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[Hwang’s China and the World] India is not the weakest link in the Quad

Dhruva Jaishankar, executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America and non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia
Dhruva Jaishankar, executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America and non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia

India is expected to grow to have the world’s greatest population, overtaking China. Its economy also has a huge role in the United States’ Silicon Valley, as India produces numerous advanced IT human resources. And its low-key but powerful influence can also bee see in Indian diplomacy. India’s biggest antagonist is China. The Indo-China border dispute is appalling. In 2018, there was a military confrontation for more than 70 days in the Doklam region of the Himalayas, in which both countries had casualties, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon flew to China and had tea and a boat ride with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Donghu in Wuhan, Hubei Province.

How should we understand India’s diplomatic thinking and actions? What is India’s idea of crossing from Ukraine, Russia, China and the Indo-Pacific to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue? To find the answers, this week’s interview invites Dhruva Jaishankar. He is an executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America (ORF America), and is also a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia.

Hwang: India abstained from voting on United Nations sanctions against Russia on the Ukraine war. What could be the reason?

Jaishankar: India has several reasons for preserving a positive relationship with Russia, which largely explains its position on the Russia-Ukraine war. Most importantly, Russia is the largest foreign supplier of defense equipment for the Indian armed forces. Since 2020, India has faced a very large deployment by China on its disputed boundary and its military has been in a state of high readiness since. Russian cooperation is still required for spares and maintenance of existing equipment, including India’s front-line combat aircraft. Russia also provides India with nuclear-propelled submarines on lease and has helped India in the development of its indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine program. Beyond military considerations, India is very resource dependent, including for energy, fertilizers, food, and critical minerals. Russia has not always been a preferred source for India in these areas, but cutting it off economically through sanctions has tremendous consequences for the global market, and India is particularly vulnerable to volatile price fluctuations and scarcity. Just as Europe has exempted energy and fertilizers from some sanctions, India has been reluctant to sanction Russia on these grounds, even if over the longer term it is unlikely to be a major direct beneficiary. India-Russia trade has been pretty modest, at about $10 billion-$12 billion per year, and may only rise temporarily this year due to diverted energy flows. A third consideration is that there is some sympathy for Russia’s great power ambitions: India would feel very uncomfortable if another major power – even a friendly one – were to exercise influence in its vicinity.

Hwang: Do you think India had some sympathy for the background and policies of Russia’s Ukraine war?

Jaishankar: That said, India’s position should not be misread as an endorsement of Russia’s actions. India has called for an immediate end to violence, respect for territoriality and sovereignty, and an independent investigation into alleged war crimes in places like Bucha. Over the longer term, there is a broad assessment in New Delhi that Russia will be diminished by its actions, even it if does make some gains in the Donbas. In fact, since Feb. 24, India has stepped up its engagement with the US, the European Union, and US partners in the Indo-Pacific. This includes through the Quad, the establishment of an EU-India Trade and Technology Council, and the completion of an interim free trade agreement with Australia. Meanwhile, with Russia, there are deep concerns over Russia’s ability to deliver existing military sales, due to supply chain disruptions (Russian hardware was reliant for example on semiconductors from Europe), risks of secondary sanctions, and attrition due to the ongoing war. Therefore, while voting at the UN, India’s short-term considerations had to be balanced against long-term consequences.

Hwang: In NATO’s new strategic concept, China was described as a potential threat. What do you think its meaning was?

Jaishankar: I previously worked in the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, and part of the purpose was to engage with European policymakers on strategic issues in Asia, chief among them being China’s rise. Over the past decade and more, I’ve sensed that there is a growing recognition in Europe that China’s rise is not just a commercial opportunity, but also brings with it certain political and sometimes security challenges. Efforts at dividing the EU through the “16+1” format is just one case in point, as well as opaque Chinese investments in central and eastern Europe, and cyberactivity. For Britain, the national security law in Hong Kong, which London saw as a violation of treaty commitments, was a turning point. For France, there is greater concern about Chinese aggression – beginning with assertive and militarized fishing activity – around French territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Some of these changes are reflected in the NATO strategic concept.

Hwang: Not all countries share this perception equally.

Jaishankar: Yes. The countries of southern Europe, such as Spain and Italy, generally do not see China as much of a major challenge. Nor does Hungary. Others have shifted their positions, Lithuania and the Czech Republic most dramatically, and more recently even Poland due to China’s support for Russia. The biggest question mark surrounds Germany, given its weight as a leader in Europe. While the German government has made some signals indicating a shift, they have not always been followed by actions and policies that might jeopardize the commercial relationship with China. That would be the space to watch.

Hwang: Do you see if India will correspond to NATO’s eastward policy?

Jaishankar: India has not had a productive relationship with NATO, although it does have positive relations and burgeoning partnerships with almost all NATO members, barring perhaps Turkey. In my personal view, this has been short-sighted on India’s part: Even if there were disagreements, as on Russia, it would have been worth engaging with NATO on areas of common concern. For example, NATO and India both had counterpiracy missions in the western Indian Ocean, both had direct stakes and interests in Afghanistan, and both have concerns about international cyberactivity. The outlines of a common agenda are readily apparent, and different assessments, as over Russia, could yet be shared and discussed. Indeed, it’s ironic that China and Russia have more institutional engagement with NATO – such as through the NATO Defense College in Rome or through policy planning dialogues -- than does a democracy such as India.

That said, I think New Delhi largely welcomes the growing concern about China in Europe, even if it is reflected through NATO. This opens up room for greater partnership with India, whether on defense and strategic technologies, or in terms of investment and commercial activity. At the same time, there is a firm realization that NATO -- as an organization -- will have as its primarily mission the defense of Europe and perceive Russia as the primary challenge to European security. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given NATO a renewed purpose, and its ability to address China, especially outside the European theater, will be limited by resources.

Hwang: Between the Quad and the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), where does India belong? Is India still pursuing non-aligned diplomacy?

Jaishankar: Strangely enough, the term non-alignment is no longer in favor in India, at least under the current government. In fact, it is more commonly used by outsiders now, because of its association with past Indian political dispensations. I do not think BRICS and the Quad are remotely similar or equivalent. BRICS once served a specific purpose, which was after the global financial crisis, to advocate for new international institutions in which developing countries were better represented. Arguably, BRICS has outlived that purpose, and even Beijing and Moscow see less utility in it, outside of a venue for political grandstanding. Xi Jinping barely mentioned BRICS in his second inaugural speech as Party General Secretary, whereas it was repeatedly invoked in his first speech. So BRICS is the past.

The Quad, on the other hand, represents the future. India has much broader interests with Quad partners, from trade and technology to security and people-to-people links. There is also greater convergence in addressing India’s overarching objective, which is responding to China’s rise and assertiveness. So despite India continuing to remain a member of both coalitions, I sense the Quad growing in importance and BRICS diminishing. All of that can only be turned around if China were to adopt a very different approach to India, but that does not seem likely. That is not specific to India, but the self-perception of Chinese leadership under the Communist Party of China, and especially under Xi Jinping.

Hwang: India is recognized as the weakest link in the Quad. What is your view on this?

Jaishankar: I don’t think that is a fair characterization, and is mostly a reflection of outmoded thinking by those out of government in the US, Japan, and Australia, and amplified by those in India who have deep reservations about India getting close to the United States. Even today, many in India’s strategic establishment are deeply uncomfortable with a closer partnership with the US, both on the political left and right, and use many nonsensical arguments to try to undermine or diminish that partnership. One example is many using Aukus -- a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom -- to argue that the Quad is meaningless, when in fact a long-term defense technological partnership between the United States and Australia actually strengthens the Quad.

Hwang: It is true that India is an outlier in that it is not a treaty ally of the US, unlike Japan and Australia.

Jaishankar: Tokyo and Canberra have over seven decades of working with the US military, and India does not. But this is a very specific yardstick and some habits of cooperation are forming much faster than observers realize. Already, India participates in military exercises with the United States at a frequency and degree of sophistication that few non-allies do. And India now has agreements on classified information, logistics, and maritime domain awareness with Japan and Australia, as well as regular ground, air and naval exercises with both. Still, we may never get to the stage where India has joint basing, joint commands, or mutual defense treaties with any of the other Quad countries, and for that reason the comparisons with NATO are misleading and incorrect.

In terms of Quad participation today, India is actually leading several Quad working groups. These working groups now span a very large array of topics, from infrastructure and health to cybersecurity and humanitarian assistance. And more importantly, in each of these areas, the four countries have concrete projects working toward real outcomes. I would also add that for all the reservations about India’s continued participation, New Delhi harbors similar concerns that future governments in the US, Japan and Australia may not share the enthusiasm of, say, Joe Biden, Shinzo Abe, or Scott Morrison for the Quad partnership.

Hwang: South Korea is considering joining a Quad working group. What should the cooperation be like?

Jaishankar: There is much that the Quad can do with other partners, especially South Korea. But it’s unclear whether formal membership is the way forward, or even what that looks like, given that the group is informal and not treaty-based. There are still concerns that South Korea’s inclusion will slow down progress given differences with Japan. Rebuilding that trust between Seoul and Tokyo is key. A second concern is South Korea’s ability and willingness to play an “out of area” role. Could we see the South Korean military playing a more proactive role, in alignment with partners, in the western Indian Ocean or in the South Pacific? I do not know, but such demonstrations would reinforce to the other Quad countries the value of strategic engagement with Seoul.

Hwang: How do you evaluate the conservative South Korean government’s value diplomacy?

Jaishankar: Overall, a more activist South Korea on the international stage ought to be welcomed. It is an example of a successful democracy, with globally competitive businesses and industry, that has transformed as a society from a developing to a highly-developed economy. Its success stands in stark contrast to North Korea. Successive generations of leaders in Seoul have pursued policies on trade, industry, agriculture, and social welfare that people in India would benefit from learning more about. But my superficial sense is that much more needs to be done for South Korea to project its power globally. That would require a better sense of security challenges in the broader Indo-Pacific and perhaps less of a focus on Korean Peninsula-specific issues.

Hwang: How important is economic security considered in India’s national security?

Jaishankar: Economic security is a very high priority, and arguably always has been, given the number of Indians who have lived below the poverty line, often in precarious conditions. As mentioned, this partly informed India’s approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The challenge is that the terms and opportunities are shifting, sometimes quite rapidly. Today, securing energy and other resources is imperative, given that India is poor in natural resources. Access to labor markets is another consideration, although India often faces an uphill challenge given anti-immigration sentiments in many other countries. Finally, India has to shift from a world in which knowledge and technology were scarce and hard to access, to policies that enable the rapid absorption of readily available knowledge and technology. China has done this quite adeptly, but in India this is still a fitful exercise. Complex domestic politics make this an even more daunting challenge.

Hwang: How do you view South Korea’s dilemma between the US and China? Do you think it is inevitable, or is it perhaps a self-inflicted consequence?

Jaishankar: I’m not in a position to judge South Korea’s dilemma, but do try to appreciate the complexities of its relationship with China, both from a commercial perspective, but also Beijing’s necessity for engagement with Pyongyang. That said, it’s my view that we have already entered into a period of sustained, overarching great power competition between the US and China, akin to the Cold War, but with many important differences as well. The challenge is that today, economic and security issues cannot be kept distinct from each other. The future drivers of economic growth will involve a number of technologies -- from automation and artificial intelligence to quantum computing and new materials -- that have enormous national security implications and dual use applications. 5G is just the canary in the coal mine.

In this context, some difficult choices will have to be made by all countries – including the US and China, and of course India and South Korea. To what extent do you prioritize national security, industrial security, and national competitiveness over short-term commercial considerations and market access issues? In this respect, we have had three shocks: the US-China trade war, the coronavirus pandemic, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All three have reinforced the views among national planners in many countries that a world of partial decoupling is inevitable. What remains an open question is how and when that decoupling will take place and to what degree. To this, there are no ready answers, and we are still in a period of experimentation and exploration.

Hwang: Previously, India and South Asia were in the spotlight of South Korean diplomacy following the South Korean government’s New Southern Policy. How do you expect South Korea-India relations to develop during the Yoon administration?

Jaishankar: I think the Moon administration’s New Southern Policy was well-intentioned, but the focus was more on Southeast Asia and less on India. There were also concerns that it was not accompanied by progressive policies, and that trade-offs were not always made. I would hope that the Yoon administration can pursue a similar approach with more resolve. One little-known but quite significant achievement has been the growth -- albeit from a low base -- in India-South Korea defense relations. Today there are successful examples of joint production of defense articles, and Seoul is emerging as an important partner in India’s defense industrial ecosystem. Still, much more can be done, particularly in areas of high technology such as semiconductors, where South Korea is a global leader. Some of that will require India to become more competitive and attractive as a partner and investment destination.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan. – Ed.

By Choi He-suk (
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