Recent conflicting statements by the Indian foreign minister and a U.S. deputy secretary of state provide little clarity about common future perceptions of the grouping.
Increasingly, nothing seems to agitate the Indian strategic imagination more than the U.S.-Australia-Japan-India “quad.” Every mention of the moniker – and especially by U.S. government officials – is analyzed and, on occasion, amplified by the Indian social as well as traditional media. So, when the South China Morning Post covered a conversation between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and former Ambassador to India Richard Verma yesterday that dwelt on the quad as well as lack of strong multilateral institutions in Asia – like NATO or the EU — many here took notice. As Tanvi Madan noted, a speech that mentions both NATO and the quad was bound to generate strong reactions.
While Biegun carefully – though at times, a bit confusingly – phrased his statements, the overall impression was clear: the U.S. does see the potential of the quad (possibly with additional members) to evolve into a formal multilateral institution even though it need not focus solely on China. Commenting on the possible evolution of the grouping into something larger, he noted: “… even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries chose neutrality over NATO membership in post-World War II Europe.” But even with Narendra Modi — who has enthusiastically partnered with the U.S. – at its helm, India is unlikely to be comfortable with the idea of the quad growing into something that resembles an alliance.
It is instructive to compare Biegun’s remarks to a speech by the Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in July. Speaking at the U.S. India Business Council’s India Ideas Summit, Jaishankar was clear where India stood when it came to the alliance system, noting “I think the U.S. really has to learn to work … with a more multipolar world, with more plurilateral arrangements, go beyond alliances with which really it has grown up over the last two generations.” In fact, Jaishankar has repeatedly downplayed the importance of the quad, calling it one of the many issue-based coalitions India is part of. This is part of a pattern. Since the grouping’s resurrection in 2017, Indian foreign ministry officials in public as well as private conversations have also done so.
In fact when asked about the quad in an interview on Sunday, Jaishankar noted: “Even though people are attributing a novelty to this [the quad], there is another acronym called RIC (Russia, India and China) going on for 20 years. BRICS is yet another one. They too are plurilateral and issue based.” That he did so amid serious tensions between India and China in eastern Ladakh goes to show the extent to which India remains interested in establishing notional parity between various plurilateral arrangements it finds itself in, not privileging one over the other.
The real utility of the quad, as Dhruva Jaishankar has noted, lies in providing a framework within which bilateral and trilateral relationships can be picked and chosen from and strengthened as opposed to becoming a mythical military monolith directed at containing China. And in many ways, that is already the case. While India has not participated in a U.S.-Australia-Japan initiative that seeks to address the problem of infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific (which has opened space for China’s Belt and Road pitches across the region in the past), it very recently became part of a trilateral dialogue with Australia and Japan around supply-chain resilience.
The Australian trade, tourism and commerce minister, the Indian commerce and industry minister and the Japanese minister of economy and trade met through a video conference earlier today and committed to develop a new initiative around ways to safeguard supply chains from disruptions, an issue that has come to the forefront during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Heads of government of the Japan, U.S., and India have also met on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in the past.
India will continue to prefer such ad hoc flexible mechanisms, a reflection of its preference for issue-based alignments, while the U.S. will increasingly but cautiously hope the quad evolves into something more formal.