On November 11, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad made an abrupt comeback after a decade, as senior officials from the United States Japan, India, and Australia met in Manila on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN and East Asian Summits. The Indian government significantly downplayed the Quad meeting, with only a press release from the External Affairs Ministry instead of a ministerial-level statement. The press release emphasized common agreement on a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region and challenges of terrorism” but remained silent on maritime security, one of the key objectives of the Quad.
The three other countries (Japan, the United States, and Australia) acknowledged the need for “coordinating on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.” India’s miss has left considerable ambiguity on where New Delhi stands in defining maritime security within the Quad grouping. How could India interpret the Quad for its maritime strategy? How does the Quad view India? And what potential pitfalls in the Quad should India guard against?
How Could India View the Quad?
By emphasizing the “Act East Policy as the cornerstone of its engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” India has indicated that the Quad would be an extension of that policy. But it is yet to be seen how India defines and pursues its maritime relations in the east. Will it be through the gambit of its Act East Policy, through the Quad, or a bit of both? As India takes on that role, we can see how India could further use the Quad to strengthen its existing maritime relations.
India revamped its maritime doctrine in 2015, with the “Ensuring Securing Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy” wherein it took stock of its commitment to an actionable policy. And keeping in line with this approach it has upped its maritime naval drills, made port calls in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, and undertaken maritime capacity building efforts (beyond training) in Vietnam and Myanmar.
However, India’s maritime developments are at odds with the rest of the Quad members. In addition to operating Russian-descent ships and warplanes, India is also reluctant to establish a satellite link that would allow the navies to share information. Given the nascent nature of the grouping, India’s concern are not unfounded as agreeing to the CISMOA (encrypted communications system) would open up the nature and extent of its military communications. However, the Quad could also expand the scope to explore maritime technologies and reduce India’s defense import dependency on Russia. Even with external naval modernization and the success of the Vikrant-class aircraft carrier and Arihant-class of nuclear submarines, India’s indigenous defense production has faced serious operational glitch, leading to delays such as the failed MiG-29K.
India has had annual naval drills with over 15 countries. Of these, the Malabar exercises with the United States and later Japan (both Quad members) have triggered the most attention in the past. The use of Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, the U.S. flat-top Nimitz, and Japan’s new helicopter carrier, JS Izumo during the July 10-17 exercises indicates that Malabar has expanded in its military capabilities, built confidence, and is setting geopolitical rhetoric. Malabar cooperation has included drills in surface and anti-submarine warfare, coordinated gunnery exercises, air defense and visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) drills.
As part of its interest in East Asia, India included Japan as a permanent member of the Malabar exercises in 2015. Given that the bilateral relationship with Japan has kicked off only recently, India could see the Quad grouping as a platform to take the next step of trust building and move on to the exchange of marine technology knowhow with Tokyo.
Of the Quad members, India has the least naval ties with Australia. Ever since Canberra has shown its interests in the Indian Ocean, there has been speculation about an India-Australia maritime security arrangement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). But with India pivoting its maritime focus on the IOR, Australia is one country that seems to have missed India’s radar. It is only in 2017 that the Indian warships INS Kamorta, INS Shivalik, and INS Jyoti arrived in Western Australia’s port city of Freemantle to participate in a bilateral exercise.
Meanwhile, Australia as part of its IOR outreach has started to partner with Seychelles and Mauritius in its “blue economy” project. This includes hydrocarbon exploration in the Seychelles’ EEZ. Australia is the benchmark for mining technology not only in coal but also underwater exploration. This is the reason several Indian companies like Adani are keen to pursue mining projects with Australia. In return Canberra is trying to forge a free trade deal with India. Thus to boost India’s own blue economy outlook, partnering with Australia could be an option.
How Does the Quad View India?
The reasons for the resurrection of this loose ad hoc grouping is the changing geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. The assertive foreign policy and economic expansion of China, combined with the reluctance of U.S. President Donald Trump to lead the Asia Pacific, has concerned regional power centers like Japan and Australia and led to the concerting of like-minded democracies into the Quad. However with no common statement released, the grouping has to date only spelled out the different objectives of individual countries and a cautious approach to steer away from Chinese pressure.
Confusion exists as to what each of the Quad nation wants. India has quite rightly stuck to its ASEAN centrality/Act East Policy as the pivot for its its Indo-Pacific nomenclature and views Quad in this context.
By describing the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a “single strategic arena,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has described India and the United States as “regional bookends.” The rhetoric is clear — the United States looks to India to play a greater role in maintaining regional stability and helping balance China. However it is not clear how the United States will operationalize its goals, including freedom of navigation. Is it through military deployment or adherence to international norms?
Closer to home, both Japan and Australia are looking for a security umbrella that will balance China’s influence in the region. Their statements made no mention of China, but the dragon is in the room. Australia is worried about China’s interest in its land, infrastructure, and influence on its universities. Japan suspects China of supporting North Korea and is wary of several territorial issues with Beijing. Hence India’s role in the grouping is to be a viable balancer.
As Quad goes on to find its purpose, India should guard against getting caught bandwagoning against China and being included in the United States’ military calculations in the region.
Sourina Bej is a Research Associate with the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.