The US views the Quad as an alliance that can contain Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, but India may not feel the same way, writes Zeno Leoni of King’s College London
Quad quorum on the G7 sidelines, Hiroshima, Japan, May 20: The rise of China has transformed the group into an alliance that can contain Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, at least from Washington's perspective (Credit: Pool/Kenny Houston/The New York Times)
The planned Quad Leaders' Summit in Sydney on May 24 was derailed by the US debt ceiling crisis. It was a regrettable cancellation as the meeting was due to take place at a crucial time (the leaders did catch up in an abbreviated evening gathering on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan).
More than a year after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was to be the first, top-level opportunity to take stock of how cohesive the still-evolving Quadrilateral Security Dialogue framework (bringing together Australia, India, Japan and the United States) is, as the previous leaders' summit only happened in Tokyo some three months after the start of the war. The war has been a dramatic event which has compelled many countries to pick a side. In this way, it has been helpful to get a sense of the geopolitical worldview and priorities of each country.
While the Quad was born as a non-traditional security minilateral framework – a more informal initiative than its multilateral counterparts – the rise of China has transformed the group into an alliance that can contain Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, at least from Washington’s point of view. Australia, the US and Japan have stood in strategic lockstep over Russia, condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin and slapping heavy trade sanctions on his country.
India, however, has remained a wildcard, and its ambiguous messaging could present the US with its biggest challenge when it comes to the grouping. In this regard, India is an enigmatic weak link in the Quad, and its participation in the group was recently described by many observers as precarious. During the last year, India has stood out for its strategic autonomy regarding relations with Russia, especially on issues such as gas imports from Moscow.
Although India worries about friction with China along a contested border and an ever more powerful Chinese navy, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees Beijing as a partner from an emerging economy viewpoint – consider the dynamics that were on display at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in 2021 – while it does not desire to escalate tensions with what is a stronger military and economic power. As Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, recently noted: "It is relatively easy to establish coalitions to work on non-traditional security issues but nurturing a group to focus on security issues as the core is not easy, especially for countries like India." Yet, at the recent ministerial-level meeting of the Quad, India's stance appeared more critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Political cohesion is fundamental to the Quad – especially when it comes to China – because dealing with Beijing has been the underlying rationale of this framework. The Quad is one of several US-led minilateral and multilateral initiatives – others include the Build Back Better World, AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) and the expansion of NATO’s field of interest to the Indo-Pacific – that the administration of US President Joe Biden has pursued with the aim of “updating” alliances in an evolving environment and after the divisive approach of his predecessor Donald Trump.
Indeed, Biden's national security strategy and approach to the Indo-Pacific contrast with previous administrations in explicitly acknowledging that successful competition with China "cannot be accomplished alone" and "require[s] unprecedented cooperation with those who share in this vision". All this is part of a US effort at creating a liberal international order (LIO) 2.0 – a "more exclusive club than the LIO" with a "stricter layer of rules" to prevent China from eroding American power and influence.
This is why ensuring a commitment from all members of the alliance on traditional security issues – such as defense – as opposed to only non-traditional security issues – for example, supply chains and climate change – is critical. In the late 2000s, the Quad was set back because of Australia's strong economic relationship with China. But commercial tensions in recent years between Canberra and Beijing have pushed the former closer to Washington. Similarly, the war in Ukraine has increased Japan's already existing concerns about China's assertiveness in East Asia.
Towards the end of the last decade India's stance on the US-China competition was more ambiguous, but since the conflict with China in 2020 New Delhi has taken steps to consolidate its partnership with the US. There has also been the recent revival of BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and proposals for expanding it, as well as the emergence, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of middle powers that position themselves in a sort of non-aligned camp. Both these developments will offer India more options if it wants to maintain its strategic autonomy.
This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.
Laurenceson, James. (May 18, 2023) “Summit Interrupted: Assessing the Relevance of the Quad”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Panda, Jagannath. (December 2, 2021) “Testing Indo-Pacific Security Partnerships: India’s Deployment of Russian Missiles”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Panda, Jagannath P. (2018) “India’s Call on China in the Quad: A Strategic Arch between Liberal and Alternative Structures”, Rising Powers Quarterly, vol. 3, issue 2, pp 83-111, Marmara University Faculty of Political Sciences, Istanbul, Turkey.
King's College London