India’s involvement in the Quad addressed an issue that nobody much wanted to consider: how to cover the Indian Ocean.
Washington, DC: If you can read a map you can understand India’s importance to the Quad—and vice versa.
The Chinese have no trouble in this regard. Beijing takes a look at the Indo-Pacific stretching from East Africa across the Indian Ocean and over to, say, USINDOPACOM headquarters in Honolulu. And it wants to control or dominate all of it.
And it might like its odds if it can take on the regional nations one-on-one. Beijing might think the Japanese won’t like it but they can be browbeaten into minding their own business. The Australians are too few and too far south. India is no pushover, but can be contained.
The American military is a problem, but maybe a receding one as the PLA’s capabilities and reach expand along with China’s commercial and political influence.
The US does have some friends, however, and this helps.
Beijing absolutely hates it when its potential victims get together to defend themselves. And the Quad is a big step beyond the bilateral security treaty alliances the US has with Japan, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea. A few of these alliances are either lukewarm, as with the Philippines and Thailand, or narrowly focused, as with South Korea.
The US-Japan defence alliance is the one that causes Beijing most concern, but it is focused on Northeast Asia. The Australians were keen for a “three-way” with the Americans and the Japanese, but that still left the Indian Ocean uncovered. So when the US, Japan, Australia, and India agreed to get serious about “the Quad” in 2017 that—and the potential for real defence cooperation between the four nations covering the entire Indo-Pacific—rattled the PRC.
It’s easy to grasp the benefits of—at least in theory—combining each nation’s military resources, coordinating operational activities and coverage, operating from each other’s bases, and sharing logistics and intelligence.
India’s involvement in the Quad also addressed an issue that nobody much wanted to consider: how to cover the Indian Ocean. It’s key terrain from a strategic and commercial perspective, as Beijing and Tokyo know better than anyone.
The United States hasn’t got the “bandwidth” of any sort—military, diplomatic, commercial—to hold its own in the Indian Ocean Region. Not while it’s hard pressed to cover the rest of the globe. Japan doesn’t either, and nor does Australia. The decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for India to join the mix was indispensable.
And India’s local knowledge and intelligence coverage—not least of Chinese political warfare efforts throughout the region—are better than anyone else’s, by far.
THERE’S MORE TO QUAD THAN MILITARY
There is of course more to the Quad than just the military component. There is the economic aspect that is in fact just as important as the military. As a Quad member, India is even better positioned to help the US, Japan, and the rest of the free world get over its dependency on China for manufacturing, which in turn helps fund the PRC’s military build-up. Kicking this addiction is worth any number of F35s or attack submarines.
Indian companies also can play a key role in countering the Chinese commercial presence in most of the Indo-Pacific—especially the still developing parts—that serves as the front end of its political influence and eventual military inroads.
This bolsters a weak point for the other Quad countries. The US government frets that American companies need to get into the remote parts of the Pacific region. They are like coyotes howling at the moon, however. The Australians aren’t really a scalable option.
The Japanese are good on infrastructure projects and don’t mind going where the living is rough, but normally don’t do the at scale ground-level business development. Indian businesses know how to play this game and have been doing it for years, in the region, Africa, and worldwide. With a combination of US funding, Japanese skills, resources and networks, and a little imagination the Quad can get to work on the “economic” front.
There will be limits to how far into the Pacific the Indian military can operate. It hasn’t got the resources, and has enough to do in the Indian Ocean. But its ships and aircraft operating east of Malacca also have outsized political effects. And the same goes in reverse as American, Japanese, and Australian forces pitch in with India. And India’s ties with Vietnam, Southeast Asian nations, and Pacific Island Countries are most welcome.
The Indians being more or less aligned with the three other countries on countering Chinese aggression will have an effect on certain countries that might be sceptical of the Americans and the Australians. India has a different cache.
This is no small thing with international organizations.
Another significant political advantage of India being in the Quad is “inter-quad” dynamics. As one example, India and Japan have a uniquely good relationship owing to historical reasons. This matters. It potentially brings Japan out of its shell defence-wise faster than otherwise the case. And Indian ties (including defence) with Japan undercut Beijing’s narrative that Japan is still tainted owing to its behaviour in the 1930s and 1940s.
VALUE THE QUAD
When the four main democracies and military powers in the Indo-Pacific link up, that’s a good thing.
And at the end of the day, India is a democracy, with consensual government, peaceful transfers of power, and a free market. And that is as different from the PRC as you can get.
But what about New Delhi’s position on the Ukraine conflict? It’s still buying Russian oil, isn’t it? Yes, it is. Such are the vagaries of foreign affairs. Yet, Japan is still in the Sakhalin 2 oil field deal with Vladimir Putin, and the Americans are begging the Russians to help them reach a nuclear deal with the Iranians. Indeed, Washington asked Iran and Venezuela (Russian and Chinese allies) to pump more oil for American consumption. And Washington is allowing its European allies to continue buying huge amounts of Russian energy.
As for social issues that India (or at least the BJP government) seem to be routinely criticised for, name a Quad nation that doesn’t have social problems. Hopefully, India and other Quad nations won’t base their decisions on how to deal with the Americans on what they would see in South Philly, or what they saw when US cities were undergoing “mostly peaceful” protests in summer 2020.
INDIA HOLDING THE LINE
India is in the forefront of dealing with two of the main threats facing the free-world for the foreseeable future: The Chinese Communist Party and “extremism.”
India sized up the PRC threat years, indeed decades, before the other Quad nations. In fact, many US allies and partners (including Japan) neglected their defence and seemed to expect the Americans to take care of things.
Not so India. It may have lacked money and hardware and had a Ministry of Defence that could practically cause the earth to stop on its axis. But India never lacked the will to fight. The Quad should welcome that.
Extremism? India has got its hand full.
Keep in mind that the United States spent 20 years trying to turn Afghanistan into Bermuda and buying off Pakistan in the process. Meanwhile, ISI directed some of its attention (and presumably some US money) towards aiding guerrillas and terrorists attacking India. And then one day in late 2021, the Americans cut and ran from Afghanistan, giving a nice boost to terrorist groups with India in the cross hairs.
A little introspection on Washington’s part is in order when laying into India’s various shortcomings.
Today’s India is different from seemingly pro-Russian and anti-American India of 30 years ago, just as each of the Quad members is different than it was back then. The Indo-Pacific is different too.
The Quad couldn’t have come soon enough. Fortunately, Prime Minister Abe saw something that most others didn’t. As did Prime Minister Modi. He’s the only leader left in power from the four who rejuvenated the Quad in 2017, and he’s leading a country that is well aware of “the main thing”—i.e. the PRC.
For the Quad to stay on track, and become what Beijing fears it will, it will require each nation to show patience, have a thick skin, and keep focused on that map of the Indo-Pacific. And maybe remember Benjamin Franklin’s warning from another era: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and a former US diplomat.