May 21, 2022

Quad Must Deepen Security Cooperation

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on May 21, 2022.

When the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US) meet for just the second time in-person as Quad in Japan this month, the focus will likely be on their economic partnership. A trade deal is currently out of the question: New trade deals lack support in the US Congress. But the US has proposed an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to promote economic connectivity, resilience, sustainability, and accountability and has been in the process of consulting partners on this initiative. While in some ways an extension of US President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, IPEF’s success will hinge on its details, and the response and participation of other countries.

But amid its growing profile, activities, and importance, Quad should not lose sight of security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which will matter significantly for the regional balance of power. Over the past year, Quad cooperation on a number of other important areas has progressed considerably. These include critical and emerging technology cooperation, vaccine diplomacy, infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, scientific collaboration, and space. Some initiatives are still nascent, while others — such as on Covid-19 vaccines and university research fellowships — have received private sector support and will have near-term tangible outcomes. 

To be fair, Quad security cooperation is already underway. In readouts, the four countries have revealed discussions on Myanmar, Afghanistan, North Korea, and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Intelligence leaders and cybersecurity coordinators from the four countries have met as a group. The Malabar naval exercise brings together the four navies, which have also engaged in ad hoc exercises with Canada and South Korea (on anti-submarine warfare), the United Kingdom (UK), and France. 

But security cooperation among Quad countries remains largely bilateral. The four engage in 2+2 dialogues with each other, involving their foreign and defence ministers. They also hold military staff talks; organise military exercises, involving ground, air, and maritime forces; enjoy logistics-sharing agreements with each other; and have structured dialogues on maritime security, defence technology, and counter-terrorism. Recently, Japan and Australia concluded an agreement to facilitate a military presence on each other’s soil. The US and Australia (along with the UK) entered into an arrangement, known as AUKUS, to cooperate on sensitive technologies, including nuclear submarine propulsion. 

There are three reasons for why security cooperation involving all four Quad countries has not been accorded a higher priority. First, there are concerns in other regional Indo-Pacific countries — including in South and Southeast Asia — that Quad military cooperation could exacerbate tensions with China, rather than reduce them. By contrast, the non-security focus of Quad has been welcomed in Southeast Asia; in one elite survey conducted last year, 60% of Southeast Asian respondents favoured a stronger Quad with a largely non-security focus. 

Second, the bilateral security partnerships among Quad countries are different from each other and are, therefore, likely to progress at different rates. On one end of the spectrum, the US has decades-long alliances with Japan and Australia, which include a history of overseas basing and joint operations. By contrast, India’s security partnerships with Japan and Australia — despite impressive progress over the past two decades — is relatively new and is unlikely to resemble the US’s treaty alliances. 

Third, the security partnership among Quad nations benefits from its flexibility. There is no political appetite or expectation of mutual defence. Quad will, therefore, not resemble an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In fact, closer cooperation is driven in large part by an acknowledgment of constrained resources. Budgetary constraints could mean that the US Navy will not be able to function in the Indian Ocean to meet future challenges, while an Indian naval presence east of the Malacca Strait will always be more limited. Quad is not about all four countries being everywhere at once, but, in fact, about a distribution of labour when it comes to security over a vast region. 

Nonetheless, a lot can still be done. A first area of focus ought to be on information and intelligence sharing, including — but not restricted to — the maritime domain. This will require coordinating information from maritime patrol aircraft, drones, satellites, and submarine sensors. While cooperation on maritime domain awareness has increased bilaterally, information gathered by all four countries can be more seamlessly integrated to meet certain shared security objectives. This would complement the current intelligence liaison relationships among the four countries and the sharing of strategic assessments by officials. 

A second area might involve operational cooperation. This can be done through cross-servicing, resupply and replenishment at sea, mid-air refuelling, ship repair, and a host of legal arrangements to facilitate such services. While in the past, Indian analysts have expressed concerns about such arrangements undermining Indian sovereignty, they need not be automatic or intrusive. Instead, India would benefit from such support to expand its military presence. Furthermore, such habits of cooperation could be utilised effectively against non-traditional security threats such as illegal fishing, piracy, smuggling, disaster relief, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. 

A third area of eventual cooperation might relate to improving defence capacity, including on trade, manufacturing, and technology. In all four countries, efforts are underway to indigenise defence production for security, economic, and political reasons. But joint efforts at integrating supply chains — particularly in less-sensitive areas — would complement the use by Quad countries of certain common platforms, such as aircraft and helicopters. Joint research and development may prove too complicated in most instances — given the differences in requirements and acquisition systems — but may be worth exploring in the future. 

Quad has certainly come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, defying many sceptics’ predictions. To its credit, the Biden administration did not dispense with Quad despite its earlier association with Donald Trump administration. It has resulted in multiple structured contact points within the four governments and has improved technology and economic cooperation. 

But if Quad is to help preserve a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, while continuing to provide the region with public goods, security cooperation will have to deepen. This will require acknowledging the concerns of partner countries, treading carefully, and slowly building trust and habits of cooperation. As the war between Russia and Ukraine has demonstrated, we are entering a dangerous new world, one in which the prospect of great power competition spilling over into great power conflict is no longer a remote possibility. 

May 19, 2022

The Quad Needs a Harder Edge

The following article, co-authored with Tanvi Madan, was originally published by Foreign Affairs on May 19, 2022.

 In 2017, when Australia, India, Japan, and the United States restarted their informal, four-way dialogue known as the Quad, many were skeptical. After all, the Quad’s hiatus had been prompted by Australia’s decision in 2008 to withdraw in order to protect its own ties with China, and it was far from clear that the four parties would hold together this time, either. Almost five years later, the Quad has made demonstrable progress. The group has survived major leadership transitions in the United States and Japan, as well as internal differences on topics such as the Russia-Ukraine war. Moreover, the Quad has grown in profile and widened its scope to include critical and emerging technologies, COVID-19 vaccines, and humanitarian assistance. Far from being a marginal body, the White House now describes the Quad as “a premier regional grouping . . . on issues that matter to the Indo-Pacific.”

Nonetheless, as the leaders of the four countries gear up for their second in-person summit in Japan on May 24, the group has much more that it needs to do. Despite the real progress the Quad has made on issues including technology, health, cybersecurity, and climate change, it must do more to deliver on its core security goals. Thus far, the group has prioritized a range of critical non-security or security-adjacent functions, such as technology and public health, over security-related efforts—an emphasis motivated in part by sensitivities in other Indo-Pacific countries about heightened military competition. To have a lasting effect, however, the Quad must ensure that it can adapt to fast-moving crises such as regional military conflicts and natural disasters, and manage expectations regarding what it can achieve.

The group must also do more to cooperate on shared security concerns in the Indo-Pacific. While the Quad has made meaningful progress, China’s growing assertiveness demands that the group move with greater urgency. Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has only made the Quad more relevant, driving home the possibility of such aggression in the short-to-medium term in Asia, as well—and the need to deter or respond to it. With renewed concerns about China’s possible designs on Taiwan, against India, or in the East or South China Seas, the group’s mission to ensure collective peace and stability in the region will only become more critical. It is past time, then, for the Quad to live up to its potential. While the May summit will have several items on its agenda, including multilateral economic projects such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and regional developments ranging from instability in Sri Lanka to China’s recent agreement with the Solomon Islands, it will also be a crucial opportunity for the group to accelerate cooperation on security.

The full text can be found here.

April 11, 2022

The Ukraine war exposes glaring analytical gaps

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on April 12, 2022.

Less than two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conclusions are already being drawn about its outcomes. With Russia’s advance on Kyiv halted, some are perhaps prematurely suggesting a Ukrainian victory, while others believe Russian forces are reorienting for a more protracted conflict. For some, United States (US) and European sanctions on Moscow have been punishing, while others point to their undermining long-term faith in the dollar. There remains an open debate as to the war’s implications for the Indo-Pacific and for India’s relationships with Russia, China, and the West. In all these cases, it is simply too early to tell.

That said, the Russia-Ukraine war has exposed some glaring gaps in our collective knowledge of a number of issues. Some are questionable assumptions that took hold among analysts and scholars of international relations. But other gaps have been exposed in India’s independent analytical capability, with potentially serious implications for its national security.

On a global scale, Russia’s actions have defied what were once widely-held beliefs about countries’ incentives to wage large-scale conventional war over territory. Despite decolonisation in the mid-20th century, the dissolution of the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Yugoslavia, and a handful of independence movements such as in Bangladesh and South Sudan, national borders have held relatively stable since 1945. The nuclear dynamics and alliances of the Cold War and the interdependence of the post-Cold War period suggested that major conventional war between countries would be a thing of the past, even if civil conflict in places such as Syria, Libya, Rwanda, and Congo; interventions such as in the First Gulf War and in the Balkans, and counter-terrorism operations and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan would continue.

But the warning signs were there. Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 came at considerable risk to its energy and defence exports. Moscow was also willing to bear the costs of expulsion from the G8. Similarly, China’s fast-tracking and widening the scope of a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, in contravention of “one country, two systems”, came at an economic and political expense that Beijing seemed willing to bear. China’s unilateral island-building and militarisation of the South China Sea was another example of revisionism at the risk of mutually beneficial relationships. The optimism of international politics between 1991 and 2008, which continues to linger in the popular consciousness, in some academic circles, and in business communities, now seems oddly quaint.

In a related vein, the Russia-Ukraine war has also further exposed the fragmentation of information systems in increasingly networked societies. It is not just different viewpoints. Individuals in Moscow, Munich, or Manhattan are likely to disagree about the basic facts surrounding the war, despite copious amounts of information being available, often in real time. The rampant proliferation of propaganda and disinformation should sow further doubts about projecting or mirror-imaging one’s worldview onto others. Rather than offering clarity, an open information environment often exacerbates the fog of war.

Further shortcomings have been exposed with more immediate implications for India. Since the end of the Cold War, the field of Russian studies in India has atrophied, which is surprising, given how much Russia remains an important partner for India. At the outbreak of a war that might have the greatest implications for Indian military procurement in decades, there were few independent Indian studies of the Russian military, its organisation, recruitment, capabilities, and operational culture. This was despite more than six decades of Indian cooperation and contact with the Soviet, and later Russian, armed services. Moreover, political assessments were found wanting: Leading experts were still suggesting a limited intervention by Moscow even after President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” against Ukraine.

The past is the past. The important lesson is for future challenges to be anticipated and gaps to be filled. The biggest uncertainty involves what may be the most important geopolitical debate in India today – but one in which the blind are debating the blind.

On one hand, there are those who see the China-Russia partnership as having crossed an irreversible threshold that will have adverse implications for India. They point to the China-Russia joint statement of February 4, 2022, when the two sides declared that their friendship “has no limits [and] there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” Russia’s positions on Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Indo-Pacific, and at the UN Security Council have also been noted, as has the qualitatively improved defence relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

On the other hand, there remain those who believe that India still has the ability to meaningfully alter Moscow’s calculations. They believe that India has enough influence, through diplomacy, arms purchases, and economic incentives, to ensure Russian neutrality and autonomy amid unfolding competition between India and China. But there is a lot riding on this assumption.

Whatever the future of the Russia-China relationship, the repercussions for India will be tremendous. Scholarship and detailed analysis on the relationship between Moscow and Beijing in India are sorely needed. This ought to be a gap to fill before India faces its next major geopolitical crisis.

March 10, 2022

The Ukraine war could transform India’s military preparedness

The following article originally appeared on the Lowy Institute's Interpreter on March 10, 2022.

India’s position on the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has elicited a surprising amount of scrutiny. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, India along with the United Arab Emirates chose to abstain on resolutions against Russia. At the UN General Assembly, India was the most noticeable democracy among the 35 countries to abstain – even the UAE voted to censure Moscow – while Russia could only rustle up four other countries to support its position. Unlike, say, Singapore, India has also not thrown its support behind international sanctions led by the United States and its allies.

There are good reasons for all this. The most immediate was that about 20,000 Indian citizens were caught in the crossfire, and Russian cooperation was needed to ensure their safe extraction. Another important factor is India’s continued dependence on Russia for defence imports. These include maintenance and spares for front-line Su-30MKI aircraft, cooperation on nuclear-powered submarines and jointly developed BrahMos hypersonic missiles, and the acquisition of S-400 ballistic missile defence system and new frigates. Beyond that, India had in the past expressed some sympathy for Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion.

But since the outbreak of hostilities, India’s position on the conflict has also evolved. This is most apparent in the increasingly critical tenor of the explanation of its UN votes. Diplomatically, India has reached out to both Moscow and Kyiv, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking to President Volodymyr Zelensky at least twice. The leaders of the Quad – involving the United States, Japan, Australia, and India – have met virtually, with Ukraine on the agenda and mentioned in their joint readout. India has also provided some humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

The reasons for this shift are unclear, but several factors might account for it. Russia’s difficulties in the field may have called into question its leadership’s decision-making and the effectiveness of Russian equipment and planning. The danger to Indian citizens in Ukraine may also have hardened Indian opinion against Moscow. And the broad unanimity and severity of Western sanctions have certainly made a strong statement of intent, with potentially far-reaching consequences. Notwithstanding its immediate positioning, India is going to find its partnership with Russia difficult to sustain over the long run.

At this point, some combination of five outcomes is possible.

One, Russia “wins,” resulting in a Ukrainian government in exile, a military occupation, and further international isolation. But as the United States found in Iraq and Afghanistan, such a long-term military commitment in a large country will be costly. Two, Ukraine is administratively divided: a new iron curtain falls across Europe.

Three, a permanent ceasefire is negotiated, resulting in some combination of territorial exchange and political commitments. Even then, many sanctions will remain in place and Europe will continue to diversify its energy imports away from Russia.

A fourth possibility is that Russia and Ukraine become locked in a brutal and long-term war of attrition, with potentially serious escalatory effects. And five, Russia “loses” by not achieving its military objectives and withdrawing as a consequence of economic fragility and domestic opposition.

Noticeably, in none of these scenarios does Russia emerge stronger.

For India, this has important implications. Militarily, a Russia at war (or on a war footing) will be less capable of providing India with critical defence equipment, whether Kalashnikov rifles or hardware of greater sophistication, even if it so desires (after all, the allure of foreign exchange will be tremendous). Moreover, economic transactions of all kinds with Russia will be more difficult amid wide and severe international sanctions involving virtually all US allies. There are also political implications: it will be harder for Russia to provide support or even neutrality to India in the event of a China-India clash given Moscow’s growing economic and political dependence on Beijing.

Therefore, an unforeseen consequence of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine could well be India’s further defence diversification and indigenisation. Already, India’s military leaders have hinted at such. Such a transformation will not be easy. Given that Russia accounted for about 60 per cent of Indian arms imports over the past decade, an Indian crash program to ensure the production of critical military components will be necessary, particularly given its continuing stand-off with China along the disputed border. Still, given the depth of India-Russia defence relations, a process of indigenisation and diversification will take a decade, if not longer.

Amid the many transformative changes triggered by Russia’s invasion – from massive sanctions to adjustments to Germany’s security and energy policies – the 2022 Ukraine war may well prove the equivalent for Indian defence of 1991, the year that a balance of payments crisis compelled New Delhi to trod down the path of economic liberalisation.

March 4, 2022

India Should Integrate into Global Value Chains

The following article originally appeared on March 4, 2022 in The Hindustan Times.

In late 2019, when India withdrew from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – a trade agreement involving Southeast Asia, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand – it was perceived as New Delhi stepping away from global trade. The pendulum has now swung, with India concluding a trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and in negotiations with Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, and Israel. The shift reflects the increasingly political character of international commerce. Concerns about further dependence on China, particularly given RCEP’s lax rules of origin, stand in stark contrast to the prospect of greater integration with more complementary (and friendly) advanced economies.

Yet trade agreements are but one means to what is arguably a more important national objective: Increasing the global share of India’s exports. Creating goods and services not just for India, but for the world, is critical to ensuring large-scale employment, wealth creation, and human development that takes fuller advantage of India’s favourable demographics. Additionally, as the pandemic has underscored, globally competitive manufacturing is critical to ensuring national resilience, particularly in critical sectors such as health, energy, and digital technologies. China has demonstrated, much as colonial powers did in a prior era, how export power can be leveraged for political purposes.

Admittedly, India’s quest for exports has faced adverse headwinds. It is not rich in natural resources such as oil and gas. Politics has created further hurdles. India today accounts for around 3% of the world’s economy (ranked 6th) yet contributes only about 2.2% of global exports (ranked 12th) and barely 2% of merchandise exports (ranked 14th). Over half of Indian goods exports come from refined petroleum products, gems and jewellery, pharmaceuticals, machinery, organic chemicals, automotive parts, and iron and steel. These are (with few exceptions) not generators of large-scale employment.

Today, two developments have collectively created an opportunity to redress India’s acaemic exports. First, Beijing’s growing assertiveness and economic nationalism have caused some governments to reconsider their dependence on trade integration with China. This extends to the United States (US), Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, UK, and Australia, as well as some European countries. Some see Southeast Asia and India as potential alternatives, although they recognise that diverting value chains away from mainland China will take many years, given sunk costs. A second factor has been the coronavirus pandemic, which has offered an opportunity for a reset, as trade and supply chains have been disrupted.

Is India set to seize this opportunity? Not yet. The challenges are that certain policies intended to promote self-sufficiency, rather paradoxically, risk moving India further away from that objective. Boosting Indian exports will require further integration into global value chains, and thus recognition that production will still be dispersed across borders. India consequently faces at least three major obstacles to fully realising its export potential: Restrictions on imports, regulatory uncertainty, and inadequate infrastructure. These concerns have been identified both by domestic manufacturers and multinational corporations (MNCs) interested in further investment in India.

The most immediate challenge involves recognising that increasing exports requires facilitating imports. Final assembly in India necessitates importing raw materials, as well as intermediary goods until full domestic manufacturing ecosystems can be established. After all, China and Germany – which enjoy enormous trade surpluses – are also two of the three largest importers. Yet Indian manufacturers confront a series of challenges to importing necessary components, including high import duties, complicated licensing procedures, large penalties, double-taxation on reimports, price controls, and local content requirements in products lacking local suppliers.

A second challenge relates to regulatory uncertainty, which deters long-term investment, often with implications for pricing. In certain sectors, customs duties are applied arbitrarily, often to the disadvantage of the Indian private sector. Similarly, the electronics sector – a government priority – faces constantly changing regulations and certification requirements. Local standards are often in conflict with prevailing global norms, creating further disincentives for exports.

Finally, while India’s infrastructure has improved considerably, constraints remain. These extend to port congestion and inadequate dedicated freight corridors, and also such hurdles as a lack of electronic forms for necessary paperwork. Such factors raise costs, often rendering Indian exports non-competitive. By one reckoning, the real cost of logistics in India is almost twice that of some competitors.

There are certainly other challenges, such as inadequate human capital, land, market access, arbitration, and low-interest financing. But facilitating the import of intermediary goods, generating regulatory certainty, and addressing infrastructure bottlenecks would go a long way towards making Indian manufacturing more competitive, relative to its real competition like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Mexico.

Global value chains are a two-way street: For exports to rise, imports must be facilitated, albeit in a manner that prevents dumping. Creating a self-sufficient manufacturing and export ecosystem cannot happen overnight and will need to be nurtured with policy predictability and efficient infrastructure. Addressing Indian manufacturers’ concerns is paramount. In this matter at least, the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s belligerence offer perhaps the last opportunity for India to take full advantage of its demographic dividend.