As India faces China’s challenge over the ground situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is a maritime coalition in the Indo-Pacific, the Quadrilateral, comprising India, the U.S., Japan and Australia, an effective counter? Ashok Kantha and Tanvi Madan discuss this question in a conversation moderated by Suhasini Haidar . Edited excerpts:
In the past week in Parliament, the Defence Minister has said that we have not seen transgressions across the LAC with China, but that Chinese troops have been amassed along it. There is hope that the five-point agreement in Moscow last week will bring some peace along the LAC. How do you see the situation?
Ashok Kantha: As the Defence Minister pointed out, we are in the middle of an unprecedented situation. We have had stand-offs along the India-China border in the past, but what’s happening this time is really different. For one, as the Defence Minister noted, the level of troops amassed by China is of a very high order. And we have also undertaken some deployment to match that. The onus has been placed on the border commanders to move towards early disengagement, de-escalation of troops. As you know, that process has not made any headway since the middle of July. There is a glimmer of hope from the Foreign Ministers’ agreement in Moscow. I think there is need for very active involvement and engagement at diplomatic levels, apart from meetings with the border commanders of India and China.
Tanvi Madan: It is clear from what the Defence Minister has said that the Chinese have violated previous agreements on the LAC. So, there’s a lack of trust, and even the Indian Ambassador to China pointed out that there’s been considerable damage to trust between New Delhi and Beijing. So, how do you trust that the new agreement [in Moscow] is going to work? I think there are some parallels with the 1962 war. But there are also limits to those parallels: both China and India are much stronger countries than they were then, and they have dialogue mechanisms, consistent dialogue even today, despite the kind of violations we have seen.
Given the challenge, do you think that the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral is an effective counter to China’s aggression at the LAC?
Tanvi Madan: I think it depends on what you’re trying to counter. I think you could call the Quadrilateral a coalition of the willing to try to deter China in the future, to set the rules of the road in the Indo-Pacific, and to ensure that they are maintained, but it’s not an exclusive arrangement. Did India’s presence in the Quad deter China or the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] from transgressing the boundary? The answer is ‘no’. But that is also not what one should expect from something like this, which is frankly not an alliance.
I think the Quad is useful in terms of what it can do. What can these countries do to enhance Indian capabilities? And what can the Quad do to shape the future balance of power, even the present balance of power, and try to restore deterrence in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific?
Ashok Kantha: We need to look at the Quad in depth, as part of a much larger jigsaw puzzle that we are faced with today. We have to recognise and acknowledge that our relations with China have entered new territory. The basic paradigm governing this relationship over the last three decades has broken down. Now, as we try and deal with an increasingly aggressive and assertive China, which is rising in a situation where the capability gap between India and China is growing, I think the Quad will be useful, but it will not be the answer to the challenge we are facing. When it comes to our continental challenge vis-a-vis China, the Quad will be of fairly limited use to us. Yes, to some extent, we may get support from partner countries bilaterally in matters like intelligence inputs or credible supplies of military hardware, but we are largely on our own when it comes to dealing with the Chinese challenge along the land border. When it comes to the maritime domain, clearly there can be much greater collaboration with like-minded countries, say, in pushing forward the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a whole lot of other areas.
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We haven’t really seen the Quad emerge from all the questions that were asked about it. For example, right now India is still hesitant to even say that Australia will be a part of the Malabar exercises. Even if that decision has been taken, it has not been announced, presumably because you don’t want to exacerbate the situation with China. What might this Quad coalition actually look like?
Tanvi Madan: I don’t think the litmus test for the Quad is whether Australia will join Malabar. Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. are four democratic anchors in the region which have spelt out what they would like to do together, including maritime security cooperation, providing alternatives to the Belt and Road initiative, cooperation in 5G, cyberspace and other areas like Artificial Intelligence. You even see things like Quad-plus formats thinking about what a post COVID-19 world would look like, not just in terms of the kind of healthcare, but also in things like supply chain resiliency. I think it’s a question of whether Quad countries can establish more habits of cooperation and interoperability. I don’t just mean that in the military sense, that if and when there are scenarios where they need to act together, that could be like the supposed tsunami in disaster relief, but could be something more kinetic. What India needs to do most, which I think has perhaps not been done enough, is use these partnerships for internal balancing, use these partnerships to build India’s own capabilities. The continental and maritime are connected in that sense.
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How does this closeness with the U.S. in the Quad impact China’s behaviour? We’ve often heard many diplomats say that China actually comes closer to India when India and the U.S. have a better relationship. How do you think the dynamics work?
Ashok Kantha: Frankly, we have been far too cautious when it comes to developing the Quad or when it comes to developing our own strategic linkages with the U.S. by asking how China would react. A relationship with the U.S. helps in our dealings with China, more so in a situation where the capability gap between India and China is increasing day by day. We have to work with like-minded countries, and that includes the U.S., Japan, Australia and many other countries. At the same time, we have to recognise that what we can achieve through the Quad is limited, it’s still work in progress. So, much more effort needs to be put in, to flesh out the idea of Quad and to see how it can become an effective lateral grouping.
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Tanvi Madan: Chinese actions at the boundary have tended to be about bilateral issues between China and India, or how Beijing is looking at the region, or thinking about an assertive posture. The other thing that I think we’ve seen is — and we’ve seen it in the last six months — Beijing has been acting assertively on multiple fronts, regardless of ties with the U.S. So, the Japanese, for example, have been engaging in a major outreach to China over the last few months. But even they are facing this assertiveness from China. The Philippines was hesitating from signing an agreement with the U.S., and they too have been facing this assertiveness from the Chinese. Australians used to be very hesitant about saying anything to the Chinese. And that didn’t prevent the Chinese from pushing against them, which is why you’ve seen the change towards China in Australia in the last few years. So, you cannot let Beijing veto a relationship that is actually helping you strengthen your own ability to balance China, and particularly if it is acting aggressively against you.
How does India’s membership of the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation work with being part of the four-nation Quadrilateral? Do you think India is going to have to choose between these continental and maritime coalitions, or can these contradictions be managed?
Ashok Kantha: I think these contradictions can be managed. It’s possible for us to be part of multilateral groupings which might be seemingly at odds with each other. In fact, the fact that we are part of RIC [Russia-India-China] and BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] and SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organisation] provides a good rationale for more proactive engagement in the Quad setting. What we need to do is to show the requisite strategy, flexibility. China is a fact of life for us. We need to engage with China, though the nature of this engagement is going to change very significantly in the months and years to come.
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Tanvi Madan: India’s motivations for being part of the SCO in particular, but also RIC and BRICS, are three or four. One is to keep Russia on its side for defence but also strategic reasons. Russia continues to be important to India and these institutions and groupings are important to Russia. Second, you do not want to leave a platform to your rivals, that is China and Pakistan. I think the third thing is these are platforms to resolve or try to manage some of these contradictions with those rivals when you might not have other platforms to engage with them during a crisis.
The Quad has a very different purpose, and you do not have any inherent disputes between those four Quad countries. In the SCO, however, you have seen that India declined to participate in this SCO military exercise and then walked out of the NSA [National Security Advisers] meeting because of the Pakistanis showing a new map. And if this becomes a venue for India-Pakistan or India-China tensions in the way SAARC has, then you have to question the SCO’s value.
India may have multiple partnerships, but they are all not equal. This is not a hub and spoke where each of these relationships is equal. And I think the India-Russia relationship could potentially create strains with the U.S. as it has over the S-400 (anti-missile system). All anybody in the West has to do is just sit back and let these contradictions within the SCO play out themselves.
Tanvi Madan is director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, and author of Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations during the Cold War ; Ashok Kantha is director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, and former Ambassador to China.