Let us stay with the ‘Quad’

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Viewpoint - Ad­mi­ral Arun Prakash (Retd)

In­dia has, since 1998, signed ‘strate­gic part­ner­ship’ agree­ments with 30 coun­tries and or­gan­i­sa­tions, rang­ing from Afghanistan and ASEAN to Uzbek­istan and UAE. Since the term ‘strate­gic’ in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions im­plies a con­ver­gence of in­ter­ests in ar­eas of se­cu­rity, eco­nomics and for­eign af­fairs, per­haps the MEA needs to be more dis­crim­i­nat­ing in its choice of part­ners lumped to­gether in this pro-forma in­ven­tory.

Iron­i­cally, the USA (fig­ur­ing in this list) has been in quest of a ‘ strate­gic part­ner­ship’ with In­dia since 1991. As the Cold War ended and winds of change brought glob­al­i­sa­tion and prag­ma­tism to In­dia, the US mooted a set of pro­pos­als seek­ing mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion. The In­dian Navy (IN), ea­ger to emerge from its chrysalis of iso­la­tion, took a lead by ini­ti­at­ing the first ever Indo-US naval ex­er­cises, to be named ‘Mal­abar’. These be­came a pre­cur­sor for bi­lat­eral ex­er­cises with at least a dozen other navies, in­ter­na­tion­ally; and now an an­nual fea­ture of our mar­itime out­reach.

Dur­ing the first decade of the cen­tury, such diplo­matic ini­tia­tives by the IN – es­pe­cially in the US con­text – did not al­ways have a smooth pas­sage. Hav­ing a co­matose MoD and sus­pi­cious MEA were bad enough, but the full po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, from ar­chaic left wing ide­o­logues to right wing ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists could be ral­lied by an ac­cusatory war-cry of ‘pro-Amer­i­can­ism’, to bully the timid rul­ing UPA coali­tion. In the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ence, every ‘Mal­abar’ ex­er­cise was hostage to acapri­cious Par­lia­ment, and was li­able to be can­celled at the last minute.

The Modi gov­ern­ment in a dy­namic for­eign pol­icy trans­for­ma­tion, has not only backed a stronger strate­gic part­ner­ship with the USA, it has also con­verted ‘Look East’ into a more pos­i­tive ‘Act East’ pol­icy and ini­ti­ated a more in­tense en­gage­ment with the Gulf and West Asia. Em­pha­sis­ing in­clu­siv­ity in the In­dian Ocean Re­gion (IOR) PM Modi en­cap­su­lated this thought in the watch­word, ‘SA­GAR’, an acronym for ‘se­cu­rity and growth for all in the re­gion,” which should be­come the leit­mo­tif for In­dia’s mar­itime diplomacy.

Against this back­drop, it was an agree­able sur­prise to read in the Septem­ber 2017 is­sue of the re­spected US Naval In­sti­tute Pro­ceed­ings, an ar­ti­cle which bluntly de­scribed Indo-US mar­itime en­gage­ment as, “a se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion courtship that never gets past the first date,” and then asked rhetor­i­cally; “If In­dia is not ready, will­ing or able to play in the mar­itime se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion game, what is the ben­e­fit of try­ing to force it? Mr Modi would, there­fore, need to bear in mind that while vi­sion­ary lead­ers may strate­gise on a grand scale, their policies will be only as good as the im­ple­men­ta­tion, on ground by bu­reau­crats, tech­nocrats and diplo­mats.

This as­pect as­sumes salience in light of the Novem­ber 2017 re­vival of the In­dia- Aus­tralia- Ja­pan- US quadri­lat­eral (or ‘Quad’) di­a­logue. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the four mar­itime democ­ra­cies met ahead of the East Asia Summit, in Manila, for ‘con­sul­ta­tion on is­sues of com­mon in­ter­est in the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion.’ The re­newal of this dor­mant group­ing and re­peated use of the term ‘Indo-Pa­cific’ by Pres­i­dent Trump seem to have gen­er­ated a de­gree of an­i­ma­tion in strate­gic cir­cles. As it hap­pens, the prove­nance of the ‘Quad’, and coin­ing of the term, ‘Indo-Pa­cific’, both have an In­dian con­text that bears men­tion.

On 27 De­cem­ber 2004, a few hours af­ter the Great Asian Tsunami struck, I re­ceived a phone call from dis­tant Hawaii. It was the US Pa­cific Fleet Com­man­der, re­quest­ing IN con­cur­rence for de­ploy­ment of US units in our re­gion and ask­ing for the dep­u­ta­tion of a li­ai­son of­fi­cer to the Uta­pao air base, in Thai­land, where a Joint Task Force was be­ing set up. That is how we found our­selves work­ing in close co­or­di­na­tion with a ‘core group’ that in­cluded US, Aus­tralia, Ja­pan and In­dia: the fu­ture Quad.

The term ‘Indo-Pa­cific’ was coined by young IN Cap­tain Gur­preet Khu­rana in a 2007 es­say, wherein he vi­su­alised link­ing of the In­dian Ocean with the West­ern Pa­cific, across the Malacca Straits, to form a seam­less, eco­nomic and se­cu­rity con­tin­uum. It was of­fered as an al­ter­na­tive to the ‘ Asia- Pa­cific’ par­a­digm which in­cluded only North­east Asia, South­east Asia and the Pa­cific is­lands, and ter­mi­nated at the Malacca Straits, leav­ing out In­dia. De­spite the skep­ti­cism of In­dian diplo­mats, the term seems to be here to stay.

It is in the in­ter­est of all na­tions, that peace and sta­bil­ity are pre­served and good or­der is main­tained at sea in the Indo- Pa­cific. En­sur­ing safety of in­ter­na­tional ship­ping would in­volve an­tipiracy op­er­a­tions, mar­itime in­ter­dic­tion and co­op­er­a­tive mar­itime do­main aware­ness. Nat­u­ral calami­ties and man-made crises may call for hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance and dis­as­ter re­lief, non-com­bat­ant evac­u­a­tion, and search and res­cue op­er­a­tions.

No sin­gle na­tion or navy can hope to pro­vide all this, and the Quad would be well-placed to form a mar­itime part­ner­ship for the com­mon good. While each of the four par­tic­i­pants, no doubt, has its own na­tional in­ter­ests to ad­vance, there is no rea­son for China to sus­pect con­tain­ment or ‘gang­ing up’. In fact, if all goes well, there is no rea­son why the Quad could not, sub­se­quently, be­come a ‘pen­tag­o­nal’ or a ‘hexag­o­nal’ part­ner­ship.

Turn­ing from ide­al­ism to re­al­ism, there was a time when In­dia’s dy­namic econ­omy, its de­mo­graphic pro­file, mil­i­tary strength and nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity tan­ta­lised us with the hope of be­com­ing China’s ri­val. To­day, China’s econ­omy is five times the size of ours and grow­ing; and this eco­nomic asym­me­try is re­flected in the un­favourable mil­i­tary and tech­no­log­i­cal bal­ance. Hav­ing trans­lated its enor­mous eco­nomic gains into co­er­cive mil­i­tary power, China ex­pects neigh­bours to sub­mit to its hege­mony.

If In­dia is to re­sist dom­i­na­tion and gain a breath­ing-spell for eco­nomic con­sol­i­da­tion, it will need hand- hold­ing – moral and po­lit­i­cal – for a few years. At the same time, it must boost mil­i­tary mus­cle by ur­gently mod­ernising the armed forces. Above all, In­dia must at­tain true ‘strate­gic au­ton­omy’ through in­fu­sion of ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy for its de­fence-in­dus­trial com­plex. The choices be­fore us are few and stark and be­ing a mem­ber of the Quad –a con­cord of four democ­ra­cies - has many po­ten­tial ad­van­tages that In­dia could adroitly ex­ploit, in many spheres.

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