A case for a Western Leg of the Quad for the Indian Ocean

A potent Western Leg of Quad in partnerships with Russia, France, Japan and possibly Oman, South Africa, Indonesia and Singapore remains a must to craft, writes Lt Gen Yash Malhotra (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Indian Navy exercises in Indian Ocean

AUKUS and the Quad have been on a roll in recent weeks. On 15 September 2021, a no-holds-barred statement from the White House announced a trilateral security partnership called AUKUS comprising Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States,  Sources indicate that it will be American technology and Britain’s building expertise synthesized to construct the boats in Adelaide, thereby helping Australia to develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines without nuclear weapons.

The agreement also covers artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, underwater technologies and long-range strike capabilities as also nuclear defense infrastructure. Australia feels that this enhanced military capability will make the network of strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific Region (IOR), notably the Quad, more effective. Further, the increased Western military presence in the Pacific would help counter Chinese influence.

The Quad Leaders' Summit – the first in-person meeting between US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and their Australian and Japanese counterparts Scott Morrison and Yoshihide Suga - at the White House, on 24 September 2021, recommended promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

There was a commitment to work together and with a range of partners, particularly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU), to end the COVID-19 pandemic; promote high-standards infrastructure; combat the climate crisis; partner on emerging technologies, space, and cyber-security; and cultivating next-generation talent in the four Quad countries.

India’s Indo-Pacific interests

Seen with a toothcomb, the summit has enlarged the canvas manifold bringing in numerous aspects. It, however, morphs the original Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) to a Quad Framework in aiming to respond to the challenges. It will be recalled that the Quad was revived in 2017 following turbulence caused by China in the South China Sea (SCS) overtly pitting the Quad countries against Beijing. It was essentially a security grouping though not so stated.

For India, the term Indo-Pacific, being increasingly used, describes the vast area from the shores of Africa to those of Americas as a "free, open, inclusive region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity and includes all nations in the region and beyond, who have a stake in it."

Be that as it may, what is of the essence for India is to have partnerships for the Indo-Pacific which are in keeping with its national interests. The Indo-Pacific today is virtually India's new neighborhood. Given its growing trade and energy linkages, India has as much at stake in peace and tranquility in the Western Pacific/ SCS as any other regional power.

In the present climate, Quad-core therefore should be that the Indo-Pacific security architecture must balance China in both oceans. The US, perhaps, presupposes that its Indo-Pacific strategy cannot be compartmentalized for the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

But with the injection of AUKUS, that is precisely what has been done The Pacific stands reinforced leaving the Indian Ocean as heretofore. Is there a trust deficit between the US and India or Japan? Is the US trying to hedge its options with another security grouping for the Pacific?

Quad’s Western leg

Even today, the Quad seems to have hijacked the very concept of Indo-Pacific taking it east of Malacca.  With AUKUS now, it largely represents an Eastern Leg. While Western Pacific and SCS are important, the Indian Ocean remains fundamental for India. Given China's belligerence and expanding footprint there is a definite case for a Western Leg of the Quad for the Indian Ocean. While India builds the capability to reduce asymmetry with China, the requirement for the Western Leg stands out even more!

Notwithstanding the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, it remains essential for India to understand that there are still two lines of divisions which the US has to contend with --- one in Europe, between Russia and NATO/EU; and the other in Western Pacific, between China and the USA with its Asian allies, pushing China and Russia closer.

India must analyze the answer to this grave question: Does the US have adequate resources and political will under the present dispensation for effective deployment, both in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific? A big question mark develops when seen against the backdrop of the US exodus from Afghanistan and the formation of AUKUS without taking its Quad partners or the NATO members into confidence.

In the earlier dispensation, then US President Donald Trump's calling card was his unpredictability. Having withdrawn from many treaties and agreements - he did not even spare NATO or for that matter India, its Quad partner - he diluted US' credibility. Even now, incumbent US President Joe Biden is not too far behind by first dragging his feet over sharing the surplus Covid vaccine, followed by the Af exodus and AUKUS pact.  

If India has to stitch a Western Leg for the Indian Ocean, then its partnerships will have to be trustworthy and all-weather.

Potential strategic partners

France, riled by AUKUS, could be a good strategic partner. It is a resident power in the IOR with a significant naval presence in the north and southwest quadrants of the Indian Ocean making it very effective for the Western Leg. Japan, a major economy, ignored like India for AUKUS, would have a serious stake in the Western Leg since it is dependent on sea lanes for its energy, commerce, industry and security; naturally, it would be a willing partner.

Of the smaller countries, Oman, South Africa, Indonesia, Singapore and even some EU members could be considered.

For making the Western Leg potent, Russia's participation would be desirable even though it has made common cause with China, making the Indo-Russian relationship complex. The Russia-China Virtual Alliance in the Pacific is indeed noteworthy; but so is Russia's policy of developing friendly relations with India in the Indian Ocean backed by the time-tested special and privileged partnership between the two countries.

It must be recalled that during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict when the US tried to threaten India with elements of its Seventh Fleet led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the Soviet Union dispatched a nuclear-armed flotilla from its Pacific Fleet based in Vladivostok in support of India when it mattered the most!

It is to be noted that Russia today has a permanent naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean with a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus supported by its airbase in Latakia. In strategic terms, the Indian Ocean is not far from the Eastern Mediterranean for the intended Western Leg!

With the Eastern Leg already reinforced, the focus of China will perhaps shift to AUKUS rather than the Quad, but this should not water down India's concerns in the Indian Ocean.  A potent Western Leg of Quad in partnerships with Russia, France, Japan and possibly Oman, South Africa, Indonesia and Singapore remains a must to craft. If Indo-Pacific is the future, it’s time it gets a credible, rules-based security architecture, thus giving diplomacy added options.

From the narrative, it is clear that AUKUS may be fine but POTUS stands relegated to the 'Trust but Verify' category and questionable credibility.

(The writer is a retired senior officer of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers and a research scholar on defense and strategic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at yashmal@hotmail.com.)