By Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
There are two geopolitical theatres today on the global stage that are on the brink of conflict and competition. The more imminent one is in Eurasia and the other is the Indo-Pacific. Russia is poised to invade Ukraine amidst a crescendo of threats from the US and her Western allies. The war of words has accompanied massing of troops, transfers of weaponry and skirmishes in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that have declared independence. Russia has recognised them as independent countries and may send troops for peacekeeping. The situation is extremely volatile and US President Joe Biden is ready to impose more sanctions.
In this situation, the recent meeting of Indo-Pacific foreign ministers in Australia and the publication of America’s latest Indo-Pacific Strategy are significant developments. The strategy is unambiguous about US concerns on “mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC (People’s Republic of China). The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power. The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific. From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the LAC with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbours in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behaviour.” Great power competition in the Indo-Pacific will be the defining geopolitical challenge that the US intends to face with partner countries and allies.
There are lingering differences within the Quad, though the need to counter China’s challenge is an area of converging interest. India is unwilling to put all its eggs in one basket and will continue to maintain her ties with Russia, just as the US continues to engage China and Pakistan for her own interests. American interests dictate conducting FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations), a right it exercised in India’s EEZs last year without any intimation to New Delhi. It even issued a statement to publicise it, generating controversy. India’s laws require prior intimation, while the US claims this right was consistent with international law. While India has ratified the UNCLOS, the US, ironically, has not done so and yet claims the right of FONOPS under it. Such incidents create doubts about US intentions, though huge advances have been made in bilateral ties, including in the defence sector, which has helped India upgrade her capabilities that are considered vital for meeting the challenge of the hostile China-Pak axis. The US is now India’s largest trading partner at $130 billion, whereas Russia languishes at $10 billion.
The Quad has, so far, shied away from becoming overtly China-centric and security-driven publicly. Hence, it has focussed on issues such as critical and emerging technologies, internet, cyberspace, strengthening supply chains and vaccine production to tackle Covid. All these sectors have underlying security implications. America’s Indo-Pacific strategy is clearly anchored in managing the emerging great power rivalry and she has signalled her desire for a more overt security-related approach. While this is shadow boxing to an extent, the Quad’s transition to a security focus is inevitable in the future; the Quad and ASEAN have to engage on this score. By not opposing the Quad publicly, ASEAN is also signalling that it is keeping options open. The distinction between this and the Southeast Asian grouping’s approach, based on preserving ASEAN Centrality in any future Indo-Pacific architecture, has to be navigated. But the strategy document does reassure ASEAN by expressing strong support for its unity and centrality.
While the Quad is now the designated vehicle for implementing America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, there are differences between its member countries. The view from China has changed from disdain to outright opposition to the Quad, which it now regards as a vehicle for containing and besieging Beijing and maintaining American hegemony. China’s foreign minister two years ago said the Quad was “sea foam” but is now calling it an “Asian NATO”, reflecting a Cold War mentality to set up blocs to promote geopolitical competition.
China’s trade and investment relations with all Quad members are factors that mitigate any precipitate moves in the security domain. Hence, the US Indo-Pacific strategy document says “we will continue to strengthen Quad cooperation on global health, climate change, critical and emerging technology, cyber …”. There are military dimensions to critical and emerging technologies, sharing of satellite data for greater maritime domain awareness and upgrading cyber capacity. The cyberwarfare unleashed by Russia on Ukraine is a reminder of the importance of unconventional and asymmetrical warfare.
The recent Quad foreign ministers’ conference took an important step by agreeing to strengthen efforts to combat disinformation and also expand outreach to other countries to include “dialogue partners” and find ways to work with ASEAN and other multilateral organisations. Delivery of 500 million Covid vaccines to countries in Asia and 1.05 billion doses globally was also agreed upon, with funding from Australia. Several Southeast Asian countries, reliant on less-effective Chinese vaccines, are keen to get deliveries of other jabs that are being manufactured in India.
The US pushed hard on Moscow’s posturing, arguing that a Russian invasion of Ukraine will encourage more aggression from China and undermine sovereignty of smaller nations. It is clear that India did not agree to mention Ukraine or China in the joint statement, though both issues were raised in the post-meeting press conference. India has stuck to her statement made at the UNSC. There were also differences over condemning Myanmar and the military junta’s oppressive measures. India did not agree to this either, keeping in mind ASEAN’s role in dealing with Myanmar and its bilateral ties.
While China’s actions unite Quad members, security issues are discussed in closed meetings. The security dimension of Quad’s cooperation can proceed on a separate track. And when required, it can be incorporated into the primary track. The opening for dialogue partners is also a welcome move to engage other countries that may be reluctant if the Quad assumes an overt security role in the future. Much will depend on China’s future behaviour. An emerging challenge will be the China-Russia strategic partnership, which has deepened over the Ukraine crisis. China, however, has been careful in supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, which undermines Russia’s latest move to recognise the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk and hive them off for eventual merger. The Quad has to now deliver on the identified sectors to maintain credibility and not regress again into a dormant state.
This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.