TOKYO: A quadrilateral alliance (Quad) of maritime democracies India, Japan, Australia and the United States is in formation, spanning the Indo-Pacific, as repeatedly stated by US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Indian officials had preferred to cast it as the evolution of its “Act East Policy”. However, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Trump’s meeting last week at the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, the wording was enhanced to “two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s greatest militaries”. The goal of a “free and open Indo Pacific” should be obvious to all, except that a handful of countries insist on unique definitions of territorial and maritime boundaries. However, beyond military cooperation, advanced weapons purchases, and joint defence production, what else might there be for India to collaborate with the other three countries?

First, it is collective security against aggression, of which there appears to be plenty. But it could well be that passing laws similar to India’s “Enemy Property Act 1968, as Amended” by the US, Japan and Australia may also be a major deterrent to aggressor nations that are also global investors. The Act provides for legal expropriation of all the aggressor nation’s assets in the attacked country. Therefore, thankfully, the aggressor and its own business enterprises have much to contemplate before launching a conventional or nuclear attack. In most countries, the leading businesspeople are firmly “coxing” policy and nothing bothers them as much as losing their entire investment amidst military adventurism. This is a major change from the early 1960s, when few such global investors existed in the then-described “Third World”. Indeed, many wars would not have occurred had such laws been on the books. The unprovoked Chinese attack on Indian territory in 1962, reportedly to divert attention from internal Chinese turmoil because of the going awry of then-Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and its ensuing millions of man-made Chinese starvation deaths, was meant to unite the sceptics within China.

The near-term impetus for the Quad was the devastating 26 December 2004 tsunami that impacted wide swathes of the Indo-Pacific, and soon thereafter when the navies of the US, India, Australia and Japan joined together to provide rapid humanitarian assistance, highlighting the potential for longer-term collaboration, as well as the limitations of formal multilateral agencies and indeed other blue-water naval powers. A few years later, Japan’s PM Abe, then in his first term, spoke in Indian Parliament in August 2007 and his scholarly advisors inserted in his speech references to the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh’s book, Confluence of the Two Seas (meaning mixing of waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans), alluding to the origins of the Indo-Pacific concept from at least year 1655 (and in reality the idea existed from the era of the South Indian Chola dynasty that extended even to Indonesia a thousand years ago). However, some obviously uninformed analysts in Washington, DC got into a tizzy thinking that “Indo-Pacific” as an organising construct had been invented by President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson in November 2017, and breathlessly complained that it is a major deviation from US (Europhilic) policy. The Quad received a setback in 2008 because Australia’s then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a self-declared China expert, developed cold feet in proceeding, when some Chinese Communist Party mandarins saw it as abject weakness on the part of the Quad.

Second, access to trade, investment, immigration, physical and digital infrastructure, as well as a vibrant civil society partnership between the Quad members would be the only way to build long-term support for it. India alone can meet the skilled population deficits of both Japan and Australia, and the US has for many decades been welcoming jobs-creating highly-qualified Indian immigrants. Japan’s population is ageing and declining in numbers, year after year, and India produces more babies, 27 million, every year than Australia’s entire population of 24 million, in other words, making it a “baby superpower”.

For decades, India was very clearly allied with the erstwhile Soviet Union, while proclaiming nonalignment; and all those claims disappeared with the collapse of the USSR along with the Berlin Wall. Apart from military security, that partnership with the USSR yielded little economic benefit. It has to be different with the Quad.

WTO agreements have been most inadequate in enabling the needs of a growing and rapidly transforming economy like India’s. Indeed, assurances contained in the WTO’s TRIPS agreement, for instance, related to tackling medical emergencies, have easily been trampled upon, and the Trade in Services Agreement has not made any real progress. In the midst of that, if the Quad is to become a thriving and vibrant collaboration, it will have to demonstrate benefits for each member far in excess of what is secured via cumbersome WTO agreements, or indeed the somewhat “odd-couples” grouping of BRICS.

There is widespread belief in the global community that India, with one of the largest navies, armies and air forces in the world and very strategically located close to the potential areas of military conflation, can provide significant firepower to deter aggressor nations. In combination with the armed forces of the US and Australia and Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, it would be a formidable armada, and therefore the ultimate deterrent capable of ensuring peace through strength. However, if the Quad is seen as an inexpensive way to hire a navy, it would be regarded as the ultimate insult. Many Indians have a relative in the armed forces and know well how they regard their national service, in my case my late uncle was a major-general and chief surgeon of the Indian Army. It would be nothing short of sacrilegious to think of those proud men and women in uniform, even remotely, as mercenaries. On the other hand, the Indian armed forces are extremely well inclined to play a strategic part in ensuring peace, economic growth and prosperity for the Indian population. For all that, it will take much more than mere bureaucrat-to-bureaucrat meetings to achieve.

Further, in the event of military threats passing, and the Quad going the way of other relics, like SEATO, and if the dual economic and military needs of India are not part of the package of solutions implemented, the Quad can be expected to figure as a polarising theme in the run-up to the 2019 Indian parliamentary elections.

Dr Sunil Chacko is a graduate of Harvard University, an Adjunct Professor in the US, Canada, Japan and India, and a former World Banker who won a commendation from the then-World Bank President for his innovation.


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