The quad conundrum - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 30 October 2017

The quad conundrum

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard editorial comment
31st Oct 17

The idea of India, Australia, Japan and the United States cooperating in defence and commerce in the Asia-Pacific has been around for over a decade. This “quadrilateral partnership” has also been referred to as a “Concert of Democracies”, underlining its counterpoise to authoritarian China. It first gained traction in 2007, when the four countries’ navies trained together in Exercise Malabar, prompting a diplomatic demarche from Beijing, which wrote to all four capitals acerbically asking who they were training to fight against. In 2008, the quadrilateral fell victim of domestic politics after Australia elected Kevin Rudd prime minister and the China-friendly leader promptly ended further quadrilateral engagement.

Now Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the driving force behind the 2007 quadrilateral, has again mooted a coming-together of the four countries, this time to “counteract” Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which had expanded the bilateral US-India Exercise Malabar into a trilateral featuring Japan in 2016, and this year invited Australian military personnel to attend Malabar 2017 as “observers”, has signalled its willingness to include “like-minded countries” – code for Australia.

With New Delhi and Beijing increasingly at loggerheads – over issues such as China’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; Beijing’s help to Pakistan in preventing certain individuals from being proscribed as terrorists by the United Nations; India’s support to, and engagement with, the Dalai Lama, New Delhi’s public boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative, and acrimonious border confrontations such as the Doklam face-off in June-August this year – India’s participation in a quadrilateral arrangement would deal a body blow to the Sino-Indian relationship. While India must pursue its strategic interests single-mindedly without succumbing to extraneous pressure, New Delhi must carefully weigh the pros and cons of participating in such a grouping.

On the one hand, this would be a signal from New Delhi that Chinese aggression and animosity serves to push India closer to a rival camp, thus incurring a cost for Beijing. It would deepen New Delhi’s ties with three key capitals – Washington, Canberra and Tokyo – with attendant benefits in diplomatic leverage and burden sharing in defence. Finally, working with America and US allies in the Asia-Pacific would provide New Delhi significant leverage in shaping US policies in Afghanistan-Pakistan to the benefit of India.

On the flip side, India would be the only quadrilateral partner that does not enjoy a treaty relationship with the US. In the event of Chinese retaliation or provocation, New Delhi may end up alone. Furthermore, India is the only member of the proposed quadrilateral that has a land boundary with China, and a hotly contested one at that. Even if the quadrilateral provides assurances on India’s maritime security, the land boundary would inevitably remain India’s problem to deal with. Finally, if Beijing chooses to regard India’s participation in a quadrilateral as the abandonment of long-held non-alignment, China would have fewer incentives to keep India “sitting on the fence”. Instead, Beijing may feel unrestrained in propping up Pakistan as a counterweight to India.


  1. Nicely summarised article. What do you recommend ?

  2. But isn't Beijing already propping up Pakistan since 1947 anyway? What has India to lose except live with domestic violence - so to speak? China is supporting militants in the East, waging a proxy war via Pakistan, even disregarded all conventions and international treaties and armed Pakistan with Nuclear weaponry. Do we still fold back so as not to irritate such a violent neighbor?

  3. Propping up Pakistan more? this sort of defeatist attitude has ensured that we have no friends to count upon internationally. And no one wishes to help us due to our sanctimonious lecturing

  4. A very relevant topic indeed. India must be wary of being cajoled into any such alliance. The basic fact is that you cannot change geography. India was and will always be a neighbor to China. So it really makes sense to invest in a healthy relationship with China in the longer run. While it may seem like the United States is leaning towards India and the biased western media might make it seem like it is for India's benefit, it is definitely not the case. At least it's not as simple as that.
    By pushing even only one advanced weapons system in the Indian-subcontinent, the US and the West in general can be assured of an arms race between China and India. And the worse part? It's India which will have to foot the bill for such multi-billion dollar weapons systems initially. Once that happens, the US can sit back and relax. The military dynamics will take over with China manufacturing/deploying even more advanced counter systems. Please note that China typically manufactures it's own military equipments. While India will have to increasingly look towards the West for answers, paying through the nose in any case. This will kick start a vicious cycle of sorts with the West assured of deals worth total of even hundreds of billion dollars in the longer run.

    What that would also mean is India snubbing Russia as the major defense partner. Russian systems may not be as 'advanced' as Western counterparts but are effective nonetheless. More importantly, they are not as costly as the western ones.

    It's in the interest of India to remain 'neutral' as much as possible.

    Hope sense prevails!

  5. "Instead, Beijing may feel unrestrained in propping up Pakistan as a counterweight to India." Is this a joke Ajay? Are you suggesting for one moment that Beijing has been showing "restraint" in propping up Pakistan against India? That would be the usual foolish and delusional thinking that Indians display when it comes to their enemies. India may be the only country that thinks they can control their enemy's actions by being passive and weak and not teaming up with like minded countries. Even a fool without blinkers will see that the Chinese have always done whatever they felt they needed to do with absolutely no consideration for India. Indian "thinkers" however, have always liked their blinkers.

  6. Dont understand what kind of restraint has China made wrt to Pakistan ., training them to make nuclear missiles nuclear warhead designs entire nuclear reactors enrichment technologies building up their air farce gifting them 8 submarines all sorts of early warning radars etc etc ..restraint ? really !!!


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