The US secretary of state Michael Pompeo publicly regretted President Richard Nixon’s 1972 policy of cultivating China that the US followed ever since as a grave strategic error. Far from liberalizing the Communist state as was hoped, allowing China concessional terms of trade, unhindered access to the American market, and transfer of advanced technology to modernize its military and manufacturing industry, helped it to emerge in the second decade of the 21st Century as an aggressive authoritarian state, a mercantilist powerhouse and military rival which can only be handled, he contended in a July 23 speech in California, by ‘a new alliance of democracies’.
As if on cue, India’s “weathercock strategists” — a delectable phrase coined by Jawed Naqvi, the Delhi correspondent of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn — began chiming in, about how with a slightly modified moniker this ‘coalition of democracies’ would serve India’s purpose. It is, however, a line External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar indicated the Modi government is a little chary of. He told a web audience at the ‘Mindmine Summit’ last week that while the ‘era of great caution and …greater dependence on multilateralism…is behind us”, the consequence of the US ‘repositioning’ itself and of the American security ‘umbrella’ becoming ‘smaller, less thick’ is that it has ‘allowed other countries to play more autonomous roles’.
Apparently, he sees India as a ‘middle power’ in such a role; the confusion and lack of clarity is about just how autonomously the Modi government wants the country to act, in Jaishankar’s words, in ‘a multipolar world with strong bipolar characteristics.’ The problem is, based on its record, reflexively siding with the US seems to be its default position that has alienated old friends (Russia, Iran) and ill-served the national interest.
The issue is this: Can any ‘alliance’ or ‘coalition’ of democracies be conceived or imagined without India in it? Absolutely not. So, there’s no real policy premium or material profit in joining a group mooted by the US which, as the dominant power, will decide the norms for intra-coalition affairs and dictate the rules of engagement with non-democratic adversaries of its choice. But there’s every incentive for India in this situation to remain in its own orbit, pursue its goals unimpaired by America’s do’s and don’ts, and leverage its participation for a price in such coalitions as promote its cause and keep away from moves detrimental to its interests.
Given that India’s perception of the China threat is more in line with those of the nations on the latter’s periphery, it makes more sense to alight on a security scheme organic to the extended region. Such as a Modified Quadrilateral or Mod Quad of India, Japan, a cell of Southeast Asian nations, and Australia in which the US, as the extra-territorial power balancer in the Indo-Pacific, can opt in or opt out. This is better than sticking with the Quadrilateral involving America, where its readiness for military confrontation is in inverse proportion to China’s growing military prowess.
The Mod Quad would allow India the latitude, for instance, independently to arm Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia with strategic weapons, and to otherwise operate jointly with Japan, Australia, and the regional states with the most stakes in it, to curb China’s hegemonic tendencies.
The oceanic expanse separating China and the US, and the contiguous disputed land borders and narrow seas separating China and the Mod Quad members make for quite different security dynamics. As evidence of the distinct sets of interests and motivations at work, consider the clash in eastern Ladakh. The US has done precious little to help.
The deployment of two aircraft carrier task groups in the Philippine Sea pertained to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait but was misrepresented by the Indian media as a gesture of support. And the Passing Exercise in the Andaman Sea with a couple of Indian warships by one of the carrier groups returning to its Bahrain base, was of no great value.
Published as Up-Front column in India Today, Issue dated August 10, 2020, at https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20200810-better-off-with-a-mod-quad-1706520-2020-08-01