The newly signed Japan-Australia defence agreement should be welcome to New Delhi, but there also ought to be some concerns. On the one hand, it signals the growing coalescence of a regional counter-hegemonic balancing effort in the Indo-Pacific. This benefits India too because China’s power is as much a problem for India and any effort to counterbalance it should be welcome. On the other hand, there could also be a warning for New Delhi in these efforts, that others are stitching up formal, institutionalised security cooperation that leave India out. With two new security treaties now in the region in the space of just a few months—AUKUS being the other—and more potentially on their way, New Delhi needs to consider seriously whether its continuing scepticism of closer security cooperation with others best serves India’s interest.
The new treaty is a demonstration of how worried regional powers are about China’s behaviour. Japan has not signed such a treaty with any country other than the US. Until recently, Japan was unwilling to consider any military obligations beyond defence of its own territory. This has now changed, as Tokyo increasingly realises that it needs security cooperation to deal with potential regional developments beyond its territory. Just last month, Japan and the US agreed to a ‘draft’ joint plan for dealing with a Taiwan contingency. The Japan-Australia agreement is yet another indication that the attitude in Tokyo is changing.
Moreover, Japan is apparently also considering additional security cooperation arrangements with the UK and improving its relations with France. Though India and Japan have signed an agreement on ‘reciprocal provision of supplies and services’ between their military forces, it is far more limited when compared to the Japan-Australia agreement. The India-Japan agreement is primarily meant to facilitate military exercises rather than routinise deep military cooperation. The change in Japanese attitude mirrors the change in Australia, which once saw China as an economic and trade partner but now sees it as a clear security threat, forcing Canberra to look for new security arrangements with both regional and external powers.
Others are uniting against China
The coalescing of the region around shared concerns about China should be satisfying to India. Like many in the region, India has in the past waffled about China, but its position has shifted considerably over the last several years, as China’s general hostility and aggressiveness at the border has become clearer. Nevertheless, New Delhi is still reactive and playing catch-up, essentially responding to China’s moves rather than taking the initiative.
For example, though India now seems more positive about the Quad, this change itself appears to have come only over the past one year, seemingly as a direct result of China’s behaviour in Ladakh. Moreover, as others have pointed out, India still seems ambivalent about how far it wants to go with the Quad. At the same time, India is continuing to play footsie with Russia and China, even as they try to undermine the very regional arrangements that are necessary for creating an Asian balance essential to India’s interest.
As satisfactory as it might be to see others balancing against China more vigorously, New Delhi should be careful not to give in to the temptation to free-ride on these efforts and assume that it can relax its own efforts to create a regional balance. While New Delhi is confronting Beijing in the Himalayas, that by itself is not sufficient to create the balance that India needs. Most importantly, while India may be able to hold its own along the LAC today, its situation is likely to worsen as time passes. Even today, it is quite possible that Pakistan may take advantage of any clash across the LAC to make India face a serious two-front problem. Even a joint Chinese-Pakistani venture cannot be ruled out by pragmatic security managers in New Delhi.
But even if India can manage a two-front war, it might still end up facing a three-front problem in the next few years. China’s naval expansion is proceeding at a pace that will soon make it a force to reckon with in India’s neighbourhood. Unlike an on-ground confrontation, India simply cannot match China’s naval power, which is based on capital assets that India does not have the money to match. This is especially so when India needs to continue devoting the bulk of its military budget just to hold the line along the Himalayas. And of course, the less said about the continuing mess in India’s defence procurement process, the better.
India must shed its aversion to ties
One way to compensate for this all-but-certain future is to strengthen efforts to build international counterweights to China’s power. While India might not need direct help from partners in the Himalayas, it does need such help on the maritime front. But that help would be possible only when India overcomes its ambivalence to stronger and deeper security cooperation with its partners in the region that goes beyond simply holding military exercises.
This is why New Delhi should think seriously about the import of the new security arrangements like the Japan-Australia agreement. Even though these arrangements help India too, they also suggest that others in the region are moving on to deeper security cooperation without India. It is unlikely that New Delhi’s ambivalence is causing these developments but the depth of these arrangements cannot but invite comparisons to the Quad and specifically India’s stance. If India’s partners continue to build other agreements, it could reduce the importance of the Quad in their eyes.
More problematically, it is another indicator that India has not entirely escaped its traditional aversion to external security partnerships even when the limitations of its domestic capacities are self-evident. New Delhi continues to harbour the illusion that more partners are better than deeper partnerships. This makes creating a regional balance against China more difficult, to India’s own detriment.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)