Dispelling confusions about QUAD
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The Quad — the quadrilateral framework that brings India together with the US and its Asian allies, Japan and Australia, whose foreign ministers have met recently in Tokyo could certainly emerge, at some point in the future, as a critical element not only for India’s foreign and security policy but also a definitive moment in the evolution of post-War Asian economic and security architectures.
Lack of clarity
- Meanwhile, confusion reigns on what the Quad is and its future in India’s international relations. Sustaining that confusion is the proposition that India is abandoning its “sacred” tradition of non-alignment in favour of a military alliance with the US in order to counter the China threat. One way of clearing that confusion is to ask four questions.
Bringing more clarity
- The first question is about the nature of alliances. Although they have a negative connotation in our foreign policy discourse, alliances are very much part of statecraft and as old as war and peace. They are a means to enhance one’s power.
- They are about deterring or defeating one’s adversaries. They involve written (in a treaty) commitments to come to the defence of the other against a third party. Beyond the pure version, alliances come in multiple shapes and forms — they could be bilateral or multilateral, formal or informal and for the long-term or near term. How they work varies according to the distribution of power within the members of an alliance and the changing nature of the external threat.
- Alliances figure prominently in India’s ancient strategic wisdom embodied in the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra and the Arthashastra. Contemporary Indian domestic politics is always about making and unmaking alliances — between different castes and communities. Yet, when it comes to India’s foreign policy, alliances are seen as a taboo.
Why international alliances are seen as a taboo in India?
- Part of the problem is that India’s image of alliances is frozen in the moment when India became independent.
- As the Western powers — the US, UK, and France — that joined Soviet Russia to defeat fascist Germany turned against Moscow after the Second World War, a newly-independent India did not want to be tied down by alliances.
- That notion is seen as central to Indian worldview. However, Indian diplomatic practice, as everywhere else, is different from the declared canon.
Do we forge alliances?
- Contrary to conventional wisdom, India has experimented with alliances of different kinds. Let us start with the Indian nationalist movement. During the First World War, some nationalists aligned with Imperial Germany to set up the first Indian government-in-exile in Kabul. In the Second World War, Subhas Chandra Bose joined forces with Imperial Japan to set up a provisional government in Port Blair, Andaman Islands.
- Jawaharlal Nehru, who unveiled the policy of non-alignment among the great powers, did not rule out alliances in a different context. When the three Himalayan Kingdoms — Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim — turned to Delhi for protection amidst Maoist China’s advance into Tibet during 1949-50, Nehru signed security treaties with them. Nehru, who actively opposed US alliances in Asia, turned to the US for military support to cope with the Chinese aggression in 1962. Delhi desperately sought, but did not get, security guarantees from the US, UK and Soviet Russia after China tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964.
- Indira Gandhi signed a security cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union in 1971 to cope with the crisis in East Pakistan. India also signed a similar treaty of friendship with the newly-liberated Bangladesh in 1972.
Transactional alliances of China
- No country is more instrumental about alliances as China. Chairman Mao aligned with the Soviet Union after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 and fought the Korean War against the US during 1950-53. He broke from Russia in the early 1960s and moved closer to the US in the 1970s.
- Mao, who denounced US alliances in Asia, was happy to justify them if they were directed at Russia that he saw as a greater threat to China.
- He also welcomed Washington’s alliance with Tokyo as a useful means to prevent the return of Japanese nationalism and militarism. Having gained immensely from the partnership with the US over the last four decades, China is trying to push America out of Asia and establish its own regional primacy.
Lessons for India
- Delhi could learn from Beijing in not letting the theological debates about alliances cloud its judgements about the extraordinary economic and security challenges India confronts today.
- The infructuous obsession with non-alignment diverts Delhi’s policy attention away from the urgent task of rapidly expanding India’s national capabilities in partnership with like-minded partners.
- An India that puts its interests above the doctrine will find coalitions like the Quad critical for its international prospects.