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Published on: Dec. 1, 2020, 2:18 p.m.
An Asian NATO?
  • Illustration: Panju Ganguli

By Business India Editorial

India’s low profile but astute foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla recently described India’s Indo-Pacific geography as a succession of semi-circles. The innermost semi-circle incorporates our closest neighbours – the south Asian countries that share with us the waters of the Indian Ocean and that have shared our civilisational and cultural heritage. The arc of outer neighbourhood covers the Gulf states to the west and the and South Asian and ASEAN countries to the east, with whom we have old maritime associations and contemporary business and trade, energy and investment flows with labour and skills mobility adding new dimensions. 

Moving further, India has created partnerships and mechanisms with countries the opportunities, concerns and stakes of which intersect with ours. Though he did not state it, the Quad, comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia is one such mechanism, primarily aimed at checking the elephant in the room, China. Some perceptible observers are now describing it as an Asian NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in the making, thrown up by the need of the hour.

India needs to shed its traditional reluctance for multilateralism, couched under the terms of strategic autonomy, and needs to send a clear signal to other Quad members that it is not only willing to increase military co-operation with them, but also take part in developmental initiatives like the existing trilateral Indo-Pacific infrastructure partnership among the US, Japan, and Australia. The successful conduct of Malabar 2020 by the navies of the four countries has sent a strong signal to China that the march of Pax Sinica will not go unchallenged. A suitable follow-up to Malabar 2020 will be conducting the next Malabar Exercise in the South China Sea. The first step to defeating the dragon would be to take the battle to its backyard. 

Indeed, the Malabar naval exercises provide a good template for Quad countries to further their co-operation. As maritime challenges are a common ground, increasing inter-operability between the navies should be a priority. China, despite its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, remains vulnerable at sea. Improving intelligence sharing, secure communications, shared logistics and better interoperability are key areas in which there should be a year-round focus, rather than only during the annual Malabar exercise. India’s recent signing of the Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA), along with the earlier Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) and Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US are positive steps in that direction. India also has military logistics agreements with Australia and Japan.

Though the Quad was conceived in a meeting between the prime ministers of India, Japan, and Australia and the vice-president of the US in 2007, it is the alliance’s revival (or Quad 2.0 as it is being called) that is engaging attention. It began as a security forum to rein in the Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific and re-establish a rule-based international order. Using the already existing Malabar exercise framework between the Indian and US navies, a major naval drill was conducted among the navies of India, US, Japan and Australia, with Singapore participating as well.

The Chinese government responded angrily to Malabar 2007, by issuing formal diplomatic protests. Australia quickly backtracked from the Quad and made its intention clear to not participate in future Malabar exercises. Quad 1.0 thus quickly lost steam and wilted away. The US, India and Japan eventually began to exercise trilaterally, but Australia was absent – until 2020 when it rejoined.

Today, the Quad is driven by a renewed commitment among the partner countries to confront the plethora of strategic challenges emanating from China, such as aggressive territorial grabs in the South China Sea, presenting potential obstacles to freedom of navigation, use of debt traps to develop influence overseas and the Belt and Road Initiative. There is no harm if the Quad is expanded to become Quad Plus, with the addition of countries like South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand, which too have a bone to pick with China’s expansionist designs.

Germany has indicated that it will increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific, possibly bringing it a step closer to the Quad. France, which already has a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean, could be a possible candidate. In the past, the US has publicly distanced itself from the idea of the Quad being an Asian NATO. However, as American power declines in the Indo-Pacific, the need to rely more on partnerships like the Quad will only increase. It will be appropriate if the Asian NATO is headquartered somewhere in India.

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