As is the norm with the Prime Minister's visits abroad he did India proud during his recent three day visit to Manila.
In an action packed agenda which inter alia comprised participation in the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit, the 12th ASEAN-India summit, the ASEAN business and investment summit and the 12th East Asia Summit, a host of bilateral’s and pull-aside meetings with most of the participating leaders, the Prime Minister successfully presented India as a serious, dynamic, and committed partner for ASEAN which while non-threatening was at the same time firmly wedded to the promotion of a rule based security architecture for the region.
From the Prime Minister's comments and remarks the following may be regarded as the major parameters of India's involvement with ASEAN:-
● ASEAN is central to the Indo-Pacific regional security architecture and India's Act East policy is shaped around it. ● India assures ASEAN of support towards achieving a rule based regional security architecture that best attests to the region’s interests and its peaceful development. ● India ASEAN cooperation is progressing well on a wide ranging agenda encompassing three crucial pillars of politico-security, economic and cultural partnership. ● India and ASEAN must jointly address the menace of terrorism and extremism. ● India ASEAN connectivity which has existed since time immemorial must be further enhanced. Towards this end, India is organising an ASEAN-India Connectivity Summit in New Delhi in December with ministers, officials and business representatives from all ASEAN countries participating. ● To coincide with the India ASEAN Commemorative Summit of ASEAN leaders being hosted by India in January 2018, India will also organise the ASEAN-India Business and Investment Meet and Expo as India wishes to participate in ASEAN's growth story and wants ASEAN to participate in ours. The four MOU's concluded during the India Philippine bilateral’s reflect in some measure the all embracing nature of cooperation that India enjoys with ASEAN. One was on defence cooperation and logistics, inclusive of humanitarian assistance and disaster risk reduction, the second was on agriculture, the third was in micro, small and medium enterprises and the last on cooperation between the Indian Council for World Affairs and the Philippines Foreign Services Institute.
A major development, just on the eve of Modi's Manila visit, was a meeting at joint secretary level between USA, Japan, Australia and India. Such a quadrilateral dialogue had originally been mooted by Prime Minister Abe of Japan about a decade ago. The motivation was to uphold the principles of a rule based regional order and to promote free trade along with freedom of navigation in the region. Indeed, in 2007 the Malabar Exercises held by India with the US were a step in this direction by involving also the Japanese and Australian navies. However, in deference to strong Chinese demarches Australia opted out of these exercises and India restricted the same only to the US till 2015 from when it began to also invite Japan on a regular basis.
The recent initiation of the Quad talks comes once again upon Japan's call for a dialogue amongst these democracies for substantive cooperation in defence, maritime security and infrastructure development. The convening of these talks signals a waning of the earlier diffidence in this regard by Australia and India and an intensified anxiety on their part at the increasing stridency exemplifying Chinese foreign policy.
There can be little doubt that the Quad will be welcomed in the region which has for long felt threatened by a hegemonic China and sought involvement of a regional player which while non-threatening could be counterweight. India on its own cannot today be a viable balancer to China as it is dwarfed both militarily and economically by the latter. Moreover, its economic involvement in ASEAN with bilateral trade at $70 billion is less than 15 percent of Chinese trade with it. All this makes it important for India to link up with like minded democratic countries, as in the Quad, to work for the peace, prosperity and stability of the region and address the challenges posed by China.
The nature of the quad deliberations was well summed up in the following terms by the Australian Foreign Ministry which indicated that they were undertaken to " discuss a shared vision for increased prosperity and security in the Indo-Pacific region and to work together to ensure it remains free and open.
The officials examined ways to achieve common goals and address shared challenges in the region. This includes upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight; increase connectivity; coordinate on efforts to address the challenges of countering terrorism and upholding maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Officials also agreed to work together to address threats to international peace and security posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs. The participants committed to continuing quadrilateral discussions and deepening cooperation on the basis of shared values and principles".
It is to be hoped that the Quad not only survives but also flourishes which would inter alia involve its being held regularly at a much higher level as it has the potential of being ideally suited to devising appropriate instrumentalities and methodologies to address both the security related and belt and road challenges posed by a rampaging China. With regard to the latter it would need to devise more attractive alternatives which are locally driven and not externally dictated, enjoy complete transparency and are not opaque, provide a greater fillip to the domestic economy and not that of an external player, and are financed on the most liberal terms and not with onerous conditions.
While India must completely shed its earlier inhibitions on the Quad and be an active partner in its endeavours in the Indo- Pacific, it should additionally reach out on its own to all the countries in the region on developing the blue economy. India's greatest attraction as a development partner is that it is a totally non-threatening player unlike many others and particularly China. Addressing the blue economy in the region is most appropriate as the oceans are integral to region in which nearly all countries have long coastlines or are island nations. Our cooperation programmes should be carefully crafted and should be bottom up exercises geared to meet the local needs. They should not be exploitative but should be designed to transfer technology and the assistance provided should be on liberal terms. In the process India would become an expert on blue economy projects which would have enormous spin off benefits.
The future of Quad will depend upon the level of ambition of the foursome. One also needs to contend with the inevitable pushback from China. Furthermore, it is difficult to be sanguine about the US whose policies are in a flux. Each of the four countries also have a separate track with China. US and China are intertwined with each other economically and are prone to work out separate deals. If Quad is to be taken seriously, the four countries should take steps to formalise the group, set up a charter, devise a programme and roadmap of action and then decide whether or not to take new members. it will also be useful to open a dialogue with the ASEAN on Indo-Pacific security architecture.
(Author is a member of the VIF Advisory Council and a former Deputy National Security Advisor)
(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)