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The Quad’s importance to India’s strategic autonomy

Beijing has emerged as the biggest challenge to New Delhi, and the US is increasingly becoming the part of the answer. India’s membership of the Quad is a response to such geopolitics.

Written by C. Raja Mohan
Updated: March 16, 2021 8:50:16 am
Delhi will continue to attach some value—diplomatic if not strategic— to a forum like the BRICS. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Global Times, the Chinese newspaper known for its controversial commentary on world affairs, published an essay late last week speculating on the implications of the historic Quad summit for the BRICS — the forum that was the very symbol of India’s much celebrated “strategic autonomy”.

In calling the Quad — India’s coalition with the US and its Asian allies, Australia and Japan — a “negative asset” for the BRICS, where India sits down with China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, the Global Times was highlighting what it sees as a contradiction in India’s participation in both the forums. “In moving closer to the US and the US-led Quad in recent years”, the paper argued, Delhi has worsened “India-China and India-Russia relations” and halted progress “in the development of BRICS and SCO”. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is the Eurasian forum founded jointly by Beijing and Moscow a quarter of a century ago.

Many have seen India’s oscillation between the BRICS and Quad all these years as a reflection of Delhi’s strategic confusions between the East and the West, and between Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. But the Global Times sees a strategic pattern in Delhi’s behaviour. From Beijing’s perspective, India has taken advantage of the BRICS on issues like terrorism and gained access to regional cooperation in inner Asia. At the same time, Beijing sees Delhi’s mobilising the Quad as balancing or even “blackmailing” China. Delhi’s small band of realists might see that as a compliment coming from Beijing’s hyper-realists.

Global Times warns that if Delhi continues to get closer to Washington, India “will eventually lose its strategic autonomy” and become America’s “hatchet man against China”. But if it had continued with its logic of realpolitik, the paper could quite easily see it is the very quest for “strategic autonomy” that is generating a new Indian warmth towards the US.

That brings us to the central problem in understanding India’s “strategic autonomy” — the framework that guided Delhi’s international relations since the Cold War. In the early 1990s, strategic autonomy was about creating space for India against the overweening American power after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ideological inertia, however, prevented Delhi’s foreign policy discourse from recognising a fundamental transformation in India’s external environment over the last three decades. What were the circumstances of the early 1990s that led India to emphasise strategic autonomy against America? And how have they changed over the last three decades to redirect the idea towards China?

In his first term (1993-97), President Bill Clinton questioned the legitimacy of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India and declared the US’s intent to resolve Delhi’s Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. On top of its Kashmir activism, Washington insisted that rolling back India’s nuclear and missile programmes was a major objective of US foreign policy. If Pakistan fanned the fires of a fierce insurgency in Kashmir, the US declared that J&K was the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint.

All that changed over the last three decades. Under Clinton’s successors, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, Washington discarded its itch to mediate on Kashmir, resolved the nuclear dispute, and widened economic and political cooperation with Delhi to become India’s most important strategic partner.

A rising China, in contrast, has emerged as the biggest challenge to India and the US is increasingly an important part of the answer. A few elements stand out. First, with China’s growing military power, the PLA has become more assertive on the contested boundary. Amidst the breakdown of peace and tranquillity on the border, the support from the US and its Asian allies has been valuable. Second, on the Kashmir question, it is China that rakes up the issue at the UNSC while the US is helping India to block China’s moves. Third, on cross-border terrorism, the US puts pressure on Pakistan and China protects Rawalpindi.

Fourth, the US has facilitated India’s integration with the global nuclear order while Beijing blocks Delhi’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Fifth, the US backs India’s permanent membership of the UNSC, China does not. Sixth, Delhi now sees the trade with China hollowing out India’s manufacturing capability. Its objective on diversifying its economy away from China is shared by the US and the Quad partners. Seventh, India opposes China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a project that undermines India’s territorial sovereignty and regional primacy. Delhi is working with Quad partners to offer alternatives to the BRI. Finally, Delhi sees China’s rising military profile in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean as a problem and is working with Washington to redress the unfolding imbalance in India’s neighbourhood.

These trend lines have evolved over a period of time and the Quad summit is an important part of India’s response to the extraordinary challenge that China presents. The BRICS was part of India’s strategy in the unipolar moment that dawned at the end of the Cold War. Delhi’s current enthusiasm for the Quad is about limiting the dangers of a unipolar Asia dominated by China.

This does not mean India will walk away from the BRICS. Delhi will continue to attach some value — diplomatic if not strategic — to a forum like the BRICS. After all, the BRICS forum provides a useful channel of communication between Delhi and Beijing at a very difficult moment in the evolution of their bilateral relations. The BRICS is also about India’s enduring partnerships with Russia, Brazil, and South Africa. India also values its ties with the Central Asian states in the SCO.

The BRICS could certainly become a productive forum someday — when Delhi and Beijing mitigate their multiple contentions. The Quad is work in progress and is bound to encounter problems of its own down the road. The Global Times is not off the mark in assessing that India’s stakes in the Quad might rise faster than those in the BRICS.

Tailpiece: Many observers of the Quad are pleased that the leaders have finally issued a joint statement. Until now, the four parties issued their own separate press releases at the end of each consultation. But it is easy to overestimate the value of joint statements. What matters in the end is the degree of convergence between the interests of the parties.

No amount of words in a BRICS declaration, for example, can paper over the sharpening contradictions between India and China today. The absence of joint statements did not mask the growing strategic congruence among the Quad nations in recent years.

The Quad summit joint statement and the fact sheets added to about 1,600 words. To make the new agenda even more accessible, the Quad leaders published a short opinion piece of 800 words in The Washington Post. Those 800 words could turn out to be far more consequential than the 11,600 words that formed the joint declaration issued by the BRICS summit last November.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 16, 2021 under the title ‘Quad and a strategic update’. The writer is Director, Institute for South Asian Studies and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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