India seeks a balance between multilateral clubs and bilateral ties

India US Navy Partnership act: Aircraft carriers and warships participate in Malabar naval exercise, a joint exercise of Quad countries | AP

It was supposed to be the big moment, with leaders of four important countries in the Indo-Pacific getting together for their first in-person meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in the US. So it took people by surprise that just a week before the summit, three Anglo-Saxon countries announced the formation of AUKUS (a trilateral of Australia, the UK and the US). Now, there are questions about whether the US is dumping the Quad for this new club.

The Quad is a club into which India was wooed ardently. Yet, it remained circumspect. It is largely because of India that the Quad remains a non-military club of regional democracies with a “shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific”. AUKUS, on the other hand, is an unabashed security pact; the announcement of its formation came with the news that the UK and the US would help Australia develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines. The message of taking on China is unambiguous.

Since 1993, when India made its first bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the country has embraced club culture in a big way. It joined a veritable alphabet soup of new groupings including BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), G-20, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and managed a toehold even in the Djibouti Code of Conduct. India is now part of over 70 such groupings.

Yet, two exclusive club cards which it most desires—UNSC and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—remain elusive. The NSG was formed in response to India’s nuclear ambitions in 1974. India got a host of NSG waivers in 2008, which has negated the need for actual membership, yet India desires to sit at the high table and not outside the door. The UNSC membership line is long and the club has no intention of letting anyone in. The only option available is non-permanent membership. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will raise the issue of UNSC reforms once again during his speech at the UN General Assembly.

The Quad ticks the “exclusive” box, a point over which both Russia and China are sore. For all its desire to be part of elite clubs, its Quad membership makes India rather uncomfortable.

This brings us to the question: what is the point of amassing so many club cards? Many multilaterals have limited purpose now. BRICS, launched as a group of emerging economies, is a good example. Although the leaders still go ahead with summits, its relevance is limited now to the Brics Development Bank, with Brazil having lost interest, South Africa no longer considered an emerging economy, Russia getting sanctioned and China already established as an economic superpower, according to Dilip Sinha, retired IFS officer and author of Legitimacy of Power: The Permanence of Five in the Security Council. Geopolitics has been turbulent over the last decade. Now, with the pandemic and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is even more turbulent. Existing alliances are being readjusted and new priorities are emerging, says Major General Dipankar Banerjee (retd), founder of the Forum for Strategic Initiative. “India, too, is adjusting to the changes, and it needs a presence in every significant grouping—regional or global—given its desire to be part of the global conversations,” he says.

In a dynamic world, if one club loses its significance, another one can get revived in response to emerging needs. The G-20, which was formed in 1999, rose to prominence only after the global economic meltdown of 2008. The Quad was formed in 2007, then almost crumbled with Australia’s hesitance to counter China. India, too, was wary of China and also of Australia’s intentions. By 2017, however, China’s expansionist plans and the strength of its economy had rattled both the US and Australia enough to revive the Quad. “Post Galwan, India, too, has realised the need for this partnership, given its limited maritime reach,” says Banerjee.

United we stand: US President Joe Biden in a virtual press conference with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, announcing the formation of AUKUS | AFP United we stand: US President Joe Biden in a virtual press conference with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, announcing the formation of AUKUS | AFP

While some may regard AUKUS as having stolen the Quad’s thunder, the two are complementary. AUKUS actually solves India’s dilemma of militarising the Quad. The much needed military presence to check China’s growing footprint comes without India actually needing to provide its military.

India, when it realised that there cannot be even limited diplomatic engagement with Pakistan, shifted focus from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) to BIMSTEC, a group which was in alignment with both Neighbourhood First and Act East approaches of the government.

The question of the SCO’s utility to India, too, comes up repeatedly, given that both of India’s headaches—China and Pakistan, are members. As Sinha says, imagine us having a discussion on anti-terror strategies in a forum shared with Pakistan. What can be the takeaways from such dialogues?

China initiated the formation of the SCO to reach Central Asian markets. With the inclusion of newer nations—India, Pakistan and now Iran—it has become a grouping of countries which matter in the region. Even though India may have limited scope in checking China’s Belt and Road Initiative ambitions through the SCO, the summits provide a platform for India to air its views before regional stakeholders.

The SCO’s most important role has been in providing a neutral ground for both nations to meet, something which helped tone down aggression after Galwan. Both External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met their Chinese counterparts in Moscow on the sidelines of SCO meetings last year. Significantly, the Astana Consensus, by which Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed not to let differences between the two countries escalate into disputes, was forged at India’s first SCO meeting as a member in 2017. The consensus was put to test weeks later when the face-off between soldiers of the two countries happened in Doklam. It took months, but the situation was peacefully de-escalated.

Another club where partners were keen for India to join, but India held out was the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Domestic pressures kept India from joining, though Sinha feels that India had not prepared well for the membership. “Just as you cannot join a golf club without at least purchasing a set of clubs, you cannot join a trade group if you have no import standards and have not built up your manufacturing capacities,’’ he says. He believes that while groupings have their uses, India should focus its energies on developing robust bilaterals.

India now has the 2+2 dialogues with all three Quad partners, thus maintaining a defence engagement with each, but out of the ambit of the plurilateral. Balancing bilaterals requires immense diplomatic finesse. Keeping its time-tested friendship with Russia intact even as it explores newer opportunities with the US is one of India’s challenges. And just how much is India willing to give in any relationship is going to be put to test sooner or later.

A recent jolt was when Republican Congressman Mark Green asked Secretary of State Anthony Blinken whether the US had reached out to India as a possible staging area for over-the-horizon forces. Blinken merely said that he would take up the issue in a different setting. India has refrained from commenting on it.

India follows a fiercely independent foreign policy and has, in the past, turned down many outreaches which came with riders. The emergence of the new world order from the present flux will test each one of its relationships.