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Opinion

India grows keener on the Quad as relationship with China worsens

Four-sided alliance with US, Australia and Japan offers needed friends

Donald Trump, left, Shinzo Abe, center, and Narendra Modi hold a meeting on June 28: the Quad's main strategic use is for signaling purposes.   © Reuters

When foreign ministers from the U.S., Australia, India and Japan met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in late September, it represented a significant elevation for the status of this group -- known as the Quad.

It was only a year ago that Indian officials were reluctant to hold talks at the foreign secretary level, preferring to limit engagement to the more junior joint secretary level, despite significant pressure from the U.S. and Japan.

This, therefore, was a big step for India, which has often been described as deeply wedded to the idea of preserving its strategic autonomy. It even resisted participation in a benign infrastructure initiative under this framework to avoid upsetting Beijing.

What seems to have driven India's agreement to improve ties within the Quad is that its structural problems with China have become far more prominent in recent times. Early indications suggest that tomorrow's visit to India by Chinese President Xi Jinping may not be successful in calming things down.

For the first time, arguably, since its decision to test its nuclear bomb in 1998, India finds itself vulnerable on the international stage, which has probably driven the realization that it needs friends. And what better friends are there than rich democracies which share strategic interests in India's region?

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was originally conceived in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a "concert of democracies." However, the original grouping was dissolved in the face of China's opposition, both perceived and real.

Although the grouping was revived in 2017, its sustainability has been in question because of the bad blood from 2007.

Now circumstances are spurring renewed interest. India's decision to split Jammu and Kashmir and revoke its constitutional autonomy generated a hostile response from Beijing, which viewed it as an attempt by New Delhi to change the status quo in Aksai Chin. This is an area originally part of Kashmir, which is now under Chinese control and is disputed between India and China.

Beijing led a closed-door consultation at the U.N. Security Council on India's actions in Kashmir ensuring that, despite Indian efforts, the issue has become "internationalized," which Indian policymakers are unhappy about.

Moreover, China's move was probably intended as an unsubtle reminder to New Delhi that China is a permanent member of the Security Council and India is not. China has been consistently blocking Indian attempts to seek a permanent seat there too.

The Sino-Indian relationship has several structural problems, the most important of them being the boundary disputes, as well as Beijing's all-weather relationship with Islamabad. Moreover, India's massive trade deficit with China is a major weakness on New Delhi's part.

In what can be read as a sign of increasing trouble, the Chinese government has lodged a protest against India's military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh -- which Beijing claims as its own -- ahead of President Xi's visit to India.

India has also protested against a statement made by the Chinese envoy to Pakistan, seeking "a justified solution to the issue of Kashmir" and affirming Beijing's intention to "stand by Pakistan."

India's participation in a Quad ministerial meeting is a direct reflection of its desire to consolidate its ties with like-minded nations at a time when its relations with Beijing are anything but stable. This is not to say that India intends to seek these nations' help with managing the global response to Kashmir; indeed, New Delhi realizes that some of the Quad countries are unhappy with its actions there.

A paramilitary soldier stands guard on Sep. 27 in Srinagar, India: some of the Quad countries are unhappy with India's actions in Kashmir.   © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

India can theoretically portray the Quad as having notional parity with the Russia-India-China ministerial forum already in place and can use it to demonstrate Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new "multi-aligned" foreign policy approach.

The Quad's main strategic use is for signaling purposes, including demonstrating to Beijing a growing alignment among these nations. This signaling keeps Beijing guessing what these nations might be up to; Beijing views this as an anti-China coalition.

Having said that, it is important to emphasize that India's approach to China is still one of restraint and caution: India has not voiced a single statement on the Chinese state's actions in Xinjiang or Hong Kong.

While it is true that the 2018 Wuhan summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi created a level of understanding about establishing an amicable, if not a harmonious, relationship and laid down some ground rules between the two sides, its utility was mostly tactical.

Elevation of the Quad dialogue to the foreign minister level does not mean that the Quad will now become the preeminent framework for regional architecture-building in the Indo-Pacific.

But recent events portend growing possibilities for more collaboration within the Quad, especially if Xi's China continues to act in ways that threaten the core strategic priorities of the four nations. Ironically, the Chinese state has become the strongest driver of the Quad's expanding role.

Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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