By Kushal Sinha *
The January 2019 iteration of the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi featured a panel discussion on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) during which senior defence officials from India, Australia, the US and Japan put forth their perspectives regarding the four-country grouping. Broadly, the speakers focused on the freedom of navigation on the high seas and a rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, and expressed concerns regarding the increasing Chinese military presencein the South China Sea (SCS).
However, the most prominent take away from this interaction was that 13 years since its formation, members of the grouping have not yet arrived at a consensus on the QUAD’s conceptual and practical contours. To illustrate, while India’s Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, rejected any military element and role for India in the QUAD during the discussion, Japan’s Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano defined QUAD as a grouping for military cooperation.
Given the prevailing state-of-affairs, and India’s strategic objectives and long-term vision, is it worthwhile for New Delhi to invest its energy in the grouping?
QUAD and India’s Strategic Objectives and Long-Term Vision
Insofar, QUAD members have described the grouping as an alignment of like-minded countries that share common strategic and economic interests. A closer examination reveals that the only factor binding them in this enterprise are their disputes with China in their own littoral waters, which collectively span the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the SCS, the East China Sea (ECS), and the Pacific Ocean Region. Moreover, each member state defines the geographic contours of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region according to their respective interests and need. Indeed, there is a consensus on the SCS and the ECS, but there seems to be no consensus among the members on where the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region begins or ends.
India aspires to become the ‘net security provider’ in the IOR and aims for the Indian Navy to operate a 200-ship fleet by 2027. Given India’s geographical location and other factors, the Indian Navy prioritises the IOR’s security cover over those of the SCS, ECS and the Pacific in its official doctrine and treats it as its core strategic theatre. Strategically, it would make more sense for New Delhi to focus and modernise its military platforms in the IOR rather than wading into the SCS and beyond. At present, if New Delhi aligns militarily with the QUAD, the Indian Navy would have to carry out naval manoeuvres outside the IOR. This would cause the Indian Navy’s assets to be divided, weaken New Delhi’s presence in the IOR, and dilute strategic depth.
Post the India-China informal summit in Wuhan in April 2018, New Delhi-Beijing relations are in a delicate phase and aligning militarily with the QUAD would disturb the balance that India is trying to foster between China and the West. India’s denial of Australia’s participation in the former’s Malabar Naval Exercise 2018 has further narrowed the scope of such an alignment. Given how this took place after the Wuhan summit, this move was widely critiqued, and New Delhi was even called the “weakest link” in the QUAD. It is evident that New Delhi does not want to rock the boat with Beijing by aligning militarily with any group specifically formed to counter China.
Financial and Logistical Considerations
The Indian Navy will find it difficult to finance deployment and manoeuvres of its fleet in areas where it does not have any primary strategic interests such as the SCS and the Pacific Ocean Region. Expenditures incurred in an event of such deployment will non-commercial in nature, which will not converge with India’s defence interests due to lack of strategic interests.
Moreover, India does not have the logistics related capacity to expand its reach beyond the west of the Malacca Strait to ensure a steady a supply of vital spares to the fleet. This will prove to be an expensive and gruelling task for the Indian Navy due to the absence of permanent refuel and repair points along the way and operating fixed wing or rotor aircrafts for this purpose would drastically increase the operating cost.
Despite being a signatory of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US, New Delhi cannot solely rely on this Agreement and other member states for logistics due to the difference in military hardware. The Indian naval fleet is predominantly made up of either Soviet/Russian or indigenous platforms whereas the other three navies’ are entirely made up of Western hardware with some indigenous elements. This not only makes logistics a burden but also increases the gap in inter-operability. A 2017 analysis shows that the Indian Navy alone would require massive recapitalisation worth a minimum of US$ 40-50 billion annually for the next decade to bridge this gap. For a country with a defence budget of US$ 44.6 billion, such costs seem beyond the bounds of possibility.
The Way Ahead
For India in particular, the QUAD is a non-starter due to the absence of clarity on the definition, role, and objectives. From New Delhi’s vantage point, military involvement in the QUAD framework would disturb India-China relations and could also prove unfeasible in terms of finances and logistics. Instead of aligning with a specific group aimed at a single country, which could destabilise the emerging status quo, New Delhi should follow the non-aligned pattern of carefully balancing relations between West, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and China.
To maintain robust capabilities in the IOR, India can build-up its sea denial and control capabilities by enhancing naval capabilities and re-calibrating bilateral ties with littoral countries in the eastern flank of the IOR such as Indonesia and key ASEAN members like Vietnam. This would not only enhance bilateral relations but also augment intelligence sharing. It would also provide the Indian Navy with access to their docks, which would in turn contribute positively towards sustaining Indian naval presence in the region.
*Kushal Sinha is a Research Intern at the IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme.