By Indrani Bagchi
A four-cornered ghost has been dredged up from the past as India, US, Japan and Australia gather up their skirts to recreate the now famous “quadrilateral”. In the reigning geo-political context, it could be a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’. But some degree of strategic clarity is necessary for all the players.
As in 2007, the quadrilateral is a Japanese vision, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s re-election has given wings to Tokyo’s big Indo-Pacific power play. President Donald Trump is expected to deliver a big policy statement on the Indo-Pacific next week, which will be closely watched by everyone in the region. The sneak peek provided by Rex Tillerson when he was in India showed that the US was ready to endorse the ‘quad’ and the first meeting of officials is scheduled on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila later this month. Abe had pitched it enthusiastically to India as well – New Delhi may fob off the Americans, but they won’t do it to the Japanese.
India has a thriving trilateral relationship going with Japan and US in the Indo-Pacific theatre. Almost a decade old, the three powers have learnt to live with each other, work through their respective strategic interests and cooperate on key areas of connectivity and maritime security. From Myanmar to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka to eastern Africa, this trilateral (sometimes just a bilateral) grouping has been stitching together a narrative and an aim to counter the predatory diplomacy so successfully practised by Beijing. On the other side, US, Japan and Australia have had a longer, even more successful trilateral, based on their military alliances, with Australia fighting in all of America’s battles overseas, both countries home to big US bases, together in economic forums such as APEC and the now dead TPP.
The weak link therefore, is the India-Australia relationship, despite the Japanese midwifing a trilateral dialogue a few years ago. India, which hosts the most successful multilateral naval exercise, Malabar, with Japan and US, has not yet delivered the invitation to Australia, despite Canberra’s open solicitations. India’s hesitation is part bad memory (Australia pulled out of the last quadrilateral in 2008), and part worry about the China-Australia equation.
The Turnbull government, recognising the distance to be covered, set up an India economic strategy initiative led by Peter Varghese, former foreign secretary, with deep understanding of both India and China. India should aim to meet Australia half-way, because ultimately, the convergences outweigh our hesitation.
The great game here is one, that China’s aggressive march towards becoming a 21st century totalitarian power should not go uncontested. That aim looks different from New Delhi and Tokyo, Canberra and Washington. That will impose the first reality check on the quadrilateral when officials compare notes and strategies next week.
This is also a different India – having agreed to the quadrilateral, New Delhi is keen that the agenda should advance Indian interests, and wants to take a lead on working with other countries. An alternative view of connectivity as a foreign policy tool will be on India’s bucket list. After openly opposing OBOR as a concept in May, India has positioned itself as the first wrinkle on the brow.
As foreign secretary S Jaishankar observed, “Many of the concerns we articulated in the summer have become broader international concerns. We hear it in Japan, US and Europe … India has been a pioneer of connectivity in many ways, and I am not even talking about Grand Trunk Road, which came up later. We have more ownership of Silk Road than anyone else. We may have lost that branding at some point.” But India is ready to retake that space, he indicated. This also means that this political intent has to translate to the operational level, so India can become more efficient on the ground.
India therefore would be looking for support on the India-Japan Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, which is the biggest plan to provide an alternative to OBOR. On the other end, the US has said they would be pushing an “alternative financing mechanism” for connectivity projects for countries in the region, again to counter China’s predatory lending that is leaving countries indebted and vulnerable, like Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
The trick will be to keep the quad on the same page. Can India do this diplomatic stretch?
Times of India, November 4, 2017