Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, US President Joe Biden and Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the Quad Summit, in Tokyo on 24 May

India has established its priorities, capabilities, and deliverables in its engagement with the Quad despite differences on specific issues such as Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a tumultuous 21st century world awash with inter and intra state conflicts, resource crunches, pandemic fallouts and financial precipices, nations are scrambling to maximize their interests and minimize their constraints. Most have begun to adjust their strategic partnerships and longstanding ties as they grapple with the shifting currents of international politics. Asian countries, especially India, Japan and Australia are visibly engaging the American-led West on their agenda in several areas such as defence, trade and investment, strategic technologies, supply chain management and lately conflict resolution as never before as China’s assertiveness in the disputes with several countries on its borders and its predatory economic strategies globally provided a rare strategic convergence and impetus to these efforts. Even the continuing Russian-Ukrainian war, while complicating their agenda, has not taken away their focus of striving to build a security and economic architecture that would not only provide concrete mutual assurances of strategic stability through multi-nation military exercises such as the Malabar exercises, keeping in mind China’s revisionist behaviour, but also through dialogue based economic initiatives. Nowhere is this more marked than in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) enunciated in 2007, given further shape since 2017.

Initially touted as a confluence of Asian security strategic convergence, it has in the last few years become the axis on which US, India, Japan and Australia whose economies cover 40% of the world’s GDP have built the momentum. Notably, the Quad built gradual convergence, but not rapid institutionalization. The focus is, implicitly, to constrain China by providing a transparent, accountable, multilateral, and economic and security model that allows consultations and calibrations between members for action. While critics often point to the lack of tangible resource commitments from the members, the Quad responded to them with a rapid succession of summit level meetings since last year especially after the Covid pandemic struck. The US is continuing to take the lead under Biden administration, signalling a robust focus on managing the China challenge.

The growing theology of Quad notwithstanding, the geographical space where they operate was the Indo-Pacific (which ranges from the coast of East Africa, across the Indian Ocean, to the Western Pacific and recognizes the deep connections between them and the land masses that surround them. It is both a strategic and an economic space that consists of important sea-lines of communication that connect the littorals of the two oceans). The importance of the Indo-Pacific strategy outlined by Trump in 2017 when he visited Asia placed India as central to this policy. Trump’s aim was to counter China’s “economic inducements and penalties; influenced operations and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda”, hence the strategy included operational assumptions, place and activities that had an Indian focus. The Biden administration has continued this strategy as it cautioned that “PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power”.

Indian contributions have ranged from emphasising the actual area of the “Indo-Pacific” to defining the nature and scope of such a grouping. From the “free and open” to “free open and inclusive” phraseology to being regularly involved in the military exercises. Indian strategy was to actively shape and nurture the Quad even as it confronted China on its borders. As the Covid pandemic raged, India not only promised but delivered vaccines to several countries, making sure that pandemic assistance was part of the priorities of the group that has “contributed $5.2 billion to the COVAX initiative, or around 40 percent of total government donations received by the global vaccine fund”.

As part of explaining Indian thinking and commitment, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar travelled to the US and other countries to provide clarity not only on Indian abstentions in the UN regarding Russia-Ukraine war, but also to impart the Indian grasp of the realpolitik that has characterised responses from European countries. In addition, India’s active participation on issues of regional stability in the wake of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, enunciation of the urgency of stabilizing and diversifying the global supply chains, managing its conflict with China in all its dimensions, willing to provide for the world’s grain crisis, helping neighbours to manage economic collapses have elevated Indian position from being a swing state to a critical one. Getting Indian response to crises has become sine qua non for most capitals now.

India’s burgeoning ties with the US (India’s largest trading partner with $119 billion) has also been helpful in creating a framework to manage the differences that mark the group’s discussions on sanctioning, condemning Russia for its Ukrainian war. Not only that, it was revealing how much distance India @75 has covered in terms of moving on in global forums as well as in the Quad. In the 24 May summit meeting of the Quad hosted by Japan (fourth in the past two years), the joint statement reemphasised the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific: freedom, rule of law, democratic values, sovereignty, and territorial integrity clearly revealed the Indian imprint both in what was stated and left unsaid. Noticeably, Indian upholding its strategic autonomy in decisions has given the Quad members a taste of India’s future actions.

While the Quad meeting reinforced the group’s purpose as providing public goods to all, the announcement of several initiatives such as the new Quad fellowship for STEM research, Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package, and building cybersecurity capacity have all been part of India’s priorities. India has also joined 12 other countries in the US-led Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) that is alternative to the RCEP. The aim of IPEF “intended to advance resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth, fairness, and competitiveness for our economies. Through this initiative, we aim to contribute to cooperation, stability, prosperity, development, and peace within the region.” It is not a free trade agreement though. However, the timeframe and resource planning for these goals to materialise have not yet been announced.

The major gain for India was that the Quad framed the tackling of China with repeated references of supporting dispute settlement over the use of force and opposing any unilateral attempt to change the status quo and respecting territorial integrity. It was also clear that both Japan and Australia shared India’s concerns on China as there were references to the principle of freedom of navigation and overflight, and their resolution “to uphold the international rules-based order where countries are free from all forms of military, economic, and political coercion.” The harsh responses from China ranging from calling it an Asian NATO to containing China to sending flights over the Japanese airspace have not deterred them.

While these convergences augur well, India@75 has established its priorities, capabilities, and deliverables in its engagement with the Quad despite differences on specific issues such as Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has redefined the foundational philosophy of the Quad by focusing on a multilateral, institutionalized framework that could be suitable for addressing existing and emerging issues in the Indo-Pacific that would not be restricted to responding to “one pressing military reality—the rise and expansionism of China”. Indian insistence that Quad’s responses to crises, from climate change or terrorism would need to inspire confidence and trust that an alliance model may not, has found expression in the Quad being an open, constructive forum that together shoulders the responsibility of a comprehensive security and stability for the region. The US had earlier stated in its 2017 National Security Strategy that India’s leadership does matter for security in the Indo Pacific, the time to sustain it collectively through the Quad has arrived for India.