What the Upgrade of Quad means for China-India Ties?

Prof. Swaran Singh
October 6, 2019


Image Caption: The Hindu

On September 28, the sidelines of the UN General Assembly annual session saw, amongst a multitude of other meetings, the much-anticipated meeting to upgrade the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – also known as Quadrilateral of democracies or the Quad comprising U.S., Japan, India, Australia – to ministerial level. What is making this development hit media headlines is that the Quad is viewed today as the main driver for building a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), as also principally imposing restraint on China’s expansionist impulses especially in the South China Sea.

India, no doubt, remains conscious of China’s sensitivities and is now increasingly seeking to underline the distinction between Quad and the Indo-Pacific. However, distinctions remain difficult to establish. A significant development is that this meeting saw India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar joining in parleys with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese and Australian foreign ministers Toshimitsu Motegi and Marise Payne which is bound to only further irk Beijing. The Chinese media has already extensively scrutinized the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston that saw Indian Prime Minister and U.S. President showcasing their bonhomie.

Indeed, recent weeks have seen several irritants re-emerging in China-India ties. These include last-minute cancellation of foreign minister Wang Yi’s India visit and skirmishes north of Pangong Lake in Ladakh, and now the continued uncertainty on the visit by President Xi Jinping next week, slated for October 11-13. Much of this is being linked to China’s critical response to India’s internal decision to reorganize Jammu and Kashmir province into two Union Territories. The development has seen India publishing maps and asserting its claims on the entire province, parts of which remain under the illegal occupation of China and Pakistan. This is where the upgrade of Quad may further complicate China-India ties, as Beijing remains extremely critical of the Quad initiative.

It was in the year 2007, that initiatives by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – especially his conversations with his Australian and Indian counterparts John Howard and Manmohan Singh and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney from late 2006 – had witnessed evolution from 2007 of an informal association of these four countries called the Quad. China was the reason why this initiative had died prematurely; thanks to China-Australia tensions and especially Beijing’s sharp diplomatic démarches.

A decade later, the Quad was revived in 2017. The coming of Donald Trump to White House proved helpful once again to sharpen U.S.-China brinkmanship. Apart from their bilateral trade war, the 2017 meeting expected to see the U.S. leading the pack in reviving the Quad on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN summit in Manila on November 2017. However, this time, their leaders chose to confine these parleys to senior officials’ level and raise its stature but only piecemeal.

No doubt, India has been the most reluctant participant of the Quad, which alludes to New Delhi being aware of consequences for its ties with Beijing. Indeed, India is the only member of the Quad that does not have alliance relationship with the U.S. Starting from Prime Minister Modi’s June 01 speech at Singapore’s 2018 Shangri La Dialogue – that came soon after his first informal summit with President Xi Jinping – India has been advocating subtly that Quad should neither be militarised, nor made into an exclusive club of few countries. India advocates including Russia and China through its “inclusive” Indo-Pacific discourses, and New Delhi has already put Indo-Pacific into the agenda of its Annual Maritime Dialogue with Beijing.

What then explains India finally agreeing to upgrading the Quad to foreign ministers level? Could it be read as India’s response to China’s recent initiatives at internationalizing and amplifying Pakistani rhetoric on India’s internal reorganization of its province Jammu and Kashmir? From taking the matter to UN Security Council in August, followed by its border ingressions, to now Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi raising it once again in his speech at the UN General Assembly last week, China has continued to complicate the matter for New Delhi. Beijing has to date not confirmed the details of President Xi Jinping’s India visit next week, whereas India has long been publicizing the October 11-12 as the most likely date for their second informal summit.

It would be perhaps more accurate to read the upgrade of the Quad as part of India inching closer to Washington DC. This perhaps better explains why has India finally agreed to this long-standing demand of Washington DC. Of course, this has implications for China-India ties. Taking forward its incremental enhancement of ties with the U.S., India has last year operationalized its 2+2 (foreign and defense ministers) annual dialogues with the other three members of the Quad. Their deliberations have, amongst other things, repeatedly propagated commitment to advancing cooperation towards peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

This explains why the debut foreign ministers meeting did not issue any formal joint statement but only individual tweets and press briefings that allude to their discussions having focused on fine-tuning of their “collective efforts” for FOIP. Of course, official briefs also talked of their discussions, including issues of maritime security cooperation, development finance, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. This is not going to camouflage either India’s inching closer to the U.S. or its contributions to enhancing the competitive edge of the Quad in the U.S.-China squabbles for regional leadership. This means that India will have to now work on minimizing its negative impact on the coming Modi-Xi informal summit next week.

*** The author is a professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***