Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
THE US, Japan, Australia and India have teamed up to form what is commonly known as the Quadrilateral Alliance, or Quad. Interaction between the four increased substantially during the period when they unitedly sought to alleviate the distress caused by the waves of water that overwhelmed the coasts and took away thousands of lives in the 2004 tsunami. Among the consequences was a substantial weakening of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, several of the areas controlled by the militia having been battered by the tsunami. The cost of even minimal levels of reconstruction took away funds earlier used for augmenting stocks of weaponry, not to mention time and effort spent in rehabilitation and rescue that was otherwise used up in training and preparing for conflict with the Sri Lankan Army.
During the period of the 4-power Tsunami Alliance, only the US had close military to military ties with each of the other three countries. Neither Japan nor Australia had significant dealings of that kind with India, a situation that rapidly changed, not without substantial encouragement from Washington. Indeed, from the very start of the 21st Century, strategic planners in the Pentagon had been discussing amongst themselves and with a few others the concept of an “Asian NATO”, a collection of States in Asia that would combine with North America (but not with Europe) in order to form a military alliance. As a consequence of a leak masterminded by a US Government employee of South Asian origin (who wanted to torpedo the plan by giving it premature publicity), news reports got carried, including in Washington Times (a publication close to the then ruling Republican Party) about informal talks that involved the concept of an Asian NATO.
Not surprisingly, there was a strong reaction from China to news reports based on the leak, and for nearly a decade, the very mention of an Asian NATO was avoided by the US and countries such as Japan and India that were regarded as potential members of such a futuristic alliance. However, although undeclared in the sense of not having a formal governing construct, the four powers active as a group during the tsunami had substantially increased both consultations with as well as cooperation with each other. In 2007, the group came out of the closet, and declared themselves to be security partners, to some nervousness from Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who was wary of the hostile attitude of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party Marxist (CPM) to the Quad. The Nehru family has long ensured that India stay away from US-centric defence pacts, beginning in the 1950s, when Jawaharlal Nehru kept India out of CENTO and SEATO while at the same time not agreeing to be a formal defence partner of the Soviet Union. Much later, Rajiv Gandhi objected strongly when a government supported by his party allowed US aircraft to refuel in India en route to the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm, the driving away from Kuwait of Iraqi forces that had taken over the country by force months earlier. In a sense, being neither here nor there in geopolitical positioning was the worst of both worlds, a situation that India has often found itself in as a consequence of policies based not on logic and necessity but on intuition and emotion. However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh persuaded Sonia Gandhi to agree to the Quad and it was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia who withdrew his country from the group almost immediately on taking office in the final days of 2008.
It was only in 2017 that the Quad re-emerged, this time as a permanent arrangement with a high degree of coordination at several levels. Just as Vice-President Dick Cheney had played a leading role in first setting up the Quad in 2007, ten years later Vice-President Mike Pence of the US assisted President Donald Trump to make sure that this time around, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan could succeed in getting formed what is clearly a military alliance between four powers. It would make operational sense to expand the group through the inclusion of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, although it is not clear that the three would agree to immediately join, given that Beijing would look askance at such participation. President Duterte of the Philippines, in particular, is devoting considerable effort towards ensuring a cordial relationship between his country and China, and may hesitate to combine with the US, Japan, India and Australia, although the Armed Forces Headquarters in Manila would almost certainly approve such a move, given that many of the senior officers have been trained in the US.
As for Vietnam, it is ruled by the Communist Party, and it would be an extraordinary irony were Hanoi to become a military partner of Washington, even together with other powers. Indonesia is a big country with a long historical tradition, and were Jakarta to agree to join the Quad (making it the Quint), the reach and potency of the group would substantially grow. It is clear that the purpose of the Alliance is to ensure collective primacy in the Indo-Pacific waters. Even the US acting on its own would be unable to ensure primacy in the vast waters of this geopolitical zone. However, with the help of India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia, it can with ease do so. As far as India is concerned, the foreign policy and defence establishment in Delhi could take some lessons from the role of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. London acted in such a manner as to prevent any continental European power from dominating Europe.
In the same way, only by working together with the US can India ensure that no Eurasian power could be able to dominate the Eurasian landmass. Thanks to this signature initiative of President Xi Jinping, the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) has brought together continental Europe and Asia in a manner not seen since the days of the Roman Empire. Should any power dominate the Eurasian landmass that country would be in a position to ensure that its wishes be followed in a substantial manner by other countries. In the present period, both China and Russia are coming closer together by the month, and have even embarked on joint military exercises in the European part of the Russian Federation. Neither Washington nor Delhi singly would be able to compete with a force as formidable as the developing Sino-Russian alliance. Just as Washington and Beijing came together in the 1970s, these days Washington and Delhi are edging ever closer to each other in order to ensure that no other country or combination of countries ensure for themselves a position of dominance in Eurasia.
In such a context, when clear choices are needed, once again there is waffling and confusion in Delhi. An example is the continued reliance on Russian defence equipment. Such a slant towards Moscow makes less and less sense in a situation where it is the US that is India’s closest military ally. Replacing Russian equipment with US counterparts is essential in maintaining the upward trajectory of the US-India alliance. While India has joined other countries in getting an exemption from US sanctions for the purchase of crude oil from Iran, it would be surprising if a similar waiver were given for the purchase of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems that the Modi government has procured from Russia at an initial cost of 4 5 billion. Should the US not give a waiver for the S-400 purchase, the ripple effect on the economy would not be small. Hopefully Prime Minister Modi has secured in advance the promise of a waiver from Donald Trump before he went ahead with finalising the S-400 agreement when President Putin came calling a few months ago.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.