India keeps options open at US-led ‘Quad’ roadshow    

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On the eve of the East Asia Summit now under way in the Philippines, diplomats from the United States, Japan, Australia and India met in Manila on Sunday to discuss the issues of security and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

The only precursor to the quadrilateral format in Asia-Pacific – American slang is “Quad” – was when these four countries (plus Singapore) held a similar meeting in May 2007 – coincidentally, in Manila on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Singapore was absent from Sunday’s event. Singapore is reviewing its China policies (despite its strong alliance with the US). It hopes to be a regional hub in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations through next year it plans to calm the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

No joint statement was issued after the Quad on Sunday, leaving it to the four capitals to issue press releases. Nuances, inevitably, crept in, which provide useful pointers.

Importantly, the press releases issued in Washington and Tokyo were particularly assertive. The US referred to “quadrilateral partners,” while Japan claimed that the Quad meeting “discussed measures to ensure a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific.”

In a major policy speech last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came close to the US too favoring a regional security architecture through “greater engagement and cooperation” among “Indo-Pacific democracies.” But then he added that “it is going to be an evolving process.”

China’s growing pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific region worries all four countries, and the recent Communist Party Congress in Beijing wouldn’t have eased the angst. Having said that, their priorities vary.

The last thing New Delhi wants is to be hustled into a bloc that restricts its ability to maneuver in the present volatile environment. India retains strategic options, too, which include engaging China bilaterally.

After all, the US$235 billion worth of business deals President Donald Trump secured during his recent “state visit-plus” to China carry a big political message that “America First” dominates US foreign policies.

The last thing New Delhi wants is to be hustled into a bloc that restricts its ability to maneuver in the present volatile environment

The big question, therefore, is: How consistent are the Trump administration’s Asia-Pacific policies? Both Trump and Tillerson say nice things about India to promote US business interests, especially exports of weapons and shale oil, which create jobs in America.

Arguably, Tillerson at times speaks like a strategist, but then, Trump must be believed in that it is he who makes policies – not Tillerson. And Trump is obsessed with transactional diplomacy that is consistent with America First.

India’s strategic dilemma explains the ambivalence that crept into its press release on the Quad event. New Delhi says the diplomats held “consultations.” While the discussions focused on “cooperation based on their converging vision and values” as regards peace, stability and prosperity of the “interconnected region,” they agreed that “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” is in regional and global interest.

Besides, they also “exchanged views” regarding terrorism, proliferation linkages and on “enhancing” regional connectivity. Most important, the Indian press release underscored that New Delhi’s Act East policy would remain the “cornerstone of its engagement” with the Asia-Pacific region.

Evidently, Indian diplomats are in wait-and-watch mode. The Indian press release conspicuously refrained from using the word “commitment” in any context – unlike the US, Japanese and Australian versions.

Nonetheless, Delhi will seek to create synergy out of the Quad event. In immediate terms, India is to host the Russia-India-China format at the foreign-minister level, possibly on December 11.

There is bound be a “bilateral” between Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. New Delhi’s focus will be on carrying forward the spirit of consensus at the leadership level to get the India-China relationship on the right track to pursue “healthy stable bilateral ties” and to ensure that “differences don’t become disputes.”

Quite obviously, the US and Japan are in some hurry to herd India to an exclusive regional format, which to some extent would mitigate the steady deepening of ties between the ASEAN countries and China. Incidentally, Singapore hopes to initiate ASEAN-China naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea next year and to finalize the code of conduct to navigate the territorial disputes.

Events are outpacing US (and Japanese) diplomacy and making it look listless and unimaginative. The salience of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Da Nang is that other than America First in trade, the Trump administration lacks a comprehensive regional strategy.

On the other hand, stoking the fires of regional tensions for geopolitical purposes is not what India’s Act East policy has been about. India always sought to harmonize with the ASEAN consensus rather than create a counterpoint or an alternative narrative.

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