Insights into Editorial : Beyond big game hunting: the ‘Quadrilateral’ meeting
India responded to Japan’s move to include Delhi in a Quadrilateral dialogue with U.S., Australia. India said that it was “open” to work with partner countries for regional issues that are ‘relevant’.
India has taken a significant turn in its policy for the subcontinent by accepting an invitation to join the Japan-proposed, U.S.-endorsed plan for a “Quadrilateral” grouping including Australia to provide alternative debt financing for countries in the Indo-Pacific.
As Prime Minister heads to the East Asia summit in the Philippines next week, where the first ‘Quad’ meeting is likely to be held, it is necessary that India analyse the impact of this admission on all our relations.
Background: Japanese proposal to revive the quad
It was Abe who conceived the idea of Asian democracies joining forces. In 2006, Abe called for a quadrilateral dialogue among Japan, India, Australia and the United States.
Emphasising the shared values of freedom and democracy between India and Japan, Abe called for a joint effort by New Delhi and Tokyo for the formation of an arc of freedom and prosperity along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent.
Abe hoped that an India-Japan strategic partnership will help construct a “broader Asia” that could evolve into an “immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.
- New Delhi, however, seemed reluctant. Having seen the quad disintegrate quickly, New Delhi was content with expanding its trilateral engagement with the US and Japan at one forum, and with Australia and Japan at another.
- The idea seemed to gain some real world significance with the annual Malabar exercises between India and the United States in 2007; the exercise saw ships from Japan.
Japanese Foreign Minister recently presented to US President a formal proposal for a high-level dialogue among the four nations. Japan would like to see substantive cooperation among them on defence cooperation, maritime security, and infrastructure development.
- The current Indian government has changed its stance and signalled little more flexibility to the Japanese proposal to revive the quad. Government indicated willingness to participate in the meeting saying open to work with the ‘like-minded’.
What is the response from China on ‘Quad’?
When proposal came for the first time, Beijing went onto attacking it as the first step towards the formation of an “Asian NATO”.
China reacted cautiously to a proposal by the Trump administration for a working-level quadrilateral meeting with India, Japan and Australia, saying Beijing hopes that it would not target or damage a “third party’s interest”.
The proposal was seen by China as an attempt to counter its influence in the region.
Why is it necessary that India analyse the impact of its admission into Quad on all its relations?
Quad would serve as a useful exercise to understand why India has conceded it requires “other parties” in the neighbourhood, even as it seeks to counter the influence of China and its Belt and Road Initiative.
It is necessary that India analyse the impact of this admission on all our relations. Because,
- As a growing economy with ambitious domestic targets, India’s own needs often clash with those of its neighbours.
Even as Indian and Chinese troops were facing off at Doklam on land claimed by Bhutan, a very different sort of tension regarding its external debt was claiming the attention of the government in Thimphu.
- The Bhutanese Finance Minister warned that the external debt is about 110% of GDP, of which a staggering 80.1% of GDP is made up by hydropower debt mainly to India.
- Its government report points out that construction delays, mainly due to Indian construction issues, were taking the debt up higher.
- As a result, Bhutan’s external hydropower debt financed by India at 9-10% rates was piling up.
- The Cross Border Trade of Electricity (CBTE) guidelines issued by India had not been revised, which put severe restrictions on Bhutanese companies selling power, and on allowing them access to the power exchange with
- Relations with Bhutan took a backseat to the fact that India already has a power surplus, and its new renewable energy targets come from solar and wind energy, not hydropower.
- Moreover, given falling prices for energy all around, India could not sustain the Bhutanese demand that power tariffs be revised upwards.
- Another problem is what one diplomat in the region calls ‘India’s big game hunting attitude’: “India chases its neighbours to cooperate on various projects and courts us assiduously, but once they have ‘bagged the game’, it forgets about us. As a result, crises grow until they can no longer be ignored, and the hunt begins again.”
- Over the past decade, since the defeat of the LTTE, India passed up offers to build the port in Hambantota, Colombo.
- With the U.S. and other Western countries taking strident positions over human rights issues and the reconciliation process, Chinese companies stepped in and won these projects, for which Sri Lanka recklessly took loans from China’s Exim bank.
- This year, the government decided to bid for the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport at Hambantota and a flight training school at Mattala. India is also hoping to win the bid to develop Trincomalee port.
- India has also been ambivalent on tackling political issues in its region, often trapped between the more interventionist approach of the U.S., which has openly championed concerns over ‘democratic values’ and human rights in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh, and the approach of China.
- In Nepal, India lost out to China when it allowed a five-month-long blockade at the border, calling for a more inclusive constitution to be implemented by Kathmandu
- In the case of Myanmar, it lost precious ground in Bangladesh when PM refused to mention the Rohingya refugee situationduring a visit to Nay Pyi Taw.
Need of the hour:
In Sri Lanka, the U.S. and Japan will now partner in India’s efforts to counter China’s influence, but whereas India objected to Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, it will not be able to object to an increase in U.S. naval warships and Japanese presence there.
The emergence of new players like the U.S., Europe and Japan has increased multiple regional rivalries in the region. This does partly benefit India.
It is important to note that the government’s new plan to involve the U.S. and Japan in development projects in South Asia will yield the necessary finances, should not come at the cost of India’s leverage in its own backyard.
India must demonstrate the will to influence geopolitical outcomes in Asia and beyond. There is no doubt that the construction of Quad will face many challenges, given the deep divisions in all countries on how best to deal with China. There will be differences on setting priorities and allocating resources. Yet, India’s incipient engagement with Japan, America and Australia on the quad agenda suggests that India is now confident enough to embark on complex geopolitical engaging in Asia.
Importantly, PM, who began his pitch for his “neighbourhood first” plan by inviting the neighbours to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, must look before he leaps while inviting other powers into the neighbourhood.