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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Is India's Discomfort with "The Quad" Subsiding?

Article by: Helen Kurvits

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the India China and America (ICA) Institute. Based in Atlanta, GA the ICA Institute provides research on the economies and geopolitics of the three countries and much beyond.

The US-India Relation and its Shades of Grey

Whilst growing US-China tensions have been in the spotlight, the relationship between the United States and India is no less significant. Over the past two decades, their relations have witnessed multiple turning points and evolved due to different ideas India and the US have of their positions in the Indo-Pacific region. Either state has several foreign policy and security role conceptions that shape its actions, as well as their expectations towards third parties. Only since the onset of the 21st century has India’s approach to security been shaped by its self-perception as a major power, first responder, and security actor in the Indian Ocean region. On the other hand, the US regards India primarily (and almost exclusively) as a counterbalance to China’s influence. Aditi Malhotra, from the Atlanta-based India China America Institute (ICA), has taken a look at the changes in US-India relations over the past decade and the role conceptions of the two states.

The Birth of The Quad

A turning point in the US-India relationship was the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on 25th December 2004, which reportedly caused almost 230,000 casualties. To address the aftermath of the catastrophe, the US, Japan, Australia, and India formed an ad-hoc partnership that later developed into Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, more commonly known simply as “the Quad”. The four shared the belief that four major democracies can and should tackle regional challenges together. Eventually, in 2007, the cooperation led to the birth of Quad 1.0. However, Delhi and Canberra expressed a degree of reluctance based on concerns that the partnership would provoke Beijing. Australia indeed withdrew from the Quad in 2008 under the premiership of Kevin Rudd and the group faded.

Stronger Bilateral Relations

Despite these challenges around multilateralism, India’s bilateral relations with the US, Japan as well as Australia grew stronger. Aditi Malhotra put forward that in light of China’s growing military assertiveness following the global economic crisis of 2008, the magnitude and gravity of the regional challenges posed by the PRC became increasingly apparent in the four capitals. They came to the realisation that addressing China’s growth individually, as single countries, was beyond their capacity.

Strong Comeback of the Quad

On India’s part, a border standoff between itself and China in 2017, called the Doklam clashes, meant that India’s reluctance toward a Quad-type arrangement diminished. Instead, India embraced the Quad, which led to its resurrection, re-joining of Australia, and a rapid evolution: Only in 2017, engagements within the Quad were remained at the under-secretary level. But by 2019, they had advanced to ministerial levels. This does not mean that India abandoned its ties to China, but continued to engage to find stability in their relationship. However, renewed 2020 border clashes hardened India’s position vis-à-vis the PRC. India accepted Australia as a participant in the Malabar naval exercise that previously included only the US, Japan, and India. It also elevated the Quad interaction to the summit level involving the highest leadership.

In 2021, a significant milestone was achieved as the Quad gathering released a joint statement for the first time. The statement expanded the Quad’s scope to encompass more ambitious endeavours, such as vaccine diplomacy, infrastructure development, maritime security, and exchanges of critical technologies. In 2023, the Quad issued another joint statement addressing the Russia-Ukraine war and explicitly discouraged “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”

The Differing Approaches of the US and China

The ICA Institute noted that the Quad has often been viewed as juxtaposed with AUKUS (alliance between Australia, the UK and the US) and been described as less effective. India has been described as the weakest link due to its reluctance to cultivate a stronger security role for the Quad, and in particular the US. Furthermore, as anticipated, Delhi’s restrained criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 cast doubts on India’s reliability as a security ally in the Western context. The approaches of Washington and Delhi simply are and remain distinct within the Indo-Pacific region. First and foremost, the US perceives the Indo-Pacific as a region where it is imperative to safeguard the rules-based international order in the face of the US’s view of a growing Chinese assertiveness. Secondly, the US is outspoken about the challenge China poses to its interests and is ready to deter China economically, diplomatically, and even take military action if required.

India, on the other hand, does not see the Indo-Pacific as an exclusive group of actors in a region that is against any country and therefore not against China, either. Instead, Delhi regards the region as an “inclusive” one, occasionally indicating the potential inclusion of China and even Russia in its conception of the Indo-Pacific. This perspective helps to understand why India asserts that the Quad is not aimed against any specific nation and is cautious about presenting it as an anti-China alliance. In comparison to the United States, India is cautious about being perceived as a counterweight to China and prefers to maintain a competition-cooperation framework in its relationship with its northern neighbour. Thirdly, India continues to strike a delicate balance among multiple partnerships despite a growing inclination favouring the Western bloc over the past two decades. Most notably, while cooperating with the United States and its Quad partners, India has upheld its relations with China and Russia.

Imperfections Will Persist

India has adopted a “multi-alignment posture” in its foreign policy that is related to its commitment to strategic autonomy and its legacy of not depending on any mutually competing countries or groups of countries. To date, India has effectively managed to balance this approach to foreign relations. India’s relations with the US are imperfect as the two visions diverge on the roles for themselves and each other in the region. These relations are unlikely to become perfect in the future which may influence the security orientation of the Quad.

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