US-China Developing Confrontation: India and QUAD

10:10 06.04.2021 • Kanwal Sibal , Doctor of Philosophy, Foreign Secretary to the Government of India (2001-2002), Ambassador to Russia (2004-2007)

QUAD members flags

At the request of the editors of International Affairs magazine, the renowned Kanwal Sibal, India's Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, comments on new US initiatives in Southeast Asia.

Judging by its Interim National Strategic Security Guidance (INSSG) document (March 2021) the Biden Administration intends to be tough towards China on many fronts. Human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, threats to Taiwan, limiting Hong Kong’s autonomy, encroachments and territorial pressures in the East and South China Seas, freedom of navigation and overflight issues, preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific, unfair trade practices, technology theft, resilience of critical supply chains, emerging technologies, standard setting for 5G, a new competitive US industrial strategy, and so on.

Whereas Trump had alienated allies and weakened America’s hand in dealing with China’s challenge, the Biden administration seeks to speak to China from a position of strength. For this it seeks to restore ties of confidence with Japan, South Korea and Australia in priority. In doing this the US is indirectly recognizing its reduced strength and its inability to meet the China challenge alone. In this perspective, It had reached out to Europe for policy coordination towards China even before it took office, but Europe went ahead to sign a Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) to protect its own independent and competitive interests in China. After the fractious US-China Alaska meeting, the US has continued its coordinating efforts with Europe but faces resistance from Germany and France in particular who want to retain their strategic autonomy in dealing with China, believing that US policy under Biden will remain self-centred and that too much water had flown under the bridge for US-Europe ties to simply revert to the pre-Trump era.

The timing of virtual Quad summit before the Alaska meeting was also intended to signal to China that like-minded countries were coming together to deter what they view as China’s increasingly aggressive policies. From a telephonic meeting at the Foreign Ministers level in February 2021 the summit was a major step forward in consolidating the Quad politically. India, earlier reticent in moving too far too quickly with the Quad in the light of the need to manage the stresses of its China ties, decided to join. After the stand-off in eastern Ladakh India has realized that deferring to Chinese sensitivities is not reciprocated by China. The visit of the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to India coincided with the US-China meeting in Alaska.

In the INSSG, India is not treated strategically in the same category as US allies like Japan, Republic of Korea and Australia. The China challenge is felt primarily in the western Pacific where the US has bases, deployed military forces and a powerful naval presence. China’s challenge in the Indian Ocean is not considered of the same order for the time being, but partnership with India, with its significant naval assets and geographic position, overlooking the critical sea lanes of communication in the region, is important for the future. India is seen as a net security provider, fitting into the template of burden sharing. For this the US has shown its readiness to build India’s maritime surveillance capacities by supplying defense platforms, intelligence sharing, increasingly complex military exercises with the inclusion of Japan and Australia, and utilizing the India-US defense-related foundational agreements that provide for inter-operability and sharing of geo-spatial data.

Although the joint statement issued by the Quad summit did not mention China by name, China was of course discussed, with each leader sharing his thinking. According to US NSA Jake Sullivan, China, about whom none of the leaders had any illusions he said, was discussed at the meeting but was not its focus. Coercion of Australia, harassment around the Senkakus, border aggression against India figured in the discussions. According to him, the Quad is now a critical part of the architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Cybersecurity incidents impacting Quad members too figured, including attacks against India’s power sector. He dismissed the talk about Quad being a military alliance, though he stated that it has to worked out at the leaders level and that of the working groups how the Quad can move from freedom of navigation to broader regional security questions. Apparently, at Alaska, the Chinese reacted negatively to US mentioning its dialogue with India.

The summit rightly felt that the Quad should have a broader agenda than simply China, a point of view that India has studiously supported. India is conscious of the fact that the US, as well as Japan and Australia, have deep economic ties with China, which can be rolled back selectively to lessen dependence by decoupling in critical areas, restricting Chinese access to advanced critical technologies in which China has external dependence such as semi-conductors, preventing Chinese investments in sensitive areas etc but cannot be dramatically reduced, given China’s huge weight in the global economy. The US policy seems to be “extreme competition”, cooperation and confrontation, as required. India’s investment in the Quad, beyond the maritime security aspect, would be to benefit from a shift away from China of critical supply chains, use India’s democratic environment to attract more US investment and technology transfers that would accelerate India’s growth for the welfare of its people, besides enabling it to close the developing gaps with China.

It is in this perspective that the decision on building India’s capacity for vaccines should be seen. The three expert groups set up by the Quad summit, on vaccines, critical technologies (5G, AI, Quantum Computing, human biology) and climate change broaden the Quad’s agenda, opening up bilateral opportunities with the US for India, besides creating the beginnings of a structure. In line with Indian thinking and emphasis on a broader agenda, the Quad leaders pledged “to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains”. The decision to manufacture US vaccine in India with Biological E Ltd to provide one billion doses to the Indo-Pacific region was taken, with Japanese finance and Australia’s delivery support. The third group will deal with critical – and emerging-technologies to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future. 

China’s concerns about the Quad summit and the strengthening of India’s strategic ties with the US have no basis. China has benefited enormously from US capital and technology and that of its allies for China’s rise. The economic power it acquired, and with that military power, has been used by it to expand territorially in the western Pacific and globally through the BRI, not to mention in the Indian Ocean. Now that defenses are being put up against China’s policies and ambitions, China, after the stand-off in Ladakh, has no ground to warn India not to become close to the US. Even now the US is China’s biggest economic partner and China is reaching out to the US to ease pressures on it. Its critique of “selective multilateralism” would apply equally to the Russia-India-China group, BRICS as well as the SCO. It has established a Quad in our region- the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Nepal group, in which Nepal does not fit at all.

The bristling encounter at Alaska demonstrates that China’s expectations that a change of administration in the US could lessen tensions and some accommodation could be worked out have been belied for the time being. China touted the Alaska meeting as a strategic dialogue, which was strongly denied the US. In response to Secretary of State Blinken’s severe strictures on China’s infringements of a rules based international order on various issues, Politburo member Yang Jiechi hit back brutally, decrying US democracy, castigating America’s racism, calling it the champion of cyberattacks, rejecting the notion that western nations represent global public opinion, and, most significantly, stating that the US lacked the qualifications to speak to China from a position of strength, now or even 20 or 30 years earlier. Yang Jiechi may have intended to say all this in private but felt compelled to do so in public to show to the domestic and international audience that China will not be bullied and will deal with the US as an equal. If he had reacted meekly, it would have been a blow to China’s prestige and its self-image. It appears that after the public spat the two sides got down to business calmly on the agenda items , with serious differences over Taiwan emerging and raising US concerns that this could become a flash point if Xi Jinping was determined to achieve reunification, by force, if necessary. There was no commitment by the US side to meet again despite persistent probing by Yang Jiechi to elicit a response.

With China and Russia in the cross-hairs of the Biden government, it is not surprising that both countries have closed ranks against the US. Lavrov and Wang Yi rejected US calls for “a rules-based order” and proposed a summit of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members to be held “to establish direct dialogue …in the interests of maintaining global stability”. With the sharper US divisions with China and Russia it is unclear what the P5 summit could achieve concretely, especially as the representative nature of the UN Security Council as currently constituted is questioned in large parts of the world.

Regrettably, a new version of the Cold War might now be taking shape. In the developing scenario, it is very important that the India-Russia dialogue is strengthened so that the implications of the new developments and the compulsions of the two countries are better understood bilaterally.