The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) received an upgrade last week when the foreign ministers of Australia, Japan, India and the US met at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The Quad was conceived in 2007 to address the unconventional threats in the Asia-Pacific region. But China viewed this grouping as a ganging-up of the US and its allies to contain its rise. It protested against this arrangement and asked each country to explain the grouping’s objectives.

China’s protests pushed the Quad into cold storage. However, China’s rampant naval modernization and other activities increased its inroads into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), while the militarization of the South China Sea, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have threatened the Quad countries’ interests. China’s much-anticipated “strategic support base” in Djibouti was inaugurated in August 2017. This was a tipping point for the revival of the Quad and its upgrade to joint secretary-level talks in 2017.

The Quad’s real purpose is signaling and posturing, under the pretext of coordination among like-minded countries. The four countries are already under three trilateral, six bilateral, and several military and intelligence gathering agreements. The US, India and Japan began the Malabar trilateral exercise in the Pacific Ocean just a day before last week’s Quad meet. The four countries have also increased the number of military exercises, strategic and logistical arrangements, and coordinated activities. But a mini-lateral grouping would be far more effective in conveying their displeasure for China’s activities in the Indo-Pacific region.

India shouldn’t shy away from more such engagements, now that the Quad has been upgraded to foreign minister-level talks. India in the past has dilly-dallied on the Quad. It has tried to balance its position between the US and China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue stated, “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members, nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country.”

India also worries about its strategic autonomy if it engages with the Quad. But the Quad is not a military alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is a grouping of like-minded countries with a cause: to maintain the balance of power and keep the Indo-Pacific region free, open and inclusive.

Why now?

China’s defense white papers in 2015 and 2019 claimed that it would increase its presence in the IOR to “protecting its interests.” Cambodia and Pakistan are the two most likely candidates for China’s next “strategic support bases” after Djibouti. China is modernizing its navy and heading toward its stated objective of being a world-class armed force by 2050. Its modernization is not directed toward India, but the two countries will face off in the IOR when China increases its footprint in the region.

China’s State Shipbuilding Corporation is building four advanced guided-missile frigates for Pakistan, the Type 054A/Jiangkai II class. Pakistan will also acquire CM-302 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles along with the four frigates. This missile would counter India’s strategic naval supremacy that it has maintained since 2005. China also went ahead with the CPEC despite India’s protests.

All of these actions have an impact on the strategic landscape of the South Asian and Indo-Pacific regions. These are more than enough reasons for India to be active in a mini-lateral grouping like the Quad.

India’s strategic usage of the Quad

The fate of the Quad will be dependent on the strategic ambiguity of the grouping. It will be confined to paper talks if not backed by concrete actions and measures. But making a big deal about the forum on every occasion wouldn’t be ideal. It would fuel a backlash from China. This would result in the demise of the grouping, like last time. India should walk a fine line. It should learn from China’s use of boundary disputes against India. China has not resolved these and uses them as leverage. Similarly, India should use the Quad for strategic leverage.

The forum has now been elevated to the highest level. This should be followed by joint maritime engagements, drills and exercises under the Quad’s banner in the Indo-Pacific region (minus the South China Sea). Whenever required, India could convey its displeasure to China using the Quad’s diplomatic options. The bar could also be raised by conducting such drills in the South China Sea. India in the past has conducted maritime drills in the South China Sea with like-minded countries. But conducting them under the Quad’s banner would send different signals. This would possibly equip India with a strategic option against China.

India’s interests are not served by keeping the grouping dormant. At the same time, using the platform to go hammer and tongs against China would also not serve any purpose. India’s diplomacy should find a middle ground, but the approach this time should be more hawkish by engaging through the Quad.