It’s Xi Jinping, not Shinzo Abe, who has catalysed the need for Quad
China’s increasingly aggressive posture coupled with the US’ increasing reluctance to commit itself to upholding the global order, let alone lead it, has led to the resurrection of the Quad, albeit in a low-key, non-threatening manneropinion Updated: Nov 27, 2017 17:52 IST
The re-emergence of the Quad — comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States — has raised many questions among the Indian strategic community. This is despite the fact the meeting itself was at a fairly junior level, no common statement was released and each of the countries had a different take on it. A number of commentators, including from the defence community, have cautioned the government from even moving ahead on it. They see the Quad as an American conspiracy, meant to ensure that India and China become suspicious of each other, making normalcy in their relationship difficult to achieve.
This view is not correct in that there is a cloud hanging over India-China ties that does not seem to go away. These commentators are wrong in attributing this regrettable downturn to India and the US coming close to each other. They confuse the effect for the cause. That India and the US have developed a better appreciation of each other is something to be welcomed; the mutual suspicion was unnatural and went on for far too long. India has justifiable grievances against the US and the international order. Some of this — India’s weak economic position that prevented it from historically playing a key role in the Indo-Pacific and subsequent refusal to engage meaningfully with East Asian and Asean countries — is a result of its colonial experience for which the US can hardly be blamed. The US’ propping up Pakistan and failing to make it accountable for destabilising its neighbours, is more troubling. Fortunately, the US seems to have realised the consequences of its policies and is attempting a correction, even if one cannot predict the outcome.
A basic proposition that must be understood is that ultimately each country acts in its self-interest. Having said that, to not take advantage of congruence of interests would be foolish. China’s increasingly aggressive posture is motivated by its desire to ‘re-establish’ a Sino-centric world since it feels economically, militarily and politically confident to do so. This feeling has been strengthened by the US’ increasing reluctance to commit itself to upholding the global order, let alone lead it. This reluctance predates US President Donald Trump, even if he has made this more obvious. The 2008 financial crisis and Barack Obama’s election were key inflection points. Obama began, like Bill Clinton in 1998 after the India-Pakistan nuclear tests, by envisaging a G2 world in which China could be called upon to police Asia. However, it had to withdraw from going ahead due to the backlash from other countries in the region and China’s own unilateral actions, particularly in the South China Sea.
It is not as if the Quad has not been attempted before, but China’s strong reaction to it made Australia and India rethink their position. This was in 2007; the Australian economy was too dependent on exports to China and India, and it was consequently diffident since it felt that establishing the Quad would provoke China enough to try and undercut India in its backyard. Worse, for the Quad, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lost his job and the idea was put at rest. However, it was merely put on hold as subsequent developments have shown. And this time it was not Abe who brought the Quad together, though he pushed for it, but it was Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Far from satisfying China, this forbearance seems to have convinced it that circumstances had turned irrevocably in its favour. Its promoted aggressive action in the South China Sea, including land reclamation, militarising the newly-created islands, notification of an air defence zone over international waters and raising the pitch over its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands. China also became hyperactive in India’s neighbourhood, rolled out the Belt Road Initiative unilaterally supported by its ‘largesse’ and worse, from the Indian point of view, launched the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The Doklam incursion was possibly the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back.
India, on the other hand, went out of the way to try and develop good ties with China. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Xi in China and hosted him in Ahmedabad before he met Abe. The Indian government, throughout the Doklam episode, behaved very maturely and refused to be provoked into hasty statements or action, despite the stream of unpleasant language used by China.
It is this continued Chinese unilateralism posing a threat to global rules of behaviour that led to the resurrection of the Quad, albeit in a low-key, non-threatening manner. Xi, and not Abe, should be seen as the catalyst.
Shakti Sinha is director, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi, and distinguished fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka
The views expressed are personal