and a meeting of joint secretary-rank officials — directors general in Japan and Australia, and assistant secretary-rank in the US — was held in Manila, on the margins of the ASEAN and East Asia summit. This was followed by a second round of meeting in Singapore in June this year.
“The Americans wanted to upgrade the level of engagement, but we asked them to keep it at the existing level,” a source told The Indian Express, signalling that a higher level of engagement may be perceived as a threat to the Chinese.
Briefing reporters via teleconference from Washington DC, US Acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells said on Monday that the next round of the quadrilateral meeting would take place between joint secretaries and assistant secretaries.
Sources said the Indian side conveyed to the US that the quadrilateral grouping should not be conflated with the Indo-Pacific issue, but should be kept separate.
At the first India-US 2+2 dialogue last week, sources said that there was a “deep discussion” on free and open Indo-Pacific region. While the foreign ministers exchanged views from the strategic perspective, the defence ministers shared views on military activities. The thrust of the discussions, sources in Delhi said, was that if the Indo-Pacific issue was conflated, it would give the impression of ganging up against one country — China.
While sources said this has nothing to do with the informal summit in Wuhan and understandings reached there between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is learnt that New Delhi is mindful of being sensitive to Beijing’s concerns.
However, the 2+2 dialogue between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with the visiting US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis saw the two sides agreeing on increasing the possibilities of trade and connectivity.
“The sub-text of the discussions on connectivity was that we need to work on giving a credible alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative,” said sources. While the word BRI was not uttered during the discussions, “connectivity” points to the ambitious project of the Chinese President.
Last week, after the 2+2 dialogue, Swaraj said there was a “growing convergence” of views on the Indo-Pacific. “We see the Indo-Pacific region as a free, open, and inclusive concept, with ASEAN centrality at the core, and defined by a common, rules-based order that both our countries are pursuing,” she said.
In an oblique reference to the alternative to BRI, she welcomed US interest in expanding its economic footprint in this region. “We agreed to strengthen our bilateral cooperation as well, in order to achieve the common goals related to connectivity and infrastructure, and work together with other partners in this region as well to achieve these goals,” she said.
The joint statement said the two countries committed to work together, and in concert with other partners, towards advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, based on recognition of ASEAN centrality, with respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, good governance, free and fair trade, and freedom of navigation and overflight.
“Noting the importance of infrastructure and connectivity for the Indo-Pacific region, both sides emphasised the need to work collectively with other partner countries to support transparent, responsible, and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development,” it said, in a reference to the alternative to BRI.