The Quadrilateral: Is it an alliance or an alignment?
Given its history, India will have to remain watchful but at the same time not lose an opportunity to leverage the forum to advance its interests.
It has taken a whole decade for India, Japan, the US and Australia to revive the “quadrilateral” which had emerged as a promising consultative regional forum in 2006. Soon after its hesitant birth, it fell victim to tactical compulsions and that history must be kept in mind while taking the initiative forward.
The Quad was born from the close coordination among the governments of the four countries in the aftermath of the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004 that brought death and destruction to several nations in South and South-East Asia. The Indian Navy was among the first to deliver relief and succour to the affected despite India’s own southern coast and islands in the Andaman Sea being ravaged by the unprecedented maritime disaster. The naval forces of the US, Japan and Australia came in later.
An ad-hoc coordinating mechanism was set up among the foreign secretaries of the four countries and I recall having daily conference calls with my counterparts over several days. It was this experience which led the Americans to suggest that as four democracies with substantial naval capabilities, our countries should set up a consultative forum for regular exchange of views on regional challenges, in particular dealing with maritime emergencies and security threats such as piracy.
Each country had made it clear that the quad would not take on a military dimension and that it would not be directed against any third country. India had looked upon it as being no different from other regional fora that it was already a part of, such as the India-China-Russia trilateral or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (then as observer).
However, both China and Russia interpreted the proposed “quad” as a camouflage for a military alliance. China in particular criticised it as a potential “Asian NATO”.
At the first India-China strategic dialogue in 2005, China strongly criticised the initiative.Our response had been to point to our being open to several consultative fora where we could have a dialogue on matters of mutual interest with diverse partners. We could not accept a veto over who we wish to consult or collaborate with as long as there was no hostile military intent against any other country.
But later in 2006, the Americans decided not to take this initiative forward so as not to “provoke” the Chinese and the Russians, whose support they had sought in the UN Security Council on the Iran nuclear issue as well as their cooperation in the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue. The quad thus fell off the radar screen.
In 2007 when a Labour government took office in Canberra and Kevin Rudd became prime minister, the then Australian foreign minister, standing next to his Chinese counterpart, declared that for his country, the only security arrangements that mattered were its alliance with the US and Japan.
This was widely seen as a gratuitous snub to India and the final coup de grace to the very idea of quad even as a loose regional forum for consultation and cooperation on maritime issues.
The caution displayed by India in going ahead with the quad in its reincarnated form is therefore well grounded. India has not even christened it as a “quad” even though it is a four-country forum.
The first meeting in Manila has been at the joint secretary level which points to a preference for gradual and measured evolution. There is every possibility, especially with Trump as US President, that this second edition of the quad may once again fall prey to tactical considerations if the pay-off from the Chinese is significant, say in commercial terms or, once again, in seeking Chinese help in restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
India will have to remain watchful but at the same time not lose an opportunity to leverage the forum to advance its interests. The reason is that in the calculations of its three partners, the participation of India is the new and significant element since they already have long-standing military alliance among themselves.
It is India’s association with the forum which gives credibility to the new geopolitical concept of the Indo-Pacific. In this sense, India has the opportunity to shape the regional security architecture through its role in the quad not as an ally but as a partner. The objective must remain the creation of a multi-polar Asia with multilateral processes to assure mutual security to all stake-holders. It is only an open, inclusive, transparent and balanced regional security architecture in Asia which can be a credible guarantee of enduring peace and security in our region.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and is senior fellow, CPRThe views expressed are personal