Advantage India

Image result for pics of Hanoi east asia summit

(12th East Asia Summit in Hanoi)

Why India needs to constitute and lead BRIS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa) — BRICS without China and the Mod Quad (India, Japan, Australia, Southeast Asian nations) — the Quadrilateral minus the United States


THE UNITED STATES is a ‘fading power’, China is racing to replace it at the top, and Russia has the military wherewithal to stop either of them cold, but lacks the economic heft to make it on its own. Great power politics are thus in a state of flux more than at any time in the recent past. The goal for India, in this context, should be to cobble together coalitions to deny China the upper hand on its periphery, in the Indian Ocean region, and in Asia at large while rendering the role of the US less central to the security of Asian states.

The natural tendency of the US and China as proto-hegemons is to dominate whatever groups they are part of, with lesser powers having to sacrifice their own interests and concerns. Hence, it is imperative that ‘middle powers’ cobble together strong economic-cum-security arrangements organic to their regions, relying principally on their own individual and joint capabilities and prowess.


New security-related arrangements can be based on two existing economic groupings. There is BRIS—Brazil-Russia-India- South Africa, that is, the BRICS states minus China—and then there is the Quadrilateral minus the United States, or modified Quadrilateral or mod-Quad, consisting of India, Japan, Australia and a group of Southeast Asian states, which can collaborate with the US to ring fence and hamstring China without making the American contribution central to the group’s collective security aims and activity.

Greater intra-BRIS and intra mod-Quad parity will mean a higher level of trust, a more equitable style of functioning, and greater policy latitude and freedom of action or strategic autonomy for member states. It will result in better coordinated BRIS and mod-Quad actions with their formidable collective economic, trade and military capabilities restraining China, while making the US redundant. As the country common to both BRIS and mod-Quad, India will be pivotal to the success of both. Indian governments in the 21st century have, however, been timid, eager to reinforce the country’s status as ‘responsible state’ that is rising without disturbing the international order.

For BRIS and mod-Quad, China is a useful adversary, considering that most countries fear it, and almost any move directed at chipping away at Chinese power and advantage, strategically discomfiting it, will bolster their own security. It will require the ‘weaponising’ of these coalitions by making cooperative security as much a shared objective as free trade and economic cooperation. The combined GDP of BRIS in 2017 was $6.6 trillion, about half that of China and a third that of the US. By 2022, the BRIS figure is expected to grow to $8.8 trillion. What BRIS lacks in economic heft relative to China, it can make up by controlling the Asian behemoth’s economic fate. BRIS states control immense resource-rich frontages on three oceans—Atlantic, Arctic and Indian—and on the Eurasian landmass, including Central Asia.

This is no mean leverage for BRIS states individually and jointly to wield against China. With only limited openings—and that too contested— on the East Sea and South China Sea, China finds itself in an unhappy position for an exports-dependent nation: its trade traffic has to negotiate adversary-controlled seas. Moreover, US President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel imports will victimise India as also Brazil. It has already led Latin American countries to look to Asia for trade partners— an opportunity the Narendra Modi Government cannot afford to pass up to stiffen a trade front to counter Washington’s moves. For this purpose too, the BRIS configuration can come in handy. With BRIS opposed to hegemonism everywhere, it can balance China and the US and become a force for peace and order in the world and a military and economic counterweight to either of them. It will boost the international standing of Brazil, India and South Africa in case of the UN Security Council expansion and/or restructuring.

The mod-Quad of India, Japan, Australia and the Southeast Asian nations, on the other hand, is an obvious geopolitical construct, interweaving the economic and security interests of the littoral and offshore states on the Asian ‘rimland’ first envisaged by the American geostrategist of the mid-20th century Nicholas Spykman as sufficient to contain any heartland power. The mod-Quad is a trillion dollar club with Japan, India, ASEAN and Australia boasting of collective 2017 GDP of $10.8 trillion, each of whom fears China. So what will elicit a positive response to the mod-Quad concept are two things: The ‘over-stretched and under- resourced’ American armed forces, according to US Defense Secretary James Mattis, and evidence of Washington’s reluctance to militarily tangle with China in disputes involving maritime borders in the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan.

The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has only confirmed the worst Asian fears about an unreliable America. Geographically more distanced from China, Australia senses greater foreign policy space and latitude for itself, but in its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, the country has voiced concern about an ambitious China and the gradual military pullback of the US from the Indo-Pacific region.

China’s military pressure on India, Southeast Asia and Japan is felt on a daily basis and security cooperation is a matter of self-protection. Except, each country has a different payoff matrix with China to contend with. Even so, the shared concern for national security and sovereignty means that the nested military capabilities of the mod-Quad are easier to mesh into an informal collective effort. India, for instance, has ongoing naval cooperation with most of these states and Japan, and can sign agreements on naval and air force basing arrangements with other Southeast Asian states— especially Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia— of the kind signed with Singapore to assert the freedom of navigation rights in waters through which pass 80 per cent of China’s oil and 11 per cent of its gas imports from the Gulf. Moreover, the Indian Navy- initiated Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and the annual Milan Exercise for the Bay of Bengal nations are embryonic security cooperation platforms.

In the Sino-Indian context, were it not for the doubts and scepticism about India’s resources and capabilities entertained by those within the Indian Government, India would have long ago embarked on ventures to strategically discomfit China. A mere listing of some options that Delhi has so far foresworn will hint at their potency and potential for bridling China: Transferring Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles and medium (700 km) range Agni-1 ballistic missiles on a priority basis and in bulk to Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast nations to neutralise the artificial island bases China has conjured out of coral and cement in the South China Sea, formalising relations with Taiwan, equating Kashmir with Taiwan/Tibet, activating the Tibet and Uyghur-East Turkestan freedom ‘cards’, and cultivating Mongolia as an Indian military outpost. China cannot up the ante as it has already shot its bolt, done its worst, and because there are more states on its periphery fearful of China than there are neighbouring countries that want to stick it to India. Moreover, a poorer India with less to lose can be more risk-acceptant and prosecute more disruptive policies confident that Beijing, with lots more at stake, will not chance escalation.

The fact is China cannot command the sea lines of communications in the East Sea, the Indian Ocean, or the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It cannot control the extended littoral, and cannot risk the situation getting out of hand in the South China Sea. And the wealth-producing Chinese sea-borne trade is at the mercy of potentially adversarial states, which serves as a guarantee of China’s good behaviour.

With BRIS shoring up the land and Indian Ocean fronts, China will be rendered manageable for the mod-Quad, making any US role as security provider unnecessary. This will be organic security at its best, with regional states as the main stakeholders.


Published in the Open Magazine, March 30, 2018,


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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8 Responses to Advantage India

  1. Atty says:

    Very imaginative Mr Karnad, but BRIS and mod-Quad are likely to be non-starters. Here is why:-
    Firstly, in the so called BRIS, none other than India has so big an animus or fear of China that they would join ranks with India to form a quasi alliance to hem in China or restrict its strategic space. To the contrary, BRS have thriving bilateral relations with China, including in the security sector and they appear more keen on harnessing the economic potential to utmost. Particularly for Russia, crossing China’s path would be last thing on the mind, given it’s ongoing diplomatic fued with the West and rising antagonism with US,UK. The Russia China entente is here to stay for some time.
    Secondly, the mod-Quad sounds like a fraud because both Australia and Japan, being treaty allies with the US, will never undertake a collective security venture against China, which is designed to keep the US out. Not unless US discredits itself on the mutual assistance understanding.
    In fact, in my humble view, Quad itself is overhyped. Its more notional than substantial at the moment. There are many inherent contradictions that the Quad members will have to resolve, in relation to their respective bilateral ties with China, before they find the courage and commitment to declare themselves as a security grouping against China. Don’t see it happening soon…unless China provokes a conflict in the region.
    Overall, I am afraid, the whole thing sounds a bit fantastic.
    India too is weighing its options carefully, hedging and watching warily. While it remains concerned, its unlikely that it will pick up the gauntlet in the manner you have suggested. It will engage various members on bilateral basis, seeking to maximise gains and preserve/enhance its security interests.
    Thats my frank feedback, if you don’t mind. Thank you.

  2. China’s strong economic and trade relations with almost all BRIS and Mod Quad states, including India, is precisely why these groupings become attractive. As passingly discussed in the piece (and elaborated in a longer paper to be published as a chapter in a book and also in my my forthcoming new book), most of these relations are skewed to favour China, except in the case of Russia but then Russia fears a strategically expansive China at the Asian end of Eurasia.

  3. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Re. “BRIS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa) — BRICS without China
    the Mod Quad (India, Japan, Australia, Southeast Asian nations) — the Quadrilateral minus the United States”

    Among BRIS there is none at the moment which can act as the economic leader for the other 3.
    Among Mod Quad there is none again which can act as a military/intel leader for the others.

    Japan has the economic heft but only just and a reasonable military but only just.
    Same with India which has military might but only just and a reasonable economy.
    Russia has military might but is not and will not be there in the Mod-Quad to begin with.
    Southeast Asian nations have the biggest axe to grind but the smallest militaries and an economic footprint that acquires significance only through ASEAN grouping. But not all in the ASEAN group have the same kind of strategic relationship with China.

    Chinese have only to make some minor moves and the situation will remain as divided in foreseeable future too.

  4. Kya says:

    Typical Indian dream of bèing something which they nèver have been.
    No doubt even from time of Napoleon the great the west has a healthy respect for china while for Indià they had contempt only

  5. AKHIL says:

    Quick question Prof Karnad.

    As you have suggested many a times in your writings to arm Vietnam,Philippines,Cambodia etc with Brahmos & nukes,

    Even if India(I seriously doubt if China “bhakth” mandarins of MEA would ever approve of such a move) choose to do so, don’t you think the Chinese in no time will tame down their “belligerent” attitude towards these small states and adopt their tried and tested “cheque book diplomacy” and shower these nations and their Generals with billions of dollars.

    Since balancing is the oldest and only foreign policy tool at the disposal of these or any other small country vis-à-vis China.

    What makes you sure that these states would still listen to New Delhi and not go against its interest once Beijing decides to win them over with hard cash?(can we trust a communist regime of any hue?)

    If we transfer nukes(clandestinity of course) don’t you think Beijing will pay the Generals of these countries to expose India’s “mindless proliferation” and help Beijing bring economic sanctions on India like a ton of bricks?

    It is anybody’s guess that an economic sanction at this point in time for India would prove to be a unmitigated disaster.

    And China will be successful in eliminating its only adversery in Southeast Asia and a major impediment in its quest for global dominance for good.

    Even if China fail in bringing economic sanctions on India, the move to check China trough ASEAN will highly likely fail.

    Since our intelligence agencies (both R&AW & IB) proven their incompetence many a times (to put it mildly).
    How far can New Delhi go without a diligent external intelligence as its eyes,ears and hands?(hands to eliminate noncooperative ones ofcourse) Specially when it is trying to outmanoeuvre a nation like China, who seems to be giving a hard time even to CIA.

    Unfortunately given the operational deficiencies in MEA & R&AW such grand strategy would surely end in a major disaster.

    I for one can understand Doval’s timidity on this plan, but i cannot-for the life in me undertand the timidlity with which he has handled R&AW & IB which is a festering wound.


    • aryaavrat says:

      Think about waht it would tkae to develop an an entire continental peninsula. Imagine if Europe & India traded places, it would take atlest 1-150 years. That’s why don’t expect much from India for another 2 decades.

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