India’s QUADilemma: Managing the US and China

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the QUAD is an informal strategic dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia that was initiated in 2007, which after an abortive start resurfaced in the year 2017. Since then, QUAD has recently acquired considerable momentum and on the 12th of March 2021 the leaders of all the QUAD countries met in a virtual summit- a summit that was considered to be ‘historic’. This sudden resurgence of the QUAD and the success of the 2021 QUAD summit coincides with the fast-paced development of China, making it a topic worthy of further speculation. More importantly, India’s core involvement with QUAD reflects on the path it is paving for itself in terms of its own strategic interests and bilateral ties, specifically with the US and China. 

In view of the foregoing, we conducted a Samwaad session with Ambassador Nirupama Rao along with Professor Avinash Godbole titled ‘India’s QUADilemma: Managing the US and China’. Ambassador Rao is a retired Indian diplomat, Foreign Secretary and Ambassador. She joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1973. During her four-decade-long diplomatic career she held several important assignments such as being appointed as India’s first woman spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, the first woman high commissioner from her country to Sri Lanka, and the first Indian woman ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. She served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009-2011 and was appointed India’s Ambassador to the United States where she served for a term of two years from 2011-2013. Professor Avinash Anil Godbole is an International Relations professor and the Assistant Dean at OP Jindal Global University. Previously, he has been a Research Fellow at the ICWA and a Research Assistant at IDSA. is doctoral thesis is on the Political Economy of China’s Environment and his research interests are in the fields of Chinese Foreign Policy, Environmental Changes in China, Minorities in China, Domestic Politics in China, China’s Asia strategy and India-China Relations. He has been part of the India-China Think Tank Forum and has been involved in various other track 1.5 and track 2 events. 

Commencing the session with a guest-faculty discussion, we began with discussing China and the trajectory it has been growing since the past century. Ambassador Roa said that China now is a China that is no more hiding its light under a bushel and is ready to go out in the world and assert itself. In fact, the active border India shares with China and the prolonged aggression in the border too is a manifestation of the expansionist China- the China that is nibbling and encroaching. India’s relations with China has hit a ‘great wall’ and as Professor Godbole rightly mentioned, China’s development in the past years including the Galwan, has altered India’s foreign policy choices making it difficult for India to balance between the ‘West’ and the ‘Non-West’ and convincing its South-east Asian neighbors. Communicating the contours of the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific to the SouthAsian counties is essential and Ambassador Rao mentioned that one must put special attention to the nuances of each of the countries and the way they all interact with China.  

In the later part of the discussion, we expanded our discussion to include India’s relations with the United States and the QUAD. On being asked about the mixed signals given by the US in involving India to ‘handle’ China, Ambassador Rao said we should not be disappointed over why India is not the US’ first thought when it comes to tackling China. It needs to be understood that the US and India are not allies in the technical sense of the word. We are partners. The India-US ties have significantly improved over the years and now we have several defense acquisition and intelligence sharing deals. Moreover, no country is perfect. So instead of worrying over places that we might not have an advantage in, India needs to develop and strategize its IT and STEM sectors and lay more emphasis on developing new and critical technologies. Cybersecurity is one place where India can come ahead in case of a conflict with China in these new grey zone areas. We need to prepare ourselves for that. 

Next, we moved onto discussing the QUAD’s and China’s threat perception vis-a-vis each other and where would they draw their ‘red-lines’ in putting up with each other before engaging verbally or even kinetically. Here, Ambassador Rao first mentioned that the QUAD cannot be thought of as a military alliance like NATO, and needs to be borne in mind always. With respect to the ‘red-lines’ it was discussed that one redline in the region is Taiwan (or the Republic of China). With China’s heightened levels of sensitivity and the drills that it is carrying out in the South and East China Sea, it is palpable that it would not tolerate Taiwan declaring its independence with the QUAD (or the US) supporting it. Conversely, the QUAD will not want China invading Taiwan in order to integrate with the People’s Republic of China under Xi’s 2049 Dream. Both sides have a rough idea of how ugly things could get if this redline is crossed. 

Finally, with respect to the future of the QUAD, things like infrastructural development, debt sustainability, transparency, and good governance play a huge role in marking its success. Basically the QUAD needs to put forth a sustainable model that states apprehensive of China can be drawn towards. In order to make the QUAD a success and to benefit from it, India also needs to introspect a little and see how it can reduce conflict, build more connectivity, trade, and inspire its neighbours to have greater confidence in India and its abilities.

At the end of our discussion on India-China-US relations and the QUAD, Ambassador Rao also shared some kind words and anecdotes from her career in order to inspire the new generation to pursue the Indian Foreign Service and present us with the spectrum of opportunities it brings for one to grow as an individual and serve the nation.

The entire conversation with Ambassador Rao and Professor Godbole is listed on the Centre’s  YouTube channel. The discussion was extremely insightful and we highly recommend students of International relations and Political Science to listen to it.

The session was conducted by Deepanshu Singal and Vanshika Shah. Deepanshu is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University, who has a keen interest in Economics, Political Science and International Relations. Vanshika is a fresh graduate from Ashoka University with a degree in Economics and International relations.

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