Even as prime time TV remained busy—with dozens of ‘experts’ animatedly debating the unfortunate death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput or the upcoming Bihar assembly election—India skipped yet another important meeting of the regional trade bloc RCEP on 26 August 2020. The meeting was key as it aimed at finalising the deal by year-end. Even developments related to Quad, Indo-Pacific security architecture and the emerging global coalition against China, especially at a time when the People’s Liberation Army is refusing to withdraw even an inch in Galwan valley, find no mention in any debate. Opposition, too, is silent on these matters. Perhaps they do not fit into the electoral equation of garnering votes. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Japan next month is an opportunity for India to start something that has been both long-pending and now unavoidable—becoming active in the Quad grouping and leading the anti-China front.
India must pick the Japanese signal
Almost 13 years after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the famous “Confluence of the two seas” speech in Indian Parliament on 22 August 2007, India and Japan are still looking at ways to strengthen the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising India, US, Japan and Australia. Although none of the four countries that are partners of Quad have openly admitted to the anti-China coalition agenda of the Quad, the posturing is clear as daylight. Abe’s description of Quad as a “democratic security diamond” in his 2012 Quad formalisation speech leaves nothing to imagination as far as the coalition against Communist China is concerned.
The “broader Asia” that Abe spoke about is all set to become a reality in a post-pandemic emerging security and world order. Precious little seems to have been done in all these 13 years to forge a strong security and economic alliance in the region, especially to counter a belligerent Beijing. The coronavirus pandemic, which emanated from Wuhan in China, has presented a totally new situation before the world. From being a ‘dependable trade partner’, China’s active pursuit of greater influence in the Indo-Pacific was identified as a threat for Australia’s strategic interests. Australia’s Defense Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan considered the US-China power struggle to be having an adverse impact on Australian national security.
While Tokyo had serious unresolved border issues with Beijing, the pandemic has forced Japan to reconsider its trade links with China. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan, which would have been a game changer for the relationship between the two countries, was cancelled. Ironically, the day the cancellation of the visit was announced by the Japanese foreign ministry, PM Abe had expressed deep concerns about China-induced supply chain disruptions. This was followed by the announcement of an additional fund of $2.3 billion offering to assist Japanese companies to quit China and relocate to other Asian countries. Sadly though, India was not a favourite destination for such companies.
India has to step up
Quad should be used by New Delhi to increase engagement with other partners, scout for more opportunities outside the coalition, especially in the Quad plus countries such as Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand. India should also use this situation to reach out to countries falling within the ambit of the Indo-Pacific, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and in South East Asia that are all victims of the pandemic and chary of aggressive moves by China. Abe’s “broader Asia” dream is a plan ideally meant for India to implement and use as a force multiplier for the anti-China coalition.
But, this is easier said than done. The perception that Quad is essentially an institution to forge an anti-access strategy to contain China needs to be dispelled. There is little doubt that a Beijing-sponsored new power equation is emerging, which negates the rule-based framework and seeks to promote a system where might, both economic and military, will be right. India is committed to promote a rule-based international order, which will aim at collective growth and peace without hegemony. While there is sufficient understanding and appreciation of India’s stand, every country in the region and under the geographic influence of the Indo-Pacific and IORA have different equations and contradictory foreign policy formulations with the two competing power blocs jostling for the first among equals position.
How India can go about it
The perception that India is hesitant to forge or joint alliances and prefers to chart a lone path should be corrected. Although, New Delhi has pulled out of the RCEP negotiations, notwithstanding our objections, we can still enter the negotiations, considering the changed geopolitical situation. Teaming up with Japan and the FTA countries other than China will give us a new platform in the region.
India-Japan 2+2 ministerial level dialogue and military exercises have paved the way for greater cooperation. Japan’s 2019 Defence White Paper reveals its concern about China’s defence capabilities in space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, and increased military activities in the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia has also reiterated its total commitment to Quad. It is for New Delhi to play a more proactive role and use the platform to the best national advantage. Japan faces serious maritime security issues and requires help in reaching out to Africa with its development partnership agenda, both areas where India can be useful. Quad, Indo-Pacific and relocation of businesses from China are some of the issues that Japan has set as its priorities.
The pandemic will lead to a paradigm shift in the world order that will throw up fresh challenges. India may never get such an opportunity to showcase its capabilities and lead from the front. New Delhi has to come out of the election mode and set its priorities right with an action-oriented plan and time bound implementation.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.