Special Forum Issue

“The Quad”

India’s Quad Calculus and China


From its formation as a disaster response group after the 2004 tsunami to its revival in 2017, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—consisting of India, Japan, Australia, and the US—has become a key mechanism within the multilateral power framework of the Indo-Pacific region. Although overtly driven by their shared concerns over China, India and its fellow Quad states maintain that the grouping is far from an exclusive China containment framework. Rather, India’s participation draws on efforts to better situate itself in a liberal regional and global order; and perhaps to defend and strengthen itself in the face of a revisionist China.

As Indo-Pacific states face growing Chinese adventurism in the form of aggressive policies and tactics beyond its land and maritime borders, building synergy within the Quad to upgrade and institutionalize the mechanism has become an increasingly important priority. This is particularly true for the US, which has found itself in great power competition with China and is precipitously close to entering into new Cold War-like dynamics. Speaking at the “Passing the Baton” event in January 2021, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien declared the Quad to be Washington’s “most important relationship” after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)1—demonstrating its centrality in the US regional perception. Similarly, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, labelled the Quad a fundamental “foundation” for building America’s Indo-Pacific policy.2 The Biden administration-driven Quad Leadership Summit (QLS) came as a key step in the grouping’s evolution. For the first time, it brought together the leaders of all Quad nations in a high-profile meeting and culminated in a landmark joint statement titled “The Spirit of the Quad.”3 Through steps taken under the QLS, the Quad has initiated concrete diplomatic engagements in emerging technology, climate change, and COVID-19 vaccine distribution, backed by a political statement affirming the group’s prominence in the foreign policy of all Quad nations and as a strategic “diamond” in the Indo-Pacific.

The QLS filled a gap in the Quad narrative; until now three foreign minister meetings were held wherein convergence has been consistently maintained on ensuring a free, open, rules-based, and resilient Indo-Pacific. However, debate on its institutionalization or potential securitization (or militarization) has seen a division in the “like-mindedness” of the Quad states, with the US pushing for a more aggressive stand against China. While an extension of the Quad via a “Quad Plus” framework in 2020 has been welcomed as a “conjectural alliance,” true upgrading of the framework has remained constrained since its revival in 2017. Even now, it is yet to expand into a 4+4 setup to also include consultations between defense ministers of the four states. Such upgrading would only further Beijing’s disapproval of the grouping, which it already views as an “exclusive”4 clique targeting third countries such as China itself, if not a step towards creating an “Asian NATO,” which Beijing predicted back in 2003.5 Such an overture would, in turn encourage China to further build its own ‘Himalayan Quad’—comprising Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—into a rival, if not a militarized grouping.6 Such implications on Beijing’s part make it vital to understand India’s appreciation of the Quad in its foreign policy.

India’s approach is linked with its perception of strengthening Asian security, building comprehensive national power (CNP), and promoting an architecture of maritime resilience. A Trans-Himalayan Quad led by China could be securitized or militarized with much less ideological constraint compared to the conflicting take of the Quad powers themselves.7 With these Himalayan states being in India’s immediate neighborhood, New Delhi would be taking a calculated risk in leading the Quad forward. Furthermore, with the chatter regarding the US focus on forming an “Indo-Pacific NATO” in the air—or at least not entirely out of the exercise of strategic deliberation—actions on the part of the Quad remain highly politically sensitive.

While India is frequently cited as the weakest link in the Quad,8 it has ardently promoted the grouping as a part of a pluralistic foreign policy approach to the emerging Indo-Pacific construct. So, what is India’s outlook towards the Indo-Pacific, and where does the Quad figure in India’s strategic Indo-Pacific arc? How does India aim to find balance between its increasing adherence to the Quad process and its continuously vigilant engagement with China? 

Delhi’s inclusivity charter

Since independence, India has always focused on making its own decisions without external influence; establishing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) made this outlook concrete at the time of the US-USSR Cold War.9 Now, with US-China “great power” rivalry hurling towards some sort of “new Cold War,”10 India’s commitment to not engage in an overt alliance pact becomes all the more vital, making its principle of “strategic autonomy” more relevant.11 India’s choices to support the Quad—as well as the QLS—are hence a political statement to protect its national interests. Its decisions will primarily depend on its confidence that a broad consensus has emerged among the Quad states on what form of upgrading or expansion would mean for each party specifically and the overall geopolitical landscape. Hence, India’s outlook on the Quad and especially the QLS drew parallels to its outlook towards an “Asian NATO”; without clarity on its goals as well as expectations of states party to it, India was unlikely to endorse a platform that appears anti-China.12

Although India’s relations with China have severely deteriorated following the Galwan valley clash, continued engagement with China through bilateral confidence-building measures and within multilateral institutions—like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—demonstrates its intent to pursue a balancing strategy. New Delhi views Beijing both as a necessary multilateral partner and a competitive political power, pursuing a “power-partner” policy. For China, too, engagement with India draws on similar contours; while it recognizes India as a challenger to its dominance in the region, its diplomatic rhetoric has consisted mainly of a partnership characterized by shared interests of emerging economies and neighborly ties. Xi’s commitment to the idea that “security in Asia should be maintained by Asians themselves”13 naturally makes India a vital part of his vision on regional security; though it puts China on a dominating platform to corner India as a subsidiary power in Asia. Their cautious and watchful approach towards each other is one significant aspect of India-China ties. The framework of having a “developmental partnership” is to keep this relationship moving; ensuring that territorial disputes between the two countries stay largely separate from economic cooperation. It is in support of this outlook that while being at a military standstill for over nine months over the last year, India and China have continued bilateral talks at various levels (from military commanders to foreign and defense ministers ) and gradually begun the process of disengagement over multiple rounds of negotiations.14 At the same time, they sustained their growing trade relations, with two-way trade standing at $77.7 billion for the year 2020, and China emerging as India’s largest trading partner.15 

India’s outlook towards the Indo-Pacific draws strongly on the principle of “inclusivity.”16 Its vision of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific is primarily motivated by a universalist approach under which it sees the Quad’s “purpose of coming together is actually to find ways of working for our [India’s] nations benefit, for our [India’s] regional benefit and for global benefit”.17 This approach is aimed at achieving regional growth and responding to shared challenges (like climate change) and not influenced by a “NATO mentality” that posits the Quad as a military-dominated framework or institution in the making. Essentially, such an inclusive outlook comes from India’s long tradition of non-alignment policies (though appears irrelevant in present context); it allows New Delhi to strike a delicate balance in its ties with China and various partner countries like the US, Russia, Japan, and South Korea. With each, New Delhi shares a well-founded and substantial relationship. If anything, its Indo-Pacific outreach forms a channel through which it can enhance its outreach to these states as well as create an inclusive maritime environment in the Indian Ocean that promotes India’s interests and cooperation over conflict.

India’s “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific outlook is articulated and is now being instituted under Prime Minister Modi’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), announced in 2019 at the East Asia Summit.18 Although still in a nascent stage, the IPOI not only highlights India’s willingness to emerge as a security protector in the region vis-a-vis China’s growing maritime adventurism but also demonstrates its focus on securing a resilient, rules-based, free, open, and inclusive maritime domain. In essence, the IPOI aspires to create partnerships between like-minded states to pool their resources in areas like maritime security, trade, sustainable use of maritime resources under a blue economy, capacity building through the sharing of crucial information and resources, and building maritime infrastructure for connectivity and disaster prevention.19 It seeks to actualize a multipolar regional order, which has long formed a key aspect of India’s global vision.20 Built on India’s Act East Policy and Act West Policy, and spanning from the Western Pacific to the entirety of the Indian Ocean (that is, to the Andaman Sea), the IPOI aims to be a cooperative venture to ensure the region’s security and stability.

Considering the Quad’s focus on soft security issues—including capacity building, maritime connectivity, blue economy, and maritime security—it can find significant synergy with the IPOI, building on New Delhi s proposition of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)21 in the Indo-Pacific. India’s inclusive vision under the IPOI is likely to involve the Quad nations; Japan and Australia have already agreed to be lead partners within the initiative.22 India also hosts an East Asia Maritime Security dialogue with Australia and Indonesia (the fourth of which was held in 2020). Such mechanisms can be brought under the IPOI’s larger umbrella, giving it a Quad or perhaps even a “Quad Plus” dimension.

In essence, the IPOI represents India’s first effort to institutionalize and formalize its Indo-Pacific outlook, complementing the Quad’s role in the Indo-Pacific. India’s leadership, alongside its Quad partners, indicates that the forum can provide an avenue for deeper regional engagement with other small and middle Asian powers. The countries in the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can, for instance, join as crucial partners here. Both the Quad and the IPOI critically emphasis ASEAN centrality in realizing their free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific objective. IPOI’s launch at the East Asia Summit only underscores its regard for ASEAN’s role in the region; its focus on inclusivity is in tandem with ASEAN’s own Indo-Pacific outlook.23 Furthermore, over the past year, the Quad has attempted to broaden its forum under a “Quad Plus” abstraction by including states like Vietnam, South Korea, New Zealand, Brazil, and Israel. The IPOI also looks to provide a broad forum that may be led by Quad states but comes as a collaborative venture with a far broader membership. The IPOI’s announcement closely followed the first ministerial-level meeting of the Quad states since its revival in 2017. From India’s perspective, the IPOI practically implements the Quad’s objectives and vision for the future.24

This focus on inclusivity that is so evident in the IPOI has slowly but firmly seeped into the diplo-speak of the Quad as well; for instance, each Quad state’s press release has used the term “inclusive” in reference to its Indo-Pacific vision. History can be an important indicator for the success of any framework within Asia. Lack of clarity—and regional inclusivity—has led to the failure of Asian security alliances like the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), established a year before NAM in 1954 by the US, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan.25 India’s non-participation in SEATO, as well as a more prominent presence of non-Southeast Asian states in the grouping, limited it to being a US-led loose consultative framework, which focused on curbing the rise of communism. Its failure can at least in part be attributed to its rather exclusive nature. New Delhi’s present Indo-Pacific vision therefore draws on such historical inferences and promotes inclusiveness as a means of building a resilient Indo-Pacific construct. Concurrently, India has been a part of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) since its creation in 2010, and has maintained a rather conciliatory presence within the forum. However, with the ADMM+ being a largely strategic dialogue-oriented forum, India sees the Quad as a platform for more concrete action that can practically realize its vision of a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific. India’s Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh, at the 14th ADMM+, highlighted its perception of a “pluralistic” and “cooperative” regional security order in the Indo-Pacific;26 the Quad forms a pillar of this.

India’s focus on a “pluralistic” order makes it wary of great power dominated politics.  Rather, it wishes to tackle Chinese assertiveness by improving its own standing and image in the region in an attempt to build its CNP.27 Importantly, New Delhi has tried to selectively challenge China by creating alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launching its own infrastructure ventures like Chahbahar, Duqm port, and initiatives like Bharatmala and Sagarmala, and having more constructive cooperative ventures with Japan domestically. India’s dedicated attempts at being a first-responder to disaster-management and disaster-relief humanitarian missions speaks to its willingness to step in, in order to build regional goodwill.28 Concurrently, India’s attempts at expanding its bilateral maritime-security cooperation and defense partnerships with island and littoral nations seek to create “inclusivity” and “security and growth for all in the region” in order to maintain its strategic autonomy without appearing to be swayed by great power politics that take away from a focus on its own national interests and security.

Between inclusivity and building CNP

India’s focus on “inclusivity” in the Indo-Pacific is not merely ideological or principle-based, but is derived from geo-strategic contours—primarily as a means of building up its CNP, a commonly acknowledged measure of the overall national power and ability of any state to achieve its strategic vision and objectives. It can broadly be understood in terms of the following elements: military, economics, diplomacy, technology, leadership, governance, information, geography, and human capital. The Quad has recently instituted three working groups to actualize practical cooperation: the Vaccine Experts group, the Climate working group, and the Critical and Emerging Technology working group.29 They represent the immediate focus of the Quad and show how India’s involvement with the grouping is a way to bolster its CNP.

India is increasingly interested in developing its capabilities in emerging critical technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, quantum tech, cloud computing, internet of things (IoT), space technology, and critical minerals—each a domain for the next phase of strategic competition, and as India looks to position itself as a major power, it must urgently become a competitive force in emerging tech and its civilian and military applications. Under the Quad’s working group, India has a platform to collaborate with and draw from states that already possess considerable expertise. Facilitating cooperation through private sectors and industries30 can boost not only India’s technological but also economic prowess, thereby helping it elevate its CNP. It will enable India to find a more influential role in setting global technology standards and principles for the development and use of such critical tech—thus boosting its global position. At the same time, this joint focus on critical tech offers an opportunity to enhance collaboration in military modernization. India’s emergence as a global power will necessarily be dependent on its military capabilities (alongside its central geo-strategic location and other CNP factors); yet, the creation of a modern military that is technologically adept remains a massive challenge for India’s defense establishment amidst procurement shortcomings and inadequate research and development support (amid other bureaucratic and policy challenges).31 The Quad’s tech and security focus, and overall political synergy, can help India gain critical support for its defense industry and acquisitions even as it develops indigenized defense production capabilities.

Similarly, the Quad’s vaccine partnership synchronizes with India’s own rather active (and arguably successful) vaccine diplomacy efforts.32 The Quad’s initiative leverages India’s vaccine manufacturing capabilities to strengthen “last-mile” vaccine delivery, bolstering India’s standing as a critical health-security and aid partner for small states in the Indo-Pacific while supporting national efforts. On climate, India’s inclusion in the Quad provides a stage to represent and voice the concerns of developing nations and therefore contribute to devising effective technological, policy, and capacity-building solutions for emissions reduction and climate mitigation.

India sees the Quad as a strategy for enhancing its CNP, consistent with its focus on “inclusivity,” for three main reasons. One, India does not want to offer an impression that China is not a part of the Indo-Pacific construct. Rather, its tone encourages China to be a part of a region that will be transparent, implement the rule of law, and imbibe the spirit of universalism, not unilateralism. To this end, India also visualizes the inclusion of Russia, while extending the canvass of Indo-Pacific to the east coast of Africa. More than 60% of global maritime trade passes through the Indo-Pacific, and in order to achieve its hopes of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2030-32,33 India needs to forge deeper economic partnerships, which can only be possible via an “open,” “free” and “inclusive” Indo-Pacific, which keeps open channels of communication with China and limits regional hostilities so as not to hinder trade and obstruct its economic rise.

Two, India wishes to tread a delicate balance between the plethora of stakeholders in the region such as the US, China, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and ASEAN. Inclusivity gives India a collaborative approach in dealing with all nations involved, ultimately building CNP, while highlighting that policies are not meant to isolate China. While the US and Japan tend to give more weight to “free” and “open,” India emphasizes the “inclusivity” element. For other Asian powers wary of Chinese aggression but economically dependent on Beijing for trade, this strikes a balance. India’s “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” with Japan, “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with countries like Australia and Indonesia, and “Special Strategic Partnership” with South Korea are examples of how it has built, via the prism of its “Act East” policy, a connected web of bilateral relations that are pivotal to its Indo-Pacific outlook while maintaining ties with China. Such bilateral synergy is also reflected in the pursuit of “multipolar Asia” by creating trilaterals increasingly vital to the future of the region. The US-Japan-India, Australia-Japan-India, Australia-France-India, Australia-India-Indonesia, and Russia-India-China trilaterals, cover wide geographic and ideological grounds, highlighting India’s inclusive repertoire for outreach in the region.

Three, at a time of increasing Chinese dominance, upholding the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and maritime boundaries is vital. For instance, Sagar furthers India’s aim of creating an Indo-Pacific that is open, rules-based, and inclusive.34 The vice-admiral of the Eastern Naval Command of India in 2019 asserted that the Indian Navy has a major role to play as a “security provider” in the Indo-Pacific.35 Sagar aims to further this by maintaining the SLOCs. But despite having a strong and growing navy, India does not possess enough influence or maritime power to secure the entire Indo-Pacific region alone; collaboration via inclusivity is hence vital. India wishes to make the Indo-Pacific an inclusive entity that is built on collaborative trade and maritime security ventures (such as the IPOI). Growing dedication to maritime exercises—like Malabar, Milan, Jimex, Ausindex—with various Indo-Pacific partner states has allowed a shift from a focus on “economic inclusivity” to “security inclusivity,” which is vital for India to maintain its own strategic autonomy, maritime advantages, and national security.

For India, “inclusivity” in the Indo-Pacific means the inclusion of the east coast of Africa, West Asia, and the Pacific Islands, increasing the number of nations involved.36 From a geopolitical perspective, inclusivity leads to a far larger grouping and hence provides more structural problems to solve as well as delays in making important decisions. Under Modi, India’s foreign policy has placed the Indo-Pacific at the center; and ASEAN centrality above all, as made clear during his Shangri-La address in 2018. Differences remain with key partner states; for instance, the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific is decidedly antagonistic towards China, which it considers to be a ‘threat bigger than terrorism’37 while India’s inclusive approach attempts a balancing arch that includes “all nations in this geography, as also others beyond who have a stake in it.”38

Situating China in India’s Quad Stratagem

Although India and its Quad partners have denied that the grouping is an anti-China effort, the Quad’s growing synergy has come in tandem with its constituent member’s declining ties with China. Beijing looms as a critical factor in the development of each of their Quad strategies. For India, the Quad has become a strategy to offset China’s growing clout and aggression in the Indo-Pacific while simultaneously rebuilding a bilateral relationship with Beijing after the Galwan Valley clash over a disputed border. With India-China ties not seeming to return to the pre-Galwan phase (at least in near future), India perceives China as a critical security challenge, not only at its northern borders but also within India’s surrounding waters, the maritime Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

As an emerging great power, China is aggressively pursuing its global ambitions through expansionist tactics to realize its territorial and maritime sovereignty claims in the Indo-Pacific as well as “wolf warrior” diplomacy.39 India’s perception of the Quad, and indeed its overall Indo-Pacific outlook, is drawn from a desire to protect its national assets and interests ahead of China’s encroachment in its neighborhood. In light of such stressed ties, contending interests in securing energy and water resources, maritime trading lanes, and a rules-based regional order have taken on a national security dimension. Both are led by nationalist, populist state heads; Modi and Xi Jinping, whose foreign policies clash sharply with each other.

The Quad serves as a format to enhance India’s power, offering it an avenue to strengthen its own capabilities and pool resources in response to shared challenges. It forms a part of India’s larger strategy to invest in regional connectivity infrastructure and emerge as a preeminent aid provider in the region so as to balance, if not counter, China’s growing clout and emerging expansionist tendencies; joining forces with Japan, Australia, and the US under this umbrella serves this purpose. New Delhi is highly concerned about China’s so-called maritime “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean, which entails establishing strategically situated ports and naval bases in the littorals of the Straits of Malacca, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Pakistan, and extending to islands in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.40 It is critical of China’s BRI, especially in strong opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which India believes is a direct threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty.41 To counter this, India has embarked on a strategy to create what is popularly called a “necklace of diamonds” in the region. Infrastructure projects and initiatives like the Bharatmala and Sagarmala fall under such a strategy.42 Strategic projects in the naval domain include the Chabahar Port in Iran, the Duqm port in Oman, Sabang port in Indonesia, the Assumption Island naval base in Seychelles, and the Changi naval base in Singapore, which allows India to refuel and rearm its vessels.

Notably, several of India’s infrastructure initiatives have been introduced as joint projects with Quad partners, such as with Japan, the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) and the Tokyo-New Delhi Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa. Japan and the broader Quad are key strategic and economic partners in India’s “necklace of diamonds” strategy. Geopolitical competition—or the contest between the “string of pearls” and “necklace of diamonds” approaches, though nascent—is quickly intensifying. India needs to bring its strategy to success and limit Chinese adventurism. The Quad can help India gain a concrete naval advantage, such as through logistical support, in the Indo-Pacific. Logistics agreements with the other states to improve interoperability while enhancing regional outreach, comes into play. India is also in talks for logistics pacts with Russia, the UK, and Vietnam.43

In collaboration with the Quad states, New Delhi can expand its outreach and provide much-needed connectivity infrastructure, developmental, and maritime security to states like Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Seychelles, and the Maldives. This could extend inland to Mongolia and states in Central Asia. In partnership with the Quad, India could focus on the connectivity element with quality infrastructure, which—as increasingly discussed in a post-covid-19 era—is lacking in the BRI. Quality infrastructure has been an important part of the QLS, reflected in their joint statement, as one of the most urgent global challenges” which require greater investments. The US, Japan, and Australia have already been focusing on the multi-stakeholder initiative of the Blue Dot Network, offering an alternate platform on quality and sustainable infrastructure along with creating strategic awareness of the unilateral, opaque, and “colonialist aspects of the BRI.”44 India’s prospective inclusion in the BDN would be a geo-strategic necessity that could pave the way for quality infrastructure promotion in Asia, as well as enhance India’s image as a proponent of a sustainable Indo-Pacific. Undertaking quality infrastructure initiatives with the partnership of Quad countries, and even expanding the collaboration towards smaller states, could enable the building of a secure and resilient Indo-Pacific devoid of unsustainable policies and developments.

The Quad is not merely a strategic dialogue with like-minded states but a pathway for India to bolster its naval power base vis-a-vis China. It follows in the tradition of India s dedicated attempts to provide humanitarian relief and disaster management support to its neighbors so as to build goodwill and influence in its neighborhood.45 New Delhi s efforts to enhance its maritime security collaborations bilaterally with littoral states in the Indian Ocean, under Sagar and a desire for a multipolar and inclusive regional order, draw on similar motivations.46

Therefore, to a great extent, India’s increasing interest and strategic investment in the Quad process draws on its power dynamics with China. The Galwan Valley stand-off and Chinese incursions on India’s northern border only highlighted the threat that India could potentially face. China’s aggressive tactics pose a serious threat to a rules-based regional and global order based on liberal, democratic values of freedom and inclusivity. They prompted India to reimagine its foreign policy approach in response to the demands of the time and be more open to coalitions of like-minded states coming together for collective benefit. Its acquiescence to the Quad’s elevation to the head of the state-level meet under the QLS served as a clear sign of the Modi administration’s shifting stance on coalitions under a strategy which calls for deeper alignment under focused and pointed goals linked to security, economy, and defense.47

The Quad: A “pointed alignment” strategy

The Quad framework has emerged as a prominent aspect of India’s foreign policy—not as a means to directly contain China, but as a pathway to building the country’s CNP, revitalize its regional and global image, and position it as a leading democratic power. Therefore, the Quad is India’s effort to promote inclusivity in the face of an intensifying US-China great power rivalry and to strike a balance between the two global powers.48 Further, the Quad follows from India’s newly growing security-focused partnerships with the Quad states bilaterally.

The India-Japan Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA),49 India-US Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA),50 and upgraded India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership51 are representative of bilateral synergy, showing how India’s new foreign policy is engaged in a “pointed alignment” strategy with a set of specific partners. The Quad is an important extension of such dynamics and a platform to engage in practical, action-oriented cooperation. The US-Japan-India (and now) Australia MALABAR exercises is an example of such cooperation. Yet the Quad nations remain divided over several critical issues, most prominently their approaches and policies towards China. However, the strategic dialogue’s importance is due to this very reason—it offers a stage for the democratic states to engage in softer (or non-traditional) security issues while continuing high-level quadrilateral discussions to ratify such divisions. Ultimately, the Quad can form a more traditional, broad, and inclusive security-centric grouping as an effective upholder of the regional rules-based order.

The Quad—especially post the QLS—has marked its politicization in what India views as an increasingly multipolar world.52 It can provide a leadership venue, especially for smaller Indo-Pacific littoral states which are embroiled in US-China trade tensions. However, it will be crucial for Japan, India, and Australia to ensure that the QLS does not become a gateway for US hegemony in Asia; rather, the US must emerge as a vital stakeholder and partner state in the map of the Asian democracies to design the future of the region and the broader Indo-Pacific. India’s participation—alongside China—in multilateral frameworks like Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), ASEAN, East Asia Summit (EAS) as well as the SCO highlight that New Delhi is keen on assuming a regional—if not global—leadership role following patterns of inclusivity. However, the lack of a charter or set of rules that govern the Quad—and the “Quad Plus”—makes the grouping’s long-term sustainability extremely abstract. Hence, Quad countries must look towards its institutionalization as a security-focused strategic dialogue governed by a set of rules and norms, which accommodate India’s inclusive approach as it is strengthening.


The Quad has come to occupy a central place in India’s Indo-Pacific outlook, which in turn has become a prominent part of the country’s new-look foreign policy. For India, the Quad is both a strategic dialogue and a means for it to elevate its own position on the global stage. While China is by no means the only factor influencing India’s Quad outlook, it is an important one, preserving New Delhi’s standing ahead of a revisionist China. New Delhi sees the grouping as a way to bolster its security ties with key, like-minded regional partners vis-a-vis the growing aggression it faces from China. Yet, the Quad is not a militaristic venture for India but a regional security one. It is a platform for dialogue and practical cooperation spanning several fields such as climate change, disaster response, combatting disinformation, vaccine distribution, and emerging technologies; maritime security is merely one, albeit important, domain. It comes as a statement of India’s international outlook and its growing agency in global politics. It is meant to position India as a key global and regional player and a new guardian to the emergence of an inclusive, rules-based order.

1. “Passing the Baton 2021: Securing America’s Future Together,” United States Institute of Peace, January 29, 2021, https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Passing-the-Baton-2021-Transcript-FINAL.pdf (Accessed April 21, 2021)

2. Ibid.

3. Ministry of External Affairs, “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: “The Spirit of the Quad,” Government of India, March 12, 2021, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/33620/Quad_Leaders_Joint_Statement_The_Spirit_of_the_Quad.

4. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on September 29, 2020,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, September 29, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1820149.shtml (Accessed April 21, 2021)

5. “US dreams of Asian NATO,” China Daily, July 18, 2003, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2003-07/18/content_246008.htm (Accessed April 21, 2021)

6. “State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi Chairs Quadrilateral Video Conference on COVID-19,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 27, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1801662.shtml (Accessed April 21, 2021)

7. Jagannath Panda, “The Trans-Himalayan ‘Quad,’ Beijing’s Territorialism, and India,” The Jamestown Foundation, November 12, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/the-trans-himalayan-quad-beijings-territorialism-and-india/ (Accessed April 21, 2021)

8. Derek Grossman, “India is the Weakest Link in the Quad,” Foreign Policy, July 23, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/23/india-is-the-weakest-link-in-the-quad/.

9. “Question No. 1168 Role of India in Non-Aligned Movement,” Ministry of External Affairs, November 28, 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/rajya-sabha.htm?dtl/32119/QUESTION+NO1168+ROLE+OF+INDIA+IN+NONALIGNED+MOVEMENT (Accessed April 21, 2021)

10. Abigail Ng, “The U.S. and China could slip into a ‘new cold war’ that pushes countries to pick sides,” CNBC, September 20, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/01/us-china-may-slip-into-a-cold-war-pushing-nations-to-pick-sides.html (Accessed April 21, 2021)

11. C. Raja Moham, “India: Between ‘Strategic Autonomy’ and ‘Geopolitical Opportunity,” Asia Policy, No. 15, 2013, www.jstor.org/stable/24905202 (Accessed April 21, 2021)

12. Jagannath Panda, “The Elusive Quest for an ‘Asian NATO,’” Strategic Analysis, December 31, 2020, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/09700161.2020.1867365?scroll=top&needAccess=true (Accessed April 21, 2021)

13. Zhang Yu, “Xi defines new Asian security vision at CICA,” Global Times, April 22, 2014, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/861573.shtml

14. “India-China conclude 10th round of military talks, focus on disengagement at friction points in Ladakh,” Zee News, February 20, 2020, https://zeenews.india.com/india/india-china-conclude-10th-round-of-military-talks-focus-on-disengagement-at-friction-points-in-ladakh-2343258.html (Accessed April 21, 2021)

15. China pips US to emerge as India’s biggest trade partner in 2020 despite border conflicts,” Business Today, February 23, 2021, https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/china-pips-us-emerge-india-biggest-trade-partner-2020-despite-border-conflicts/story/432057.html.

16. “India’s concept of Indo-Pacific is inclusive and across oceans,” Ministry of External Affairs, November 8, 2019, https://mea.gov.in/articles-in-indian-media.htm?dtl/32015/Indias_concept_of_IndoPacific_is_inclusive_and_across_oceans

17. Nayanima Basu, “Quad is not ‘Asian NATO,’ India never had ‘NATO mentality,’ Jaishankar says,” The Print, April 14, 2021, https://theprint.in/diplomacy/quad-is-not-asian-nato-india-never-had-nato-mentality-jaishankar-says/639924/.

18. “PM Modi proposes Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative,” The Economic Times, November 5, 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/pm-modi-proposes-indo-pacific-oceans-initiative/articleshow/71915838.cms

19. Ministry of External Affairs, “Indo-Pacific Division Briefs,” Government of India, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Indo_Feb_07_2020.pdf (accessed April 23, 2021); “PM Modi proposes new initiative to secure maritime domain in Indo-Pacific,” The Times of India, November 4, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/pm-modi-proposes-new-initiative-to-secure-maritime-domain-in-indo-pacific/articleshow/71910705.cms

20. Udayan Das, “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative: Ideational Continuity with Challenges Ahead,” Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, December 8, 2019, www.kiips.in/research/indo-pacific-oceans-initiative-ideational-continuity-with-challenges-ahead/

21. “SAGAR stands for Security And Growth for All in the Region: PM Modi at International Fleet Review in Vishakhapatnam,” Narendra Modi, November 7, 2016, https://www.narendramodi.in/pm-modi-at-the-international-fleet-review-2016-in-visakhapatnam-andhra-pradesh-413019

22. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Between The Republic of India and the Government of Australia,” Government of Australia, June 4, 2020, https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/india/Pages/joint-declaration-shared-vision-maritime-cooperation-indo-pacific-between-republic-india-and-government-australia; PTI, “India, Japan Sign Pact For Cooperation In 5G Tech, AI And Critical Information Infra,” Outlook, October 7, 2020, https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-india-japan-sign-pact-for-cooperation-in-5g-tech-ai-and-critical-information-infra/361706.

23. “ASEAN OUTLOOK ON THE INDO-PACIFIC,” ASEAN, https://asean.org/storage/2019/06/ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific_FINAL_22062019.pdf

24. Surya Gangadharan, “Modi’s ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’: India Reaches Out To Stakeholders,” Strategic News International, November 19, 2019, https://sniwire.com/2019/11/19/modis-indo-pacific-oceans-initiative-india-reaches-out-to-stakeholders/

25. “Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), 1954,” Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/seato

26. Ministry of Defence, “Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh addresses ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus online,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, December 10, 2020, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1679635.

27. Rahul Roy-Chaudhary, “India’s ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific policy seeks to balance relations with the US and China,” IISS, July 6, 2018, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2018/07/india-inclusive-indo-pacific-policy-china-relations

28. Kate Sullivan and Rahul Roy-Chaudhary,”India, the Indo-Pacific and the Quad,” Taylor and Francis Online, June 1, 2018, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00396338.2018.1470773

29. “Fact Sheet: Quad Summit,” Statements and Releases, White House, March 12, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/12/fact-sheet-quad-summit/.

30. Ibid.

31. See Rajesh Basrur, Ajaya Kumar Das and Manjeet Singh Pardesi, India’s Military Modernisation: Challenges and Prospects (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014), DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198092384.001.0001.

32. Shashi Tharoor, “India’s Smart Vaccine Diplomacy,” Project Syndicate, March 11, 2021, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/india-covid19-vaccine-diplomacy-by-shashi-tharoor-2021-03?barrier=accesspaylog.

33. “Pandemic pushes back India s $5-trillion GDP goal by 3 years to FY32: Report,” The Economic Times, March 22, 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/pandemic-pushes-back-indias-5-trillion-gdp-goal-by-3-years-to-fy32-report/articleshow/81635370.cms.

34. “SAGAR stands for Security And Growth for All in the Region.”

35. “Navy has role as security provider in Indian Ocean region: ENC chief,” The Times of India, January 26, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/navy-has-role-as-security-provider-in-indian-ocean-region-enc-chief/articleshow/67704138.cms

36. Nazia Hussain and Tan Ming Hui, “The Indo-Pacific: Clarity, Inclusivity and ASEAN Centrality,” Asia Dialogue, August 21, 2018, https://theasiadialogue.com/2018/08/21/the-indo-pacific-clarity-inclusivity-and-asean-centrality/

37. “China and Russia are bigger threats to the US than terrorism, claims Department of Defense,” South China Morning Post, January 20, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2129774/china-and-russia-are-bigger-threats-us-terrorism-claims

38. “Prime Minister’s Keynote Address at Shangri La Dialogue (June 01, 2018),” Ministry of External Affairs, June 8, 2018, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/29943/Prime+Ministers+Keynote+Address+at+Shangri+La+Dialogue+June+01+2018

39. See Christopher W. Bishop, “To Understand China’s Aggressive Foreign Policy, Look at Its Domestic Politics,” Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, October 8, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/blog/understand-chinas-aggressive-foreign-policy-look-its-domestic-politics; Rachel Cheung, “Why China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ Won’t Back Down,” World Politics Review, April 7, 2021, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/29554/china-s-wolf-warrior-diplomacy-is-here-to-stay.

40. Chris Devonshire-Ellis, “China’s String of Pearls Strategy,” China Briefing, March 18, 2009, https://www.china-briefing.com/news/china’s-string-of-pearls-strategy/.

41. India’s position is laid out in a reply by the Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs to a question raised in India’s Lok Sabha. V. Muraleedharan, “Question No. 606 BRI and CPEC,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, February 5, 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/lok-sabha.htm?dtl/32353/QUESTION+NO606+BRI+AND+CPEC. Also see Darshana M. Baruah, “India’s Answer to the Belt and Road: A Road Map for South Asia,” Working Paper, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/WP_Darshana_Baruah_Belt_Road_FINAL.pdf.

42. On India’s infrastructure outreach in the Indo-Pacific, see Jagannath Panda, “India’s Connectivity Contours and Indo-Pacific Initiatives,” Conference Paper, US Naval War College and East Asia Security Centre Conference, October 2020, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwj3mcj585bwAhVYWH0KHflWAeAQFjAJegQIBBAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Feasc.scholasticahq.com%2Farticle%2F17803.pdf&usg=AOvVaw0mlrV_KqOebwnWA8lZdrcu.

43. Dinakar Pieri, India in talks for logistics pacts with Russia, U.K. and Vietnam,” The Hindu, September 12, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-in-talks-for-logistics-pacts-with-russia-uk-and-vietnam/article32588282.ece.

44. Jagannath Panda, “India, the Blue Dot Network, and the Quad Calculus,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Fall 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Jul/22/2002460890/-1/-1/1/PANDA.PDF.

45. Kate Sullivan and Rahul Roy-Chaudhary, “India, the Indo-Pacific and the Quad.”

46. Ibid.

47. Jagannath Panda, “A Moving Partnership of Consequential Democracies,” Japan Forward, September 28, 2020, https://japan-forward.com/asias-next-page-a-moving-partnership-of-consequential-democracies/.

48. Rahul Roy-Chaudhary, “India’s ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific policy seeks to balance relations with the US and China,” IISS, July 6, 2018, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2018/07/india-inclusive-indo-pacific-policy-china-relations

49. “India, Japan sign key pact for reciprocal provision of supplies, services between defence forces,” Hindustan Times, September 10, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/japan-s-pm-shinzo-abe-speaks-on-phone-with-narendra-modi-lists-elevation-of-global-partnership-between-the-two-countries-as-a-key-achievement/story-dgAYdfesU7Vtz2Miua6z7M.html

50. “Documents announced during the 3rd India—US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue,” Ministry of External Affairs, October 27, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/33143/Documents+announced+during+the+3rd+India++US+2432+Ministerial+Dialogue

51. “Joint Statement on a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Republic of India and Australia,” Ministry of External Affairs, June 4, 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32729/Joint_Statement_on_a_Comprehensive_Strategic_Partnership_between_Republic_of_India_and_Australia

52. “World increasingly becoming multipolar, says Jaishankar, India Today, October 2, 2019, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/s-jaishankar-multipolar-us-1605373-2019-10-02

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