Jabin T Jacob
One significant takeaway from the invitation to leaders of the BIMSTEC grouping to attend the second swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be that there is a renewed focus on the maritime dimension of Indian foreign policy. The challenge, however, is to ensure that this renewal does not go the way of the ‘neighbourhood first’ approach of the first Modi administration.
In recent years, the government has been part of significant maritime groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), including its earlier iteration of the Quadrilateral Initiative and begun using concepts such as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ — that covers the politically stable Bay of Bengal littoral but also the less calm waters of the South China Sea. While these initiatives could form part of New Delhi’s ‘Act East Policy’, they have been actually beset by a lack of ownership by New Delhi. While large sections of the strategic community in India see great promise in the QSD, there is an equally great reluctance by the government to actually declare any consistent or regular interest in the initiative.
Interest in these ideas have waxed and waned depending on the geopolitical context or more accurately the state of relations with China — whenever the government has felt the need to improve ties with China, it has given these initiatives the short shrift.
The use of the expression ‘Indo-Pacific’ has taken time to appear regularly and consistently in official Indian pronouncements. As for the Quad, it is notable that the ministry of external affairs has by and large refrained from referring to it by name in recent official pronouncements.
It is time that the government got over this reluctance as well as possibly any mistaken notion that going slow on the Quad or the idea of the Indo-Pacific will somehow mollify the Chinese. The latter are unlikely to believe any such overtures or temper their current bad behaviour in the region no matter what India does. Beijing has determined that it has no friends among liberal democracies and must undermine them if its own political regime is to survive.
However, while the Chinese perceive any Indian association with the United States as a sign of hostility, and there is also lack of clarity on the policy towards China from other members of the Quad, such as Australia, there is also a more legitimate reason for India to abandon the idea of the Quad than Chinese displeasure — namely the objective of ensuring better Chinese behaviour in the region.
The Quad is too direct and obvious a challenge to China and an attempt at containing it allows Beijing to confront members directly. More importantly, it also scares away smaller countries in the region from wanting to be associated with it even if they have legitimate concerns about China.
India must, therefore, both create and lead a new regional grouping to replace the Quad. This grouping should be based on the simple and straightforward principle of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. This principle and Indian leadership would represent not just the positions other members of the Quad have on issues of freedom of navigation and free trade but also the definitive concerns of weaker, developing Asia nations for equitable economic growth, transparency and financial accountability in economic projects and transfer of technology, among others — all commitments, the Chinese have been reluctant to make or failed to meet having made them.
China has been part of organisations led by weaker countries but also undermined them from within. ASEAN is a case in point; it lacks an organising principle but for geography and has been susceptible to divide-and-rule tactics by Beijing based on both threats and blandishments.
Whether or not the US is a participant — given the inward turn of its politics — a grouping or an organisation larger in ambit and more representative than the Quad as well as one that goes beyond the military dimension is an idea whose time has come.
India will also have to ensure that the new initiative finds a fine balance between not being perceived as an Asian NATO, not being too narrowly focused and not being so all encompassing and generous with its membership that it is able to achieve nothing.
Meanwhile, as China turns increasingly powerful and capable, it will have greater problems accepting or emulating ideas, views or leadership from other countries that it deems weaker or less capable than itself. However, for this very same reason, it is China’s response to organisations initiated or led by powers it perceives weaker than itself that will be the truest sign of its intentions.
An organisation led not by the US but by India and one based on clear principles that countries less powerful than China are willing to accept — Indonesia and Singapore are potential members — will be harder for the Chinese to justify rejecting out of hand given that it has talked much of the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ with India and about standing up for smaller, weaker countries against US hegemony. If then, China refuses to join such a grouping, the rest of the world need not remain in any doubt about its intentions.Jabin T Jacob is associate professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, NCR, and adjunct research fellow, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal.