India, the US, Japan and Australia first formed the loose security alliance in 2007, but a prolonged hiatus and lack of support have stifled its growth. As China becomes increasingly assertive, is now the time for New Delhi to leverage the four-country grouping for its own ends?

Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah

India, Australia, Japan and the United States, are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a group first conceived more than a decade ago as a counterweight to China’s growing economic and military might.

Known as “the Quad” for short, this group held just one round of talks and military drills in 2007 before entering a decade-long hiatus after protests from Beijing, a change of government in Japan and unwillingness in New Delhi and Canberra to push the idea further.

Yet lately the group is coming back into focus. The US, despite President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, seems to be viewing its ties with India with increasing importance, as seen in its decision to rename the Pacific Command – its oldest and largest unified military command – the Indo-Pacific Command in May 2018. Six months earlier, the Quad held its first meeting in 10 years on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines.

As India grows, its economic and military influence in the region is rising commensurately. New Delhi is also increasing its naval presence – setting up bases in the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie close to the Strait of Malacca.

But the government of Narendra Modi is hardly embracing the Quad with open arms.Since the Doklam stand-off of 2017, which saw the Indian and Chinese armies come perilously close to armed conflict, New Delhi has been trying to get its relations with Beijing back on track and avoid provoking China unnecessarily – India’s vetoing of Australia’s application to take part in last summer’s Malabar naval exercises, which also involved the US and Japan, could be seen as evidence of this.

Domestic concerns have also come to the fore, such as the recent terrorist attack in Kashmir that sparked a low-level military exchange with Pakistan, as well as high unemployment and a nationwide agrarian crisis. In light of these factors, and the upcoming national elections, work on an international security alliance has, perhaps understandably, been put on the back burner.

At the same time, the US does not seem to be particularly enthusiastic about the Quad, either. Admiral Phil Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, suggested recently while giving a speech in Singapore that the loose security grouping could be shelved for now. A Pentagon spokesman later clarified that Davidson was “referring to a formal, regular meeting of military leaders from the four countries” and that regular diplomatic meetings would continue.

But the US, like India, wants to avoid alienating China too much – especially as a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is highly unlikely without Beijing’s help.

For its part, Japan appears to have softened its stance on China too, with Tokyo recently signalling a willingness to take part in some aspects of Beijing’s multi-billion dollar “Belt and Road Initiative”. This may, in turn, dull Japanese enthusiasm for the Quad.

Which leaves Australia, whose ties with China have been fairly tense of late – though Canberra’s suspicions of Beijing’s foreign-policy motivations is hardly enough glue to hold the group together.
An Indian Navy sailor stands guard during the inauguration of joint naval exercises with the United 

The Quad could provide India with leverage at the United Nations as it tries to get Masood Azhar – head of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for February’s attack in Kashmir – designated an international terrorist. China, a close ally of Pakistan, has repeatedly blocked these moves and though this has upset New Delhi, it also wants to avoid pushing Islamabad even further into Beijing’s embrace.

India needs to go back to the drawing board and decide what, if anything, it wants from this quadrilateral security alliance. If New Delhi takes the lead, the Quad could become a potent force to counter an increasingly assertive China – though this does risks angering Beijing.

Whether the political will exists to do such a thing, only time will tell.