by E D Mathew

Less than two months after the revival of the Quadrilateral—linking India, Japan, Australia and the United States—the group is in the throes of a deep rift. Last week, in the world’s biggest diplomatic stage, India and Japan rebuked the US for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while Australia abstained from the UN General Assembly vote. If US President Donald Trump were to walk his bizarre talk of retaliation against those opposing his controversial decision, half of the Quadrilateral group will be at the receiving end.

However, even without the rift over Jerusalem, the Quadrilateral has been on shaky ground from day one of its revival on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila last month. (It was first launched in 2007 but as three of its proponents at the time—Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Australia’s John Howard and US President George W Bush—were out of the political scene in their respective countries soon after, the Quad too disappeared quickly). The stark internal contradictions and the grim geopolitical realities do not augur well for the Quad’s second coming. For India, with sights trained on its due place in global councils, the alliance touted as the “Asian Arc of Democracies” offers no special pickings.

Although China’s name is missing from the narrative, no one has any illusions about the elephant in the room. All the countries in the Quad have their own issues with a menacing and resurgent China, from its hogging the international waters in the South China and East Seas and border disputes with India to its relentless push for dominance in the region often irking its neighbours. Yet, all the four countries are weighed down by their investment and trade relations with China, which is the second largest economy in the world today, unlike in 2007 when Japan enjoyed that title.

Take the case of Australia. Among the Quad countries, Australia’s is the most China-reliant economy. Over one-third of all merchandise exports from Australia goes to China, its top trade partner. It also has significant investments in China. It was for fear of a Chinese backlash that then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pulled out of the group in 2008.

Australia rejoining the group has elicited much domestic criticism. “It is a potentially dangerous response to China’s ascendancy and flies in the face of more than 30 years of Australian policy engagement with China,” writes Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China. “If a serious conflict were, however, to occur between China and India over the disputed borders, where would Australia stand if we were a Quad member?” he asks.

As for Japan, antagonising the Dragon next door is not an option amidst the recognition that as the US retreats from Asia, it needs stronger trade with China. Trump’s volte-face, from branding China a currency manipulator during his election campaign to praising its leader Xi Jinping as a “very special man” during his recent visit to Beijing, has not gone unnoticed in Japan. The fear that the US may develop closer relations with China, excluding Japan, is real. A new PM in Japan, or a charm offensive by China, with whom it had warm relations till the 1980s, could see the island nation losing its interest in the Quad.

The apparent commitment to the Quad from the strategically adrift US is the most baffling of all thanks to the unpredictability of Trump, his transactional “America First” policy, and his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. During his visit to Beijing, Trump failed to press China on its military build-up in the South China Sea or its abysmal human rights record. Perhaps just a morning tweet may be what it takes for the US to exit the Quad.

It is interesting to see that the term “Indo-Pacific” is gaining rapid currency following the recent decision by the US administration to redefine the “Asia-Pacific” region, acknowledging the growing importance of India. The designation of India as a “leading global power” in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) released this month has made the desi media happy, but on closer look, it offers no concrete policy advantages. The same document brands Russia, India’s major defence partner and supplier of nearly 70 per cent of its arms, “revisionist” (along with China) and calls for neutralising the “malign activities” in the region by Iran, with whom India maintains strategic relations. Some observers argue that the coinage “Indo-Pacific” is aimed at drawing India’s military to US-led alliances in the Pacific with no reciprocal assurance in favour of the country’s major concerns, such as Pakistan.

Instead of getting entangled in the inherently flawed Quadrilateral bloc designed to counter China, India should be expending its political and diplomatic capital to address the inequity of its exclusion from major institutions of global governance.Asia’s third largest economy is not a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Despite being a major donor of development aid across South Asia and Africa, India is not yet part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). India is also not part of G7, a central institution of the world’s leading democracies. And the world’s largest democracy, the third-largest military by personnel strength and a top troop-contributor to United Nations peacekeeping, remains excluded from the permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

It is through gaining its rightful place at global councils that India, a stable pillar in a region of turmoil, can become a bulwark against Chinese hegemony, and not through a shaky alliance that is mired in contradictions.