India’s Strategic Autonomy: Can the US Convince New Delhi to Help it Contain China?
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
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)
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.
PM Modi at COP26 in Glasgow, 2021: India sees Beijing as a partner from an emerging economy viewpoint but does not want to escalate tensions along their contested border (Credit: Doug Peters/ UK Government)
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, theIndo-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.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosts the virtual 2022 BRICS Summit: While India has consolidated partnerships with the US, it is also active in other frameworks that include middle powers positioning themselves as non-aligned (Credit: Rao Aimin/Xinhua)
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.
Zeno Leoni is a lecturer on the “Challenges to the International Order” at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London, based within the Joint Services and Staff College of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He is also an affiliate of the Lau China Institute of King's College London. Dr Leoni is the author of the book Grand Strategy and the Rise of China: Made in America, published in April 2023.