Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Has India defanged the Quad?

The “Squad” may take focus away from the Quad on security issues, given India’s longstanding apprehension about alliances.

Other regional security initiatives such as AUKUS have emerged that exclude India (Getty Images)
Other regional security initiatives such as AUKUS have emerged that exclude India (Getty Images)
Published 21 Jun 2024   Follow @Chietigj

Just as India was marginalised from regional economic integration sweeping Asia after the end of the Cold War – with its exclusion from APEC (established in 1989), the ASEAN+3 (formed in 1997), the Chiang Mai currency swap agreement (in 1999) and its recent withdrawal from RCEP (in 2019) – so recent developments allude to India becoming a second-tier member of the evolving regional security architecture. The most recent evidence of this is the establishment of a new regional security grouping, nicknamed the “Squad” – comprising Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States – which raises questions on the future of the Quad of which India is a member.

To be sure, the so-called Squad remains an initiative in its infancy with a limited operational mandate focused on supporting the Philippines as it faces China’s increasingly belligerent behaviour in the South China Sea. However, when placed in the context of a plethora of other newer regional security groupings, there are growing questions about whether the Quad is being supplanted in the domain of traditional security.

Even before the establishment of the Squad it was apparent that the Quad was shifting away from its original mandate of maritime security. The Quad or the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” emerged in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which led to HADR (Humanitarian Assistance/ Disaster Relief) operations by the Tsunami Core Group of countries, comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. After emerging stillborn in 2007, the Quad was revived in 2017. Following the Sino-Indian border clashes in 2020, India reinvigorated its engagement with the grouping, with the first leader-level summit held in 2021.

However, parallel to India’s renewed engagement is a gradual de-securitisation of the Quad in areas of traditional security. The mandate of the Quad has gradually expanded with six working groups covering health, climate, critical and emerging technology, space, infrastructure and cyber. While these fall under the definition of security in a non-traditional sense, the focus on hard security issues has diminished over time.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (MEA photo gallery/Flickr)
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (MEA photo gallery/Flickr)

At the same time, other regional security initiatives have emerged that exclude India. The AUKUS partnership was launched in 2021 comprising Australia, the United States, and United Kingdom. While initially focussed on developing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, it has increasingly moved onto its second more expansive pillar of developing technology with military applications.

But the most notable parallel to the Quad is the Squad, which emerged following a meeting of defence ministers of its four member states in Hawaii in May and a month after a trilateral summit between the United States, Japan and the Philippines in Washington DC. Aside from the obvious similarity in name, the Squad challenges the Quad in its original mandate of addressing issues of maritime security. While it presently maintains a limited geographic focus in the South China Sea, it is possible to envision an eventual expansion of the Squad to other regions, particularly given its unstated objective of challenging China’s growing assertiveness in the maritime domain, which is not confined to the South China Sea. The fact that all the Squad members are US alliance partners (unlike India) also makes it easier to facilitate cooperation.

These developments allude to India’s longstanding apprehension to be part of any initiative that reeks of an alliance, rooted in its longstanding commitment to strategic autonomy in its foreign policy. That India is the odd one out is reaffirmed by the fact that every other member of the Quad is part of the Squad grouping and the same may be the case for AUKUS amid considerations about Japan’s eventual admission. Adding further insult to injury is the fact that it has been more than a year since the last Quad summit took place with a meeting that was scheduled to take place in India in January being cancelled.

Even before the establishment of the Squad it was apparent that the Quad was shifting away from its original mandate of maritime security.

Ironically the emergence of the Squad comes at a time when India has developed a more assertive posture in the South China Sea. While India’s official position is neutrality on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, New Delhi’s growing reference to the “West Philippine Sea” alludes to its implicit recognition of the Philippines’ position on the dispute. India has also voiced support for Manila’s decision to refer its dispute with China to the arbitration tribunal of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2013, as well as acknowledging the tribunal’s subsequent ruling in favour of the Philippines in 2016. New Delhi has even contrasted China’s behaviour with its own decision to accept a ruling in favour of Bangladesh on a maritime boundary dispute in the Bay of Bengal.

Beyond statements, there have also been substantive actions. India’s recent sale of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines has highlighted New Delhi’s nascent but growing role in the domain of arms sales to the region. There have been regular India Navy deployments to the region, including three vessels visiting in May. While India is not a formal alliance partner with the United States, there have been a string of recent agreements aimed improving defence technology collaboration and military interoperability between both countries.

Where does this leave India’s role in Asia’s regional security architecture? The recent visit of US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to India indicates that strategic cooperation will continue to deepen. The Quad and Squad may remain mutually exclusive initiatives with differing operational mandates – the former focussing on the Indian Ocean Region while the latter is focussed on the South China Sea. Alternatively, it is possible to envision an eventual merger of the Quad and the Squad as part of a new Quad plus framework.

However, judging by the gradual pivot in the Quad’s priorities, it is more likely that it cedes responsibility in its original focus on hard (military) security issues to other forums.

At the heart of this is India’s aversion to being part of multilateral security initiatives given its longstanding commitment to strategic autonomy in its foreign policy. This has led to a gradual de-securitisation of the Quad and the concomitant rise of new regional security initiatives from which India is excluded.

This threatens to leave India increasingly aloof in the evolving security architecture of the Indo-Pacific.

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