- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
When the defense arrangement between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom (UK), known as AUKUS, was announced last month, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said the deal was “neither relevant to the Quad, nor will it have any impact on its functioning.” The statement, made just before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to visit the United States for the first in-person Quad summit, was an attempt to downplay the significance of AUKUS for India and forestall any distractions from the summit.
Yet, for India, the new defense agreement is inextricably tied to its own participation in and strategic calculations vis-à-vis the Quad. In particular, AUKUS highlights some of the dilemmas that India faces with regard to the Quad: whether to share or pass the burden to contain China in the Indo-Pacific and whether to commit to even greater reliance on the United States as its defense partner.
Partners in a Strategic Space
The earliest seeds of the Quad grouping were sown in 2004, when the United States, Australia, India, and Japan came together to provide humanitarian assistance after the devastating Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. In 2006, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, noted in a joint statement that “India, Japan, and other like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific” needed to cooperate on mutual interests. By 2007, Abe had made one of the earliest references to the Indo-Pacific as a strategic space by talking of “the dynamic coupling” of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and “the confluence of the two seas.”
The Quad was born from the vision of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic space, where activities in one area would inevitably affect activities in the other. There were two underlying motivations behind this grouping and vision. The first was that the United States, Australia, India, and Japan have a vested interest in upholding the rules and norms of the current order; augmenting existing institutions; ensuring freedom of navigation and trade; and promoting connectivity, economic development, and security within existing rules and standards. The second was that all four Quad members believed that China’s rise and the reach of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) posed a threat to them and the region.
Yet, the Quad was essentially dormant until 2017. It was resurrected (Quad 2.0) for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the Donald Trump administration saw the Indo-Pacific as a crucial theater of competition with China and thought India could play an important role in countering China in the region. Meanwhile, India had just faced a number of border skirmishes with China, making it more willing to invest in the Quad.
The problem for India, however, is that even with its renewed wariness about China, and the rebooting of the Quad, it has to weigh a number of long-standing and conflicting security, diplomatic, and economic calculations.
India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific rests more on the Indian Ocean and less on the Pacific Ocean, where Chinese assertiveness arouses the most concern from the United States, Australia, and Japan. For India, the Indo-Pacific framework stretches from the east coast of Africa to the western and southern Pacific and includes portions of the Middle East. In contrast, the United States includes neither Africa nor the Middle East in its conception of the Indo-Pacific.
India is uncomfortable with any conception of the Quad as an anti-China “alliance of democracies” (as U.S. President Joe Biden has put it). India supposedly jettisoned nonalignment after the end of the Cold War, but it is still not willing to enter into an alliance with any country or group. India is certainly worried about a rising China but also faces the reality that, as of this year, China overtook the United States to become its number-one trading partner.
Another dilemma India faces is that any formal grouping of democracies through the Quad could raise expectations that it will be a vigorous proponent of promoting democracy abroad. But that will not sit well with India, which has traditionally refrained from advocating for democracy and democratic ideals in its foreign policy. It is also extremely sensitive to criticism, and any references to the rising authoritarianism and illiberalism that the Modi government has been accused of will potentially derail relationships.
Finally, while the U.S.-India partnership has progressed rapidly over the past few years, in some quarters, India remains a little wary of the United States as a long-term reliable and trustworthy partner.
What AUKUS Means
The announcement of AUKUS has underlined some of these contradictions. The Quad is not an Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and has no commitment to collective security. Security cooperation between individual Quad countries predates the Quad, is limited, and often works bilaterally through the two-plus-two framework (defense and foreign minister meetings). AUKUS is emphatically a security grouping to contain China. In an indication of closeness, the United States, usually reluctant to share sensitive nuclear-submarine technology, agreed to do so with Australia.
For India, this means that the Quad can maintain its broad agenda—its recent summit highlighted cooperation on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, climate change, technology, and science expertise—and is absolved of any immediate responsibility to step up and commit to an explicitly anti-China security framework. This meshes well with India’s outlook—it would like China contained but does not want to be the one containing China—as well as its defense policy; it relies on diverse sources of defense equipment, including Russia.
However, policymakers in India took notice that under AUKUS, the United States is sharing coveted technology with one Quad partner but not another. AUKUS also undercut the United States’ NATO ally France in the process. In Indian policy circles, that created sympathy for France, which is a close defense partner, and raised questions about India’s own standing with the United States. It also made clear to India that it is justified in continuing to diversify its sources of defense equipment.
Despite some reservations, the Quad is very important to India. It can provide a long-term strategy to deter China in the region, especially given that Chinese strategy, thus far, has been less about security encirclement and more about economic enmeshment. China is, for example, a key player in the global supply chain, not just through BRI, but also through initiatives such as vaccine diplomacy, exporting critical minerals, and building up people-to-people knowledge networks. Through the Quad, India can have more impact in shaping the global order and restraining China. At the same time, the Quad keeps the door open for India for close defense cooperation without resorting to a security alliance.
India is also very important to the Quad. A Quad without India would have less heft, less credibility in Asia, and would immediately lose the “Indo” in “Indo-Pacific.” It’s a partnership of mutual gain, and to strengthen the Quad, the United States should not only continue to make clear to India that it is as valued a member as Japan and Australia, but also think about formalizing a structure for the grouping, including by establishing a secretariat that would facilitate multilateral cooperation and think through what the Quad stands for, rather than who it is against.