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IS INDIA GETTING SIDE-LINED IN THE INDO-PACIFIC ?

Updated: Nov 25, 2021



EVENT DATE : 27 SEPTEMBER


In an enlightening session, eminent panelists from diverse spheres converse about the recent AUKUS agreement and its wide-ranging ramifications for an aspiring regional power like India.


The moderator for the evening, Yajur Arora, opened the floor with a quote by India’s foreign secretary, Harsh V. Shringla, who has stated that “AUKUS has no relevance to the Quad.” At the same timeh owever, Yajur noted, that India’s media and many top analysts continue to argue that the AUKUS actually complements the Quad.


To address these conflicting views, the moderator raised his first question to the panel- “Is AUKUS overarching, complementary or irrelevant to the Quad?”


The first speaker, Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan quipped – “I think that the Quad and AUKUS are

complementary. I don’t think there is a disagreement between Australia, UK, US and India on the primary purpose they have in terms of their partnerships.” He continued, “We (India) are part of a number of trilaterals, including ones that bring in countries like Indonesia and France, the primary purpose of which is to bring together countries not part of the Quad into the Indo-Pacific. Because all of them share a common concern, i.e., China. I don’t see a serious problem in terms of AUKUS and Quad co-existing. This is just a trilateral which brings in UK( not a member of the Quad) into the same framework, which will allow UK’s power, capacity( political as well as military), to balance against China.”


Yajur Arora posits a follow-up question to Dr. Rajesh- “Until recently, Quad was seen as the main counterweight to China. Prima facie, it looks like UK has supplanted India and Japan. Is that really a welcome move for us?”


Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan quipped- “I don’t think UK can supplant India. UK’s power is useful in adding to the capacity of coalitions- coalitions that can balance against China. I don’t think India needs to be worried about being supplanted by either UK or the AUKUS…Anything that can counter Chinese hegemony in the region should be welcomed by India.” He agreed that the US, UK and Australia are more “formal military allies,” therefore sharing a different equation, but he stressed on the fact that accepting such changes is “a choice that India has to make.”

“Till now, the perception of the Quad was that all four members were equal partners, but now Australia has received a much more special treatment. In this situation, India was neither consulted, nor informed until a few hours before this decision was made. Does it make sense for India to remain in an alliance where it is not consulted on what the other three members would be doing- since they share other relationships that India doesn’t share with anyone?”


The moderator requested Professor Rani D. Mullen to present her views on the same.

Professor Rani D. Mullen remarked that she agreed with Dr. Rajesh’s viewpoint, stating with optimism-

The more alliances the better. It brings the UK more squarely into the Indo-Pacific. The more democratic countries with a view on a ‘free and fair Indo-Pacific’, the better.” However, she points towards the caveat that, “Undoubtedly India was blindsided, as was Japan. There has been criticism in the United States of the way the Biden administration has gone about making foreign policy decisions from AUKUS to the Afghanistan deal. Especially given the Afghanistan debacle, where the US did not consult allies, including European nations, not only in terms of date-setting but also the withdrawal process. It felt like betrayal that both India and Japan were not consulted. AUKUS is certainly a different kind of partnership, squarely focused on security, but nevertheless, that was initially part of what the

Quad was about. To see this as entirely complementary; I would disagree,” Professor Rani D.


Mullen noted. Notwithstanding, she remains hopeful- “Of course, India is trying to make the best of it, and Quad is taking on a different dimension now.”


“After the recent Quad Summit, the members tried to ally some of the concerns through a joint statement where they reiterated a commitment to maintain a ‘free, open and rules-based order.’ But to maintain a free and open order, protected from any aggression, you need security capabilities and enforcement mechanisms. It appears that a military alliance can be the only driver for that objective, and there India and Japan have not been included. So does it make sense to say that the Quad is not about security when its purpose is to maintain regional peace from an unspecified China?”


“The Quad meeting reflects the attempt to refocus it to a soft power angle- coordination on vaccines, technology, cybersecurity, space and more. From the statements coming in, security has taken a backseat since the announcement of AUKUS. Security is what brought Quad together, but the recent summit, chose to focus on ‘shared values’, i.e., democracy and countering autocratic China.”


Dr. Mullen pointed out the subtleties of the messaging by Quad “I think those statements were telling from what they included, and what they did not.”


In a similar vein, the moderator mentioned, that even in this setting, “India still stands to make some diplomatic gains.” “People who are taking this announcement very positively for India, are of the view that the Australian buildup would keep Beijing distracted in the maritime domain, and less focused on land- border disputes with India. How like is that, and could this backfire? Throttled on the Eastern corridor, could China become more aggressive on the Western corridor, i.e., on the land border with India, where India becomes even more isolated?”


“I do not think these are connected, really. I don’t think this would reduce pressure on the land border” Dr. Bharat Karnad remained skeptical. Similarly, he felt that “Handing over nuclear-powered submarines does not make a militarily- insignificant Australia a superpower.


All it does is make the mouse roar.” Moreover, he added that “for us ( India) to be surprised by what Washington does, reflects our inability to anticipate what their interests are, and where they are going. And that is my pet peeve with the Indian strategic community, that they seem unaware of the other aspects of power of other countries, whose interests will not converge with India’s, except in tangential ways.” He continued, “with the given capital ship to tanker ratio, so small relative to major navies, India cannot sustain fleets

in any sector of the Indian ocean.” All India does at strategic partnerships, is resonance of its moral values, which are not relevant to the actual conduct of foreign policy, which is really ruthless.”


At this point, Dr. Rajesh interjected, stating that while he agreed with Dr. Bharat Karnad, he felt at the end “India has to make a choice.” He remarked that India has joined the Indo-Pacific, not because of its quest to become a great power, but because its borders continue to be threatened by Chinese aggression.” He laughingly adds, “What really worries me is the length of the Quad statements, which are hundreds of pages long!” By mentioning this, he implied that the length of those statements might very well render them useless. Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan then provided another sidenote, wherein he mentioned that it is “India who is still reluctant of the military component. The pace of the Quad to a large extent is being set by India, whose reluctance is slowing it down. In a way, he sharply noted, that


India cannot blame others for Quad’s weakness. What we want is benefits without the cause, which is a bit difficult.


Succeeding that, Yajur Arora put forward another interesting question-“While India has had no control or visibility into what the other members did, but from China’s standpoint, India being a strategic partner, is hence an accomplice in any hostilities against China. Are we running the risk of getting caught up in a war that is not a planning of our choice, especially when we are bound by geography?”


To which Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan responded succinctly- “ Just because India is an ally, does not mean that it has given up the right to independent decision-making... countries make their own decisions, we will all pull in different directions, and that has always been the case. Just being part of an alliance does mean that the politics has to be within that group.”


In response to the discussion so far, Dr. Rani D. Mullen raised some crucial questions requiring deeper introspection on India’s part- “I think we can all agree that AUKUS wasn’t just another trilateral, and India was indeed surprised by it. What I think should happen more is some soul-searching on India’s part in terms of its foreign policy engagement and why is it that AUKUS came about- was this in India’s strategic interests? What sort of strategic signals was India sending through the Quad that led to this happening?”


Dr. Bharat Karnad in response to the question, said that India has adopted what he likes to call the “creeper vine policy,” implying that it clings to powers such as the US, which ultimately prevents it from turning into a great power. He believes the lack of will on India’s part is the real impediment. “The US policy establishment has always been part of an arms/ military balance in South Asia. If you have an America which was complicit of Pakistan’s nuclearization, that is part of the great power game. He ends his comments with a sharp remark- “Why is it that India has inhibitions in confronting China, when China

has none about doing the same to India?”


The moderator quickly intervenes at this point, asking a question along the same lines; “US has shown again and again to the world, that it acts to only to protect its interests, or in this case, some of its Anglo-Saxon allies. Do you think this latest development would increase pressure on Asian powers to increase their deterrence capabilities, nuclear or non-nuclear, and do you see India having a role there?


Dr. Bharat Karnad maintains that he has always predicted that the nuclear dominoes will fall one day, and South Korea’s and Taiwan’s attempt to self-protect by starting nuclear programs reflects the same, although eventually both were to be clamped down by the United States.


The only country he thinks still believes in the ideals of the non- proliferation treaty, is India.


In continuum, Yajur Arora posed the following question by bringing in Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan-“ China has raised alarms about the arms race in Asia as well as risks of nuclear proliferation, do you agree with the risk? Do you think it is in India’s interest in its traditional area of influence you have an arms race going between major powers, where it would have to keep up to remain relevant?


“I don’t think it is up to India to decide. Our purpose is essentially to make sure that we are strong enough to secure ourselves, and if not, then to ensure that others can help secure us.” Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan crisply pronounced. In response to Dr. Bharat Karnad’s previous remarks he expressed his diverging views on the matter-“I don’t believe in Asian powers being able to handle this on their own.


There is no way that the regional powers like India and Japan, even if Australia is included can mount any sort of credible balance against China when China has more than fifty percent of the gross power in Asia.” He explained that India’s entry into varying strategic initiatives indicates that we are facing a security threat that we cannot manage with our own resources.


To this, the moderator inquired- “But do you see the risk of dealing with one bully might bring back the Anglo-US impact over the region? US-UK has spelt disaster for the region, especially in the light of the Afghanistan disaster. If the new theater of their great games becomes our southern oceans, shouldn’t we be worried?


In a frank manner, Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan responded-“The weak don’t have choices, they have bad options. One bad option is China and the other is depending on others. In this set of bad options, we have to pick the one least bad. Right now, we don’t face a direct threat from the US, but from China due to our relatively weaker position. It’s not ideal, but neither is international politics.” Dr. Gopalan thus emphasized on the need of the Indian strategic community to admit its weak position in the global arena. The fact that India has not taken a more aggressive posture, has led India where it is today.


To this Dr. Rani D Mullen states, "She does not agree with Dr. Gopalan in that India has to choose from a set of bad options. Instead, she believes that India’s predicament can be explained by the fact that-“India has agency but doesn’t use that agency, when it comes to areas like Afghanistan, even when it’s clearly in its interest to do so. She contended that India should treat AUKUS as a wake-up call."


Just to challenge the core assumptions Yajur Arora raises two counterintuitive questions. Firstly -that by carrying this perception that “China is the real threat, are we making it true by our own actions? So from China’s standpoint, there is a cabal of western countries which is out there to get China, in which India is pawn. The more India participates in these kinds of alliances, the more it becomes an object of facility for China. Are the alliances making China more of a threat to us?”


Secondly, if we are accepting of a hegemon like the US in the region, why is it so bad to have China as a hegemon in the region?”


To which Professor Rani D. Mullen instantly replied-“Ask India about the India-China border, and where that border de facto lies today. The US as a hegemon has not directly threatened India’s borders in the way China has. The larger question for India is what it’s going to do with China. India needs to think about why it has taken a backseat on the security front. What does it tell us about how India engages as a reactive foreign policy rather than a proactive foreign policy?”


Yajur Arora interposed with another observation- The recent border disputes on China’s side, are seen as a power projection where the real conflict is between the West and China, and India is seen as a stakeholder, and requested panelists to present their views.


China may be a bit too realist for their own good, because they have assumed for a long time that India is going to be a problem for them. For now, he asserts, “Worry about the hegemon that is close by. Not only because of territorial disputes, but the political power, the control of multilateral institutions, provision economic aid, and the other ways in which that China yields power.” Dr. Rajagopalan.


At this juncture, Dr. Bharat Karnad chimed in, “There is a larger strategic problem when we (India) get into this geometric adversary determination on the Kautilyan lines. It’s a ridiculous construct. This hasreally been our bane which has reduced us to a virtual strategic non- .” He does not hold the opinion that Pakistan is a threat to India. “The question is there a way to co-opt Pakistan in the larger Indic sphere? After all, they are very much culturally and other wise part of the Indic sphere.”


Yajur Arora put forth his final question to the panel for the day-“ Who are the partners that India should consult going forward?”


Moving forward, Dr. Karnad impressed that we need to introspect on newer geopolitical constellations in the region, which is organically Asian. While France can be considered as an ally, it has its own limitations. He raised a pertinent question-“What is the reasonable alliance structure we should look at, which is independent of the re-emergent Anglo-Saxon power grid, which we see with AUKUS? This is the time to bring Taiwan into the picture. Nicholas Spykman had rightly said in 1945 that the most obvious alliance to counter mainland China once it prospers is a security coalition of littoral and offshore countries. We have to think of a organically Asian security architecture.” He admits that India has to be a “lot more generous than it has been, by taking decisions to win Pakistan’s confidence- for instance by

removing the ballistic missiles from the Western front.”


“When you’re dealing with a bully in your neighbourhood, who do you partner with? You partner with the biggest other country. US is the only power which can match China. Countries act unilaterally, that is the nature of international politics. I don’t see this as either/or- you partner with everybody.”


The moderator further probed on the point, that “despite being an ally the US has been very clear about who to share their technology with.


In response to this, Dr. Gopalan plainly noted that “not being a formal military ally comes with certain costs, which one has to always weigh in.”


Following that, Dr. Rani D. Mullen takes us back to her original argument. “India has to have a more proactive foreign policy. There needs to be thinking on how India can partner with alliances that help in its long-term strategic interests. Undoubtedly India is keen to continue with the US that is a big partner.


But at the same time, there is nothing preventing India from reaching out and engaging more closely with other Asian countries.” This to her, would be a step in the right direction.


Overall, the debaters, while diverging on certain aspects of the topic, shared a common ground in terms of trying to navigate the complexities of the Indo-Pacific, and adopting a more diversified approach towards it.



The debate was closed with the moderator’s vote of thanks to the panelists who contributed

to a lively discussion with their knowledgeable insights.

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