Some ideas never quite die. They may go away, but they lie in the subsoil and await their turn to germinate once again and rise up – till they are cut down again. The so-called ‘Quad idea’ is one such paradigm – when the Indian foreign policy establishment flirted dangerously in the middle of the last decade with the quixotic idea of joining a quadrilateral alliance with United States, Japan and Australia. Any number of pretexts were ingenuously plucked from thin air to intellectualize the power play but at its core lay an obsessive desire to deal with the rise of China instead of coming to terms with it.
The result was that the incipient signs of the promise of a forward movement in Sino-Indian normalization that surfaced during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Delhi (April, 2005) suffered a setback – even sudden death. Chinese attitudes ‘hardened’ on many fronts. Most probably, the ‘hard liners’ in the Indian establishment – our ‘neocons’ – hoped for precisely such a happy outcome. Quite obviously, a hardline Indian lobby was doing everything it could to scuttle the outcome of the Wen visit. By a curious coincidence, shortly after Wen’s visit, US also began pampering the Indian hubris and held out the initiative on the nuclear deal.
The Quad idea was born in that climate. Subsequent personnel changes in the Indian establishment helped correct the aberration of our flirtation with the ‘Quad idea’ and likely rescued our Asia-Pacific policies, and the normalisation with China was resumed but what really rescued the Indian strategic thinking and prompted a course correction was the change of government in Japan – precisely put, the departure of the ‘hardline’ Japanese PM Shinzo Abe (who, unsurprisingly, was a darling of the Indian neocons).
However, Sino-Indian normalisation never quite regained the verve that Wen’s 2005 visit held out, although it kept moving forward in fits and starts. A climate of trust in a difficult relationship heavily laden with pain and bloodshed, once disturbed is indeed hard to regain. Isn’t that how with all complex relationships? China would have kept wondering what happened to the Quad idea. The seed must be lying somewhere, after all, when the offshoots – US-India nuclear deal and military ties – began growing so visibly and sturdily. In the Chinese concept of time and space, they probably knew that such robust seeds as the Quad idea could hibernate for long periods of time.
China had a point. The change of guards in Canberra after Kevin Rudd’s departure has brought about a sea change in the Australian posturing toward China. Australian strategic posturing has “hardened” lately. Following the visit by the Australian PM Julia Gillard to Washington recently, there is talk of US establishing air and naval bases on the western seaboards of Australia in the approaches to the Malacca Straits. Countries that have begun closer links with China in the Indian Ocean region and may provide Beijing with vital communication links that reduce its dependence on Malacca Straits – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar – are figuring more prominently on the American radar. In particular, US is arm-twisting Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – ostensibly for their “democracy deficit”!
Meanwhile, India also kept in mind that the Quad seed is lying somewhere. Many Indian pundits were inclined to see things in this vein when they took note of the hype given by Delhi to the visit by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as the honored guest on India’s Republic Day on January 26.
But Indonesians are a very sophisticated people, highly cultured and unfailingly polite. In retrospect, it is clear that the Indian mind probably took a flight of fancy by overestimating the thought-processes in the eclectic Indonesian mind. Put plainly, Indonesia has a far more subtle understanding of China’s rise than the Indian policy maker who imagined he knew Indonesia well enough, probably possessed. A mismatch of expectations seems to have followed. I just saw a fascinating analysis of the complexities of the power play involved in the India-Indonesia tango. Strangely, it is attributed to an Indian thinker, Sourabh Gupta. [Why is it that Indians seem to think with great clarity and originality when they live and work abroad. Probably, they are not under compulsion/inducement to toe establishment thinking?]
Anyway, Gupta says the real opportunity for India to think posiitively lies in inviting Indonesia to join the BRIC rather than to try to make it a hollow brick in a neo-Quad edifice overlooking China’s towers.
– March 21, 2011