A ‘get to know’ Quad summit and the missed US-2 opportunity with Japan

[Modi and the new Australian PM, Anthony Albanese]

One of the reasons the outgoing Conservative party prime minister Scott Morrison quickly conceded the elections was to give Canberra the time to prep the incoming Labour party PM, Anthony Albanese, for the Tokyo summit of the Quadrilateral heads of government, May 23-25. But, however, successful the Australian Foreign Office is in bringing Albanese upto speed, it is unlikely he will have crystalized his party’s views on anything as to begin negotiating substantively with his Quad counterparts, even less to commiting Australia to new initiatives. Especially because, it is still not certain that the ruling Labour Party will have a majority and have its own government, or whether Albanese will have to make-do with a coalition government with smaller parties and independents, which will necessitate policy compromises.

In the event, much of the summit will be spent with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who technically is the most experienced of this lot of leaders in both foreign and military policy fields, getting to know the new Australian leader. Kishida was foreign minister from 2012 to 2016 in Shinzo Abe’s government and in 2017 pulled time as Japan’s defence minister.

But niceties apart, there are certain things about Albanese that will help him resonate with Modi. In his acceptance speech, he reminded the audience about his humble background — he grew up with his mother who is a “welfare pensioner” — something that’s bound to stir Modi’s empathy and fellow-feeling. Moreover, his promise to make his country “a renewable energy superpower” — meaning hydrogen, solar and wind power, parallels Modi’s own agenda of making India a leading “hydrogen power” by 2050. This could be the context for substantive collaboration in developing renewable energy technologies and, foreign policy-wise, will be the low-hanging fruit Modi and Albanese can pluck.

However, on issues relating to the Quad’s raison d’etre — containing China by all means, particularly military, there may be chasm between Australia and the other Quad members. With Morrison’s single-minded security-oriented approach missing from the Tokyo pow-wows, a wishy-washy attitude may prevail vis a vis collaring China. The work will thus be cut out for Biden to persuade Albanese to, at least, continue with Morrison’s policy of permitting the northern Australian coast to be built up as an extended staging area for American and other Quad air, naval, and land forces. In fact, to thwart the Chinese PLA, navy and air force from acting up in the South China Sea and, precipitously, against Taiwan, the US Army already has over a thousand troops stationed in Darwin. This port is also being configured to host US navy’s nuclear-powered attack and cruise and ballistic missile-firing submarines. How Albanese will dovetail these aspects with his government’s economic imperative to ease relations with China,is a matter of conjecture.

But given that the Australian economy has slowed down considerably — the main reason for Morrison and his party losing the elctions — and is in need of a quick “pick me up”, reopening the Australian market to Chinese goods is a fix Albanese will opt for. Chinese exports in the last 20 years registered a double digit annualised growth rate, in 2020 touching some $58 billion. In turn, Albanese will hope Beijing opens the tap for Chinese investments in the extractive and other industries and otherwise kick-start the Australian economy. Aware of the wind blowing its way, Beijing has already begun to incentivize this trend by increasing Australian revenues from importing, in the main, Australian grain, gas, iron ore, and coal. The intent, no doubt, being to weaken the security cooperation aspects of the Quad that the Xi Jinping regime has publicly voiced its displeaure against. Indeed, it is the fear of provokng China that thas resulted in both Delhi and Tokyo tippy-toeing around the military objectives of the Quad.

[Prime Minister Fumio Kishida]

And it is precisely this fear of China that has been the biggest stumbling block in ratcheting up the India-Japan strategic partnership. In Japan’s case, because it now also has a potentially rogue Russia run by Vladimir Putin, in a raggedy war in Ukraine in which the Russian army, for whatever reasons, has still not conducted an all-fronts smash-up campaign, potentially lashing out, as Tokyo suspects and, suicidally, opening another front on the Kurile Islands. This in any case is a contingency Tokyo is becoming alive to.

In India’s case, it is because of the Indian government’s and the Indian military’s seeming inability to think and act strategically — now part of their DNA. The chance for a really China-constrictor set-up was provided by Abe — the first Asian leader in recent times with a truly strategic bent of mind. In 2007, in his second year in his first short tenure of 2 years as prime minister he proposed the “security diamond”. He did so not in the US or in any European forum or even from a prestigious platform in his native Tokyo, but in his address to the Indian Parliament. It indicated the centrality he accorded India. Elected back to power in 2012 for a longer run as prime minister, a post he voluntarily vacated in 2020, Abe worked on that “security diamond”, fashioning it with Washington into the more practicable (and less abstract) Quadrilateral.

Tragically, that Quadrilateral, has been running in place and going nowhere since, in part because it lacks a military mission and motor which, in turn, can be attributed to Modi picking the wrong project to prioritise from among the items offered India by Abe during his January 2014 state visit — four months before Modi swept into power. In the following years, as flagship of the strategic partnership, Modi chose to install the Shinkansen highspeed railway connecting Mumbai to Ahmedabad with Japanese credit worth $15 billion rather than use that money to set up a plant to produce the Shinmaywa short takeoff US-2 multirole maritime aircraft and its spares to meet the Indian Navy’s needs as well as the global demand!

[US-2 taking off]

Unanimously rated the best such aircraft in the world, the US-2 is adept variously in surveillance and reconnaissance, in the antiship attack role, in landing on a coin anywhere, including near oil rigs carrying provisions, repair material or rotational crews, or next to smuggler dhows or motorised craft carrying terrorists for seaborne attack (as on Mumbai 26/11 in 2008) or Somali pirates operating off Aden, allowing the on-board marine commando (MARCOS) in the latter instances to take care of business, or even to airlift Special Forces for expeditionary tasks on the Indo-Pacific littoral or in protection of friendly island-nations (Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka). It can do all this in really rough sea conditions, and is the pluperfect platform for patrolling and protecting 24/7 the country’s 572 widely dispersed island territories in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and in the Arabian Sea.

So, what does the most strategic-minded among the Indian armed services — the Indian Navy, do? it rejects Japan’s US-2 project, saying its immediate requirement of just 12 US-2s did not justify such expenditure and that it’d stick with the antiquated Dornier 228s instead. The Navy has understated its US-2 requirement. Just as replacement for the Dorniers, the Navy alone will need 27 US-2s and the Indian Coast Guard another 17, for a total of 44 US-2s — a very respectable first order for the Indian-built flying boat. But no, 12 is the number the Navy stuck to, never mind the full technology transfer and manufacturing wherewithal and training that Japan promised, or the contract for supply of Indian-made spares for US-2s everywhere, and even grant-in Japanese aid to finance the whole deal! (The US-2 fiasco is detailed in my 2018 book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, pp. 256-269.)

Hardly to be wondered then that Tokyo assessed India and its government to be not worth the strategic trouble, and reconciled itself to doing things “the India Way” — playing the short game for small gains. Hence, security cooperation is showcased by joint naval exercises and such. When a project with limited impact and then mostly in Modi’s Gujarat is preferred to one that’d have enabled India to secure a versatile flying boat, establish itself as the sole producer of the US-2 aircraft in the world, and to seed a genuine aerospace industry in the bargain, what’s left to say?

Still, if there’s any residual strategic wit remaining anywhere in the Indian government and the military one prays even at this late hour for that wit to manifest itself in a prompt to Prime Minister Modi to try and revive the Shinmaywa US-2 deal even if now India has to pay for it out of its own pocket.

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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20 Responses to A ‘get to know’ Quad summit and the missed US-2 opportunity with Japan

  1. Amit says:

    Professor, you’ve highlighted many examples in your book WIINAGP(Y) of the Indian Armed forces or the Govt. passing up on great opportunities. Sadly, even with all the enhanced security threats, India seems to be bogged down in its own quagmire and has displayed no speed to reform effectively.

    The Indian Air Force derides the Tejas Mk II as a stop gap measure, HAL probably gives it reason to, Indian artillery guns are still not in full scale production, we have no plans for SSN production, our AIP platform has been a non starter etc. etc. Lots of major announcements, but as usual progress on the ground is limited. Looks like we all have to be reconciled to a mediocre Indian defence establishment for decades to come.

  2. Email from G. Parthasarathy (ex-High Commissioner to Australia and to Pakistan)

    Mon, 23 May at 6:58 am
    Gopalaswami Parthasarathy

    I agree with Karnad. The only country that matters to us in the Quad is Japan. India and Japan have got together and deprived China of its exclusive presence in the strategic Colombo Port.

    The US never contributes a cent to economic development in the Indo-Pacific Region. All Biden can do is organize failed Summits with ASEAN in Washington.


  3. V Siddhartha (former Science & Technology Adviser, Ministry of Defence)
    Mon, 23 May at 12:03 pm
    It is clear now (to me at least) that the Jaishankar formulation of the Quad being “for something” rather than “against some country” was a kind of sophistry put paid to by this comment of Kurt Cambell (the White House’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific): “…. it is in all of our best interests to try to work over time to bend its [India’s] trajectory more to the West.”

    Oh! rebellious India: American poster-child of Gandhian democracy! She went astray, no matter how much we indulged her – even let her have her nuclear toys. Even allowed her sons to own swathes of Silicon Valley. Yet she remains troublesome — It has taken her this long to let our apples and pork-chops in. Alas, she is now too grown-up for us (the West) to spank her, and get her to fulfil the filial duties expected of her.

    In hindsight, we ought to have recognised that the Quad was not just another assembly in the constructs of deterring China…. It was designed, ab initio, as a vehicle to “bend India’s trajectory” towards the West. We now need to “bend the Quad” towards India. That will require a theory of post-European IR, with the attendant trans-domain power to show we can bring that theory to practice, Quad or no Quad.

    Re ur: “This leaves Asian states and Australia…”, tthe catch is that Australia regards itself as a White-majority country that needs to always so remain — this self-definition will not be erased.
    Cf. Her treatment of climate refugees from non-White Pacific.

    • Your read on the Quad, VS, conforms to the geostrategic concept of “organic security” I have been advocating of a “modified Quad” of India, Japan, Australia and a group of Southeast Asian nations, with the US as an “extra-territorial balancer” — a role it has pulled without letup since World War-II, and may be most comfortable with in the future. This leaves Asian states and Australia to do whatever needs to be done to hedge China’s options.

      • Amit says:

        Professor, as I recall, your earlier comments on the mod quad did not have much of a role for the US. ‘Extra territorial balancer’ makes more sense. In fact, that maybe the current US strategy already. There is already much talk about bringing in Vietnam, S. Korea and maybe Philipines/Indonesia into the quad plus. Along with the just announced IPEF for trade integration. And increasing military capabilities of Japan and Australia. Plus the AUKUS for military deterrence and response. As I see it, the US is providing the leadership for this. And rightly so.

      • Amit@ — US as extra-territorial balancer has been a staple of my analyses since my first (1994) book – ‘Future Imperilled’ and in all my books and writings since. It is incorporated in my ‘Mod Quad’ concept detailed in the 2018 book ‘Staggering Forward’.

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      V. Siddharth@ — Looks like white Aussies themselves will become climate refugees in the not so distant future;



    Dear Dr Karnad,

    Do you think that with the “regime change” in Australia, the newly-elected labor government would like to reset its relations with China and therefore distance itself from the QUAD in order to repair its slowing economy dependent upon exports to China ? Will this kill off the QUAD ?

  5. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    This Quad grouping is nothing but a ‘time pass’. Both Australia and Japan have joined RCEP. They will never confront China militarily.

    US would keep instigating Quad members to fight with China especially India but none of these 3 countries (Australia, Japan and India) will take the bait of Uncle Sam.

    • Amit says:

      @Tyagi, while you are right that Japan and Australia won’t instigate a skirmish with China and have great economic interests in China, potential conflict will be determined by Chinese actions. If China gets aggressive on Taiwan, you can expect aggressive counter action from AUKUS and potentially Japan. Taiwan’s semiconductor mfg tech is like Middle East oil. No one else is so advanced and if China controls this, it will be a huge deal. Aggressive Chinese control of South China Sea could also be a potential trigger.

      As for economic interdependence peace theory, that is another liberal theory that has been regularly debunked. While interdependence May slow military action for years, it need not prevent military action. Russia-Ukraine is a recent example. There are more examples from 20th century history.

      So I think things can get quite aggressive based on Chinese actions. All the alliances and military maneuvers are meant to be a deterrent right now, but AUKUS and Japan could possibly be in a war based on what China does. The probability is certainly there and it’s not negligible.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        @Amit- China will just continue talking tough on Taiwan without initiating any military move to take the island.

        The Chinese government won’t want embargoes and trade sanctions like the ones imposed by the Western block on Russia.


      Absolutely. I agree with you.

  6. Roy says:

    Indians need to think carefully before criticizing Australia for being a white majority country. Sub-saharan Africa’s population is expected to quadruple by 2100. Will India take in millions of Africans fleeing a drought?

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      @Roy- Look at the land mass of Australia and its population then compare it with India’s size and population.

      • Roy says:

        Most of Australia is uninhabitable. 90 percent of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the coast.

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      @Roy- Australia is one of the most racist places on the planet. They have off shore detention centres in neighboring countries like PNG.

      Potential refugees are put over there in detention centers for years. Many residents committed suicide or developed severe mental health issues.

      Majority of the refugees flocking to EU are economic migrants. They pay good amount of money to human smugglers for riding boats from Libya to European nations.

      Even if India offers asylum to refugees from Africa. None of them would come to India because Indian government won’t be able to offer a generous amount of financial dole to these so called refugees furthermore life quality in Europe is far better than in India.

  7. Roy says:

    Most Indians cannot think strategically. Most of the refugees that want to settle in Australia are Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria etc. If the refugees are allowed to settle in Australia and granted the vote they will become a powerful hostile lobby against India in Australia. Indians should learn a lesson from the Sikh Khalistanis in Canada.

    • Roy@ — Hard to shape immigration policies of other countries. But it’d help to ship all Khalistan-minded Sikhs to canada or where ever because they are less trouble that way.

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      @Roy- “Most of the refugees that want to settle in Australia are Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria etc”

      This statement of yours doesn’t hold any logic.

      I am sure that loads of Hindus from Nepal, India, Sri-Lanka. A large number of Buddhist Sinhalese from Sri-Lanka plus a huge amount of Sikhs from India would also love to settle in Australia anyhow.

      Btw, the EU refugee crisis involves both Muslims as well as Christians immigrants from Africa trying to enter the European continent.

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