The flux in the world order has picked up further momentum following Donald Trump’s surprise tenancy of the White House. The leader of the free world seems in a hurry to withdraw from the world, looking inwards in the mistaken belief that it would help ‘make America great again’. That it would do nothing of the sort he is unlikely to appreciate given his tendency to settle for simplistic solutions for very, very complex problems. But a diminishing role and influence of the American military and economic power in the world would certainly encourage an aggressive and increasingly interventionist China to fill in the resulting vacuum.
Already, an economically and militarily strong China is beginning to menace its neighours and staking questionable claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The Chinese have contemptuously refused to heed the verdict of the Hague Tribunal in favour of the complainant, the Philippines. China refused to recognize the sovereignty of Philippines over the waters and arbitrarily built military-grade islands. Indeed, China claims some 90 percent of the maritime areas spanning nearly 35 lakh square kilometers in violation of the established sea laws despite the lawful claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, etc. Aside from military use, the Chinese eye these waters for oil and gas reserves. Nearer home, as the recent stand-off with India in Doklam, Bhutan, signified, the Chinese have left no doubt about their intentions. But, thanks to the advent of Modi as prime minister, the squishy approach towards our intransigent northern neigbuour has given way to a welcome pragmatism.
It is in this context that the prime minister’s meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila assumes further significance. Barely leaving anyone in doubt as to who Modi had in mind when he told the Indian community that India did not believe in ‘snatching’ others’ territories and rather believed in ‘giving.’ Given the Chinese annexation in the South China Sea, and its aggressive claims in the territorial dispute with this country, it was not hard to notice that China loomed large at the summit.
In his hour-long meeting with President Trump too the substantive theme was the revival and reactivation of the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral. Top diplomats and security experts of the US, Japan, Australia and India met in Manila in the backdrop of the summit to devise a common strategy to counter the assertiveness of China in the wider region. The inward-looking America has lent a sharper edge to the Quad, an idea first mooted more than a decade ago, but which failed to take off till now due to the Japanese ambivalence and the American wavering.
With Shinzo Abe back in the saddle with a renewed mandate and Trump making the US policy transactional, and the Chinese under ‘emperor’ Xi Jinping determined to play the hegemon in Asia and further afield, the need for the Quad cannot be exaggerated. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had first talked of the Look East Policy back in the early 1990s, but little was done by his successors to flesh out this necessary reset of the foreign policy which seemed bogged down in the post-Cold War rhetoric with Pakistan taking a disproportionately large mind space of the policy elite.
With Modi at the helm, and ready and willing to defend national interest, the Quad has found two committed helmsmen in him and Abe. The US now recognizes the key role India can play, even as it seeks to cut costs of playing the lone global policeman. Trump’s public praise for Modi might also be a grateful nod for the Prime Minister shedding the earlier squeamishness about cooperating with other like-minded nations in the security sphere even if it risked China’s annoyance and anger. As it is, the Chinese are miffed that thanks to the Trump-led America, they are now increasingly calling it the Indo-Pacific instead of their preferred Asia-Pacific.
That the Chinese intransigence is a threat is not in doubt, with the Philippines under the controversial Rodrigo Duterte already surrendering his bona fide territorial claims despite The Hague verdict fully upholding them. His logic that as a small neighbor he cannot fight a giant like China might show this feckless former actor for what he is, but other leaders with patriotism and self-respect flowing in their veins cannot abdicate the rights of their citizens so cavalierly. The Quad is not aimed as much against China as it is aimed at defending the territorial and maritime sovereignty of the nations in the region against unlawful usurpation by hostile powers. This is a legitimate arrangement and ought to be strengthened further.