An Indian soldier on a vehicle in Ganderbal district after border clashes with China in Ladakh. Photo: Muzamil Mattoo / NurPhoto

The world is marred with increasing geopolitical rivalry, sluggish economic growth and health threats posed by Covid-19. History suggests that American fear of emerging superpower China risks some form of war.

The India-China confrontation in the Himalayas and power plays in Asia are signaling a fundamental alternation in bilateral engagement. The Australia-China relationship is under stress whereas that between Japan and China seems to be exceptionally stable, though assertive Chinese behavior has made Tokyo more apprehensive and alert.

In India, many analogies from ancient times to the modern day for alliance formation are drawn to strengthen the argument for transforming the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal forum of Australia, Japan, India and the United States, into a full-fledged security alliance.

There is nothing wrong in forming alliances. Countries do form new alliances and break away from old ones depending on new realities to maximize their interests. However, taking a clue from ancient times to protect modern interests is misplaced.

First, are we imagining the US as a Pandava and China as a Kaurava as two sides in a coming dharma yuddha (holy war) to become Krishna? Today we live in a globalized world where our interests are so entangled that separating one aspect can hamper the progress of others. Today’s ground reality is entirely different and more complex. No one is a Pandava or Kaurava or Krishna. Neither it is a dharma yuddha, like the previous Cold War.

In a globalized world, fault lines are more blurred and complex. Thus we have to differentiate among competitors, adversaries and enemies.

Second, the Quad appears to be a mirage for all of our problems. Being part of a security alliance may not solve problems, but in a way, exacerbate them. During the Cold War Pakistan was a member of the security alliance and even a non-NATO military ally of the US. However, this did not help Islamabad much against its war with India.

Every security alliance has its limitations. No country can count on it exclusively for its national defense and growth. At the end of the day it is the internal strengths of a country that play a more prominent role in national survival and security.

Thus Indian strategic thinkers who are counting on US support in India’s power struggle with China should remember America’s role in the conflict between Pakistan and India. Despite being at the peak of its power at that time, the US was rendered helpless and could not stop India from achieving its war aims.

An alliance is always a double-edged sword. It enhances one’s capabilities and strengths. Nevertheless, being part of an alliance also limits one’s strategic options.

Third, if we look carefully, Japan and Australia are junior partners to the US. If India joins the US-led Quad alliance, it will undoubtedly reduce India’s strategic posture and standing in world politics. It risks the danger of ending up as a US satellite in the Asia-Pacific region. All the gains of the Non-Aligned Movement will be lost.

Some observers have argued that India’s friendship treaty with the USSR never hurt Indian standing as a sovereign and independent nation. Here it can be safely said that India’s friendship treaty never reduced India to being a junior partner of the USSR. Besides, the friendship treaty was not targeted against any state or group, unlike the Quad, which is aiming to serve different purposes for member states.

Fourth, the Quad in its current form serves strategic purposes, but if formalized into a security alliance, it may further oblige the world to time-travel to the period before World War II. Thus instead of soothing the emerging new order in the region, it may aggravate the situation. Therefore, the Quad may have more strategic value in ambiguity than in solid formation.

We need to rethink what we are getting into. Once the damage is done, it will be hard to roll back the negative effects. 

Currently, we are looking at the Quad as the weapon of last resort to stop China. Now the question is, will it work? Can the Quad alliance stop Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region? Can the Quad help sustain the current security architecture led by the US?

The answer to these three questions is no. The Quad is too late and too little. The United States’ ability to sustain the current security architecture is fast depleting. The Quad, like the prematurely expired Trans-Pacific Partnership, is another futile attempt to slow down the decay of US hegemony.

The US is running out of hard funds essential to sustain its security posture. There is nothing this Quad dialogue or alliance can do to stop this meltdown of US economic power. Without economic dominance, American military dominance will slowly falter. The two are interconnected and interdependent. One cannot exist without another.

By putting the Quad alliance in place, the US is trying to shift some of its responsibilities and roles to its regional allies. But it may be overburdening those allies without strengthening their capabilities. The US thus needs to have a realistic assessment of the overall power of its regional allies, and may help to enhance their military and political power.  

Today both the Japanese and Australian economies are heavily integrated with the Chinese economy. Any serious attempt at decoupling these economies in the short term will destabilize the whole region, thereby providing China more opportunity to invest and integrate deeply in the region and tighten its grip on the region.

Sudden decoupling from China, economically as well as politically, will hurt regional countries severely. With the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) about to become operational in the Asia-Pacific, the whole region is expected to create an economic structure. Economic engagement and military balancing is the hedging strategy of the Quad minus the US toward China. The Quad is not a strategy to counter or contain China.  

In fact, the Quad seems to be nothing but putting psychological and geopolitical pressure on China, which Beijing is aware of.

As expected, in the recent meeting of the most powerful democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region, namely the US, Japan, India and Australia, the Quad failed to produce anything concrete and instead was full of symbolism. Although China was the main focus, they could not declare it as their main rival, as the statement by each country differed significantly, clearly showing internal limits of each country to solidify a stand against China.

Without a clear agenda, the alliance is going nowhere. More important, after the presidential election in the US, rhetoric on China will subside, though the fundamental nature of the confrontation may remain the same for the near future.

India’s China policy is facing a complete meltdown. Event-based diplomacy, the “Wuhan spirit” and “Chennai connect” have failed to bring any fundamental shift in the two countries’ engagement. The border agreements signed by the two countries are slowly losing their spirit and objectives.

The recent clashes between the two have indicated the failure of existing mechanisms and are changing the perceptions of both countries on the sacrosanctity of the border and thereby necessitating an overall structural and directional rethink on the bilateral relationship.

Although in a new avatar, the Quad Plus format, some other countries such as South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand participated in some Quad proceedings, though mainly focused non-security issues. Southeast Asian nations have not agreed to join the grouping, indicating that the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are not ready to become a contested ground for great-power rivalry but are acting as a bridge to connect them.

ASEAN nations are apprehensive of aligning too closely with an increasingly weakened US and assertive China. In fact these nations, like all other small states, are also hedging to maximize their interests. The pragmatism of ASEAN nations is the mantra to ward off any strategic game. It is time to be realistic. Can the Quad really stop the Chinese expansion into the region without the support of the ASEAN nations?

The Quad, like BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), though on a different mooring, are not a Brahmastra (weapon of god) to deter China and Pakistan respectively. India must not fall for the alliance system that New Delhi hitherto despised but bring requisite innovations in the engagement policy.

Even if for a moment we believe in the Quad as a Brahmastra, the task of withdrawing once the situation changes will be more complicated than releasing the arrow. India should redesign its policy based on realistic assessments, without falling into the trap set by vested interests to engage with resurgent China. 

Lakhvinder Singh

Lakhvinder Singh is director of peace and security studies at the Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea.

Rajiv Ranjan

Rajiv Ranjan is an associate professor at the College of Liberal Arts, Institute of Global Studies, Shanghai University.