Response to Rory Medcalf’s “Balancing Act” Image Credit: Getty Images

Response to Rory Medcalf’s “Balancing Act”

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.


Rory Medcalf has long championed an enhanced security role for India in the geographical space, encapsulated by the concept of the Indo-Pacific. He is also an ardent advocate of a closer partnership between Australia and India. His understanding of the security dynamics of this region is second to none.

Medcalf’s article on the Quad captures the origins, purpose and limitations of this security grouping very well. He sees strong merit in the alignment of security interests of the four countries that make up the Quad: Australia, Japan, India and the United States. He also does not hide the fact that the Quad has become a subset of the China policy of all four of these countries. I agree with his contention that the Quad is not the only solution to Australia’s challenge of charting a strategic course through the troubled waters of the Indo-Pacific; that would indeed require a multi-layered approach, including building up Australia’s own defence capabilities.

My purpose here is not to find fault with Medcalf’s reasoning or to disagree with him on the functions and limitations of the Quad. Instead, I want to focus on why India has taken so long to feel comfortable sitting down with the other three to discuss security and, importantly, the challenges that China’s increasing power and ambition present to the regional security order.

Firstly, the new minilateral form of security cooperation that the Quad embodies suits India better than bilateral or multilateral alliances involving formal security obligations. It is more in line with India’s desire to maintain strategic autonomy and its newfound preference for multi-alignment. As Medcalf rightly points out, “India will not easily shake off its long allergy to alliance entanglements”, but it is now more open to security cooperation with other nations, both big and small, than it has been since independence in 1947.

India has come a long way from the era of non-alignment and suspicion of the West. To be sure, there are still plenty of retired diplomats and intellectuals in New Delhi who warn against the dangers of growing security cooperation with the United States. But these days they are more likely to be found writing their own blogs or debating world affairs in club dining rooms than in the corridors of power.

Secondly, India is gradually shedding its fear of China and actively seeking to balance Chinese power, especially in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. While India remains cognisant of China’s sensibilities, it is not willing to allow China a veto over its relations with other countries. Ironically, China’s aggressive moves on the Line of Actual Control, the undefined border between the two Asian giants, over the past few years have freed India from any inhibitions it may have had about offending China.

Finally, India is catching up to China in border infrastructure. Long held back from building roads and bridges along its border with China by the fear that better road connectivity might work against it in the event of war, India has been building border infrastructure at a furious rate over the past decade or more. This has given it confidence, along with the deterrent capabilities it has developed, to seek security partnerships with like-minded countries without fearing reprisals from its more powerful neighbour.

Medcalf raises the question of how the Quad and other new blocs would engage with Beijing and the institutions initiated by China. India’s experience can be useful here. It is a member of the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), as well as the Brazil–Russia–India–China–South Africa (BRICS) grouping. In other words, India’s participation in the Quad has not stopped it from participating in other minilaterals with China. So far it has been able to walk on both sides of the street.

Some Indian scholars, such as Rajesh Rajagopalan, have questioned the viability and sustainability of India’s parallel participation in the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad, both of which China regards as part of US efforts to contain its rise, and fora like the SCO, where China is the dominant influence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known, for example, to attend back-to-back trilateral meetings with the leaders of the United States and Japan on the one hand, and the presidents of Russia and China on the other, on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Of course, India is not the only country trying to juggle its participation in China-led fora with its involvement in United States–led security dialogues. But India is the largest such power that is trying to devise complicated sets of policies to deal with China’s rise. India’s decision to invite Australia to the 2020 Malabar exercise, which also includes the United States and Japan, indicates its determination to remain a key member of the Quad while maintaining its foreign policy autonomy.

Pradeep Taneja is a senior lecturer in Asian politics and a fellow of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne.

Read Rory Medcalf’s response here.  

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This is correspondence to Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.