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Suchak Patel asked: As China continues to encircle India, earlier through ‘string of pearls’ and now the Belt and Road Initiative, why is India still hesitant to form a ‘Democratic Quad’?

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  • Prashant Kumar Singh replies: The question posed appears to be based on three assumptions, agreeing to which is a little difficult. First, China is encircling India through ‘string of pearls’ and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Secondly, that the proposed ‘Democratic Quad’ is a response to this encirclement. Thirdly, India is hesitant to form the ‘Quad’ and that it is India’s hesitance alone that is holding up its formation.

    It is true that certain security-strategic implications of the BRI have been discerned for India, particularly vis-à-vis the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Agreement, 2015. CPEC has emerged as a contentious issue between the two countries, which the Government of India has raised with China at highest levels. However, reducing the entire BRI to any perceived Chinese encirclement of India is plain unmaintainable. That’s not the Government of India’s official position either. The BRI has a much broader geo-political and geo-economic consideration of its own and linking it solely with India would be an unconvincing exercise. Similarly, the international community is closely watching the ongoing Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) modernisation drive, the scale of which is unprecedented in recent history. India too has been watchful of it. Chinese Navy’s activities have, indeed, increased in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) in the last one decade or so. However, it is largely due to China’s growing economic and security engagement with the world, and, in case of IOR, with West Asia and Africa. Chinese naval presence in IOR has the potential to become a major security concern for India in unforeseen strategic exigencies. However, as of now, terming it as solely aimed at encircling India would be a rash conclusion. The Indian Government does not take an alarmist view of it, though it has been following strategic developments in IOR closely and has come up with various political, strategic and military initiatives towards the region.

    In fact, in the last few decades, India has espoused an Ocean-centric geo-spatial view. This view has primarily stemmed from India’s own legitimate and larger aspirations to engage with the maritime region more meaningfully. Again, reducing it to being a response to China’s growing naval presence would be its undervaluation. Similarly, whether the nascent ‘Democratic Quad’, if at all it exists, between India, Japan, United States and Australia, is essentially a response to “Chinese encirclements” or it envisages a comprehensive cooperation among the four democratic countries needs to be thought through. Besides, there is no doubt that the Chinese shadow falls across the ‘Quad’ in the sense that the four countries have their own strategic concerns as well as perceptions about growing Chinese power in Asia. Every country in the visualised ‘Quad’ has its own bilateral context with China. A perusal of their respective viewpoints in the working level ‘Quad’ meeting held in Manila in November 2017 reveal their divergent priorities and rationale for cooperation within the ‘Quad’. It is difficult to establish that they are actively pursuing ‘Quad’ as a collective and uniform response to China’s perceived aggressive behaviour.

    Finally, every idea has its gestation period to fructify. The idea of ‘Quad’ has been revived after a gap of ten years. Its actualisation requires a great amount of harmonisation of interests and norms among the four countries.

    Posted on April 04, 2018