US President Donald Trump talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017. Photo: AFP/Michael Kappeler

Indecision by Washington and its allies over how to counter China’s growing Pacific influence was sharply illustrated by their failure to again reach a consensus at the latest Quad security dialogue.

Discussions between the US, Japan, India and Australia on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit meetings held in Singapore were unable to produce a joint communique, probably because the allies don’t have a common agenda and are struggling to even define the parameters of their security domain.

Tellingly, political leaders play no direct role in the informal talks, which involve only senior officials. The fact that they are still meeting at all is promising for future cooperation, but the momentum has been shifting to bilateral arrangements.

Analysts say the main sticking point is India’s ambivalent stance toward the arrangement, which started out in 2007 as an initiative to coordinate disaster responses following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Formally known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, it was revived a year ago with the unstated objective of containing China.

India, which arguably has the most to gain from casting its lot with the other three key Indo-Pacific maritime powers, is reluctant to elevate the discussion forum into a full-blown military alliance for fear of upsetting China, even as Beijing steadily encroaches on its sphere of influence.

New Delhi’s Singapore communique said India wanted to “partner with other countries and forums in the region to promote a free, open, rules-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific that fosters trust and confidence.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian PM Narendra Modi on the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan. File photo: The Hindu

This is well short of what Washington has in mind for its new Indo-Pacific strategy. In 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson famously described the US and India as the regional “bookends” for maintaining security.

“In concrete terms, it will lead to great coordination between the Indian, Japanese and American militaries, including maritime domain awareness, anti-submarine warfare, amphibious warfare, and humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and search and rescue,” Tillerson predicted.

One problem with such sweeping ambitions is that there is no consensus on the boundaries of the amorphous Indo-Pacific “region.” While the US vision extends only as far as western India, Japan and India have strategic interests in monitoring Eurasia, the western Pacific and even southern Africa.

Another issue is how it should fit with other regional security initiatives sponsored by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) — which is itself now split into camps loosely allied with China and the US. Significantly, all Quad countries emphasized the “centrality” of Asean in their Singapore communiques, but the bloc still fears that its role could be diluted.

Echoing Asean’s hostility toward the Quad arrangement, Vietnam’s new ambassador in New Delhi, Pham Sanh Chau, said his country opposed any “military alliances.” He added: “If any country wants to gang up, use force or trying to use force, then it goes against the position of Vietnam.”

The USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz Strike Groups transit in the Western Pacific with ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, November 12, 2017. Photo: AFP/US Navy/Anthony Rivera

India’s biggest fear is encirclement by China, which has been stepping up its naval presence in the Bay of Bengal and makes periodic incursions on their contested border in the Himalayas. New Delhi also says that it can see Beijing’s influence behind tensions with Pakistan on the Kashmir heights.

If Delhi doesn’t make a commitment soon, it could find itself outside a forum that at least offers a political buffer against Chinese expansionism. While the Indians are keen to participate in development programs that will counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that may not be enough.

The US, Japan and Australia already have close security cooperation and a high level of compatibility between combat and communication systems that could become the basis for a tripartite arrangement.

India, which procured most of its ships from Russia, signed a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement with the US in September that will allow for the exchange of encrypted messages, though no-one is sure whether it will be used.

While India dithers, the US and Australia have agreed to jointly develop a naval base in Papua New Guinea that could change the security dynamics in East Asia. Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe flew to Darwin just before the Quad talks to finalize a delayed Reciprocal Access Agreement that could lead to more frequent military exercises between those two countries.

Australian warship and crew take part in a naval review and maritime parade in Sydney Harbor. Photo: AFP

Darwin is also the base for a rotational force of 1,600 US Marines who are training with Australian military units for six months at a time. Japan has regular exercises with the US and both countries train with India, though New Delhi pointedly refuses to invite Australia to avoid any “Quad” inferences.

Lavina Lee, a lecturer at Sydney’s Macquarie University, said India’s security strategy was driven by its need to control the Bay of Bengal, as it realized that China was a greater threat to Indian interests than Pakistan. She felt that Delhi might eventually choose “self-help over self-harm.”

“If India can persuade the US, Japan and Australia to support New Delhi’s desire to emerge as the preeminent security provider in the Bay of Bengal within a Quad structure, then that’s something every Indian government would support in a post-Modi era,” Lee recently wrote in The Strategist.

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