China’s hostility, India’s resilience shaped Quad - Hindustan Times
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China’s hostility, India’s resilience shaped Quad

ByHarsh V Pant
Mar 19, 2021 09:24 PM IST

Just as without Chinese belligerence, a substantive Quad would have remained a distant dream, without a pro-active India, this grouping would not have been able to move so far, so fast. As a new geopolitical order takes shape in the Indo-Pacific, India and China will continue to be at the centre of this emerging order. And New Delhi would do well to remember that the game has only just begun.

The churn in the Indo-Pacific is no longer beneath the surface. It is visible, palpable and ready to emerge into something rather substantive. Most of the actors are now ready to make overt moves and are no longer reticent in trying to shape the wider canvas. There is a widespread recognition that this is an inflection point in the geostrategic space, now widely called the Indo-Pacific. Those who were challenging the very nomenclature of the region a few months ago are having to acknowledge that try as they might, there is no going back on the new idiom and grammar that is now beginning to reconfigure the world around them.

Indo-Pacific would have remained a concept in think-tank reports had it not been for the Chinese belligerence AP (AP)
Indo-Pacific would have remained a concept in think-tank reports had it not been for the Chinese belligerence AP (AP)

Last week, leaders of Quad countries — India, the United States (US), Japan and Australia — met at the summit level and, in their very first joint statement, underlined their commitment “to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond” as well as supporting “the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity”. Beyond that, this week has seen US secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, visiting Japan, South Korea and, now, India to boost military cooperation with American allies and partners, and foster “credible deterrence” against China.

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China, of course, has taken note and has attacked those nations trying to form “enclosed small cliques”, describing it as “the sure way to destroy the international order”. Beijing has targeted “certain countries” for being “keen to exaggerate and hype up the so-called ‘China threat’ to sow discord among regional countries, especially to disrupt their relations with China”. It was not long ago, in March 2018, that China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, had referred to the Quad grouping as nothing more than “sea foam on the Pacific and Indian oceans” that would eventually dissipate.

But dissipate it did not; instead, as China’s own foreign policy became ever more irresponsible and short-sighted, the once shaky foundations of Quad gained strength to a point where it emerged as the preferred option for the first multilateral engagement of a new US administration within less than two months in office. When the Chinese foreign policy establishment looks back at recent history, it can justifiably be proud of its accomplishment in sowing the seeds of a new regional security architecture. Indo-Pacific would have remained a concept in think-tank reports and Quad would have been nothing more than a trial balloon of 2007 had it not been for China’s belligerence and aggression towards its neighbours, so creatively displayed and operationalised over the last decade.

The agenda of Quad, as outlined during last week’s summit, is quite expansive and stands on its own merits, without the crutches of the China threat. The leaders have been creative and realistic at the same time as they seek to leverage each other’s core strengths in being able to offer an alternative regional governance paradigm to the smaller states in the Indo-Pacific. The main regional constraint so far has not been China’s rise per se, but the unwillingness of other major regional players to do their bit in offering credible alternatives. It was not that China was a playing a great strategic game, it was that others were conceding defeat without even making an effort. And that’s what’s being rectified now and it will have serious consequences — for China, for smaller states and for the region at large.

China claims it cannot be contained and it is right. A power like China certainly cannot be contained; its rise and fall will be determined by its own actions. China’s recent actions have generated a backlash in the region and beyond, which the Communist Party of China will find rather difficult to navigate. What other powers are trying to do now is to set the terms of engagement so that a rising China does not remain inimical to their interests. All states, major and minor, will continue to remain engaged with China, but the battle is over who sets the terms of this engagement.

And it is here that India’s role has been central in galvanising this response. Even before the ongoing border crisis ushered in a paradigm shift in India’s China policy, New Delhi was not shy of walking alone, if need be, in challenging China on the predatory aspects of its policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It walked a lonely path with even its friends advising that shunning BRI could have consequences. But New Delhi was eventually successful in making its critique of China’s infrastructure plans widely accepted and mainstream. The Indo-Pacific construct and its viability was also sold to the world by India’s insistence that only when the two oceans are viewed as part of a single unified maritime space, can a coherent regional balance of power can be envisioned. Most significant, perhaps, was India standing up to China on the border issue, underscoring to the wider region, which has been suffering under the onslaught of Chinese aggression, that giving in to a bullying power is not the only option available.

Just as without Chinese belligerence, a substantive Quad would have remained a distant dream, without a pro-active India, this grouping would not have been able to move so far, so fast. As a new geopolitical order takes shape in the Indo-Pacific, India and China will continue to be at the centre of this emerging order. And New Delhi would do well to remember that the game has only just begun.

Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College, London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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