While China is watching India’s cautious move towards Japan and Australia, India decided to carefully approach its commitment with the quadrilateral countries, including the two countries in the Indo-Pacific region, where an increasingly proactive and confident China is active in the marine realm. Is India keen on joining the Quad which includes US, Japan and Australia and also please and reassure China at the same time?
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The US wanted to enhance the level of engagement between the quadrilateral grouping, said sources to The Indian Express, to the level of an international secretary, but the Indian side politely told them to keep it to the joint-secretary level — which is at least two steps lower than the proposed engagement.
In November 2017, the quadrilateral grouping was improved after a decade, and a meeting of joint secretary-rank officials — directors general in Japan and Australia, and assistant secretary-rank in the US — was held in Manila, on the margins of the ASEAN and East Asia summit. This was followed by a second round of meeting in Singapore in June 2018.
“The Americans wanted to upgrade the level of engagement, but we asked them to keep it at the existing level,” said a source, indicating that a higher level of engagement may be seen as a threat to the Chinese.
The US Acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells said on Monday that the next round of the quadrilateral meeting would take place between joint secretaries and assistant secretaries.
According to the sources, the Indian side communicated to the US that the quadrilateral grouping should not be conflated with the Indo-Pacific matter, but should be kept separate.
At the first India-US 2+2 dialogue last week, sources said that there was a “deep discussion” on free and open Indo-Pacific region. While the foreign ministers interacted with strategic perspective views, the defence ministers shared opinions on military activities. The thrust of the discussions was that if the Indo-Pacific issue was conflated, it would give the idea of ganging up against one country — China.
While sources said this has nothing to do with the informal summit in Wuhan and understandings reached there between PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is learnt that New Delhi is careful of being sensitive to Beijing’s concerns.
However, the 2+2 dialogue between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with the visiting US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis saw the two sides agreeing on increasing the possibilities of trade and connectivity.
“The sub-text of the discussions on connectivity was that we need to work on giving a credible alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative,” said sources. While the word BRI was not uttered during the discussions, “connectivity” points to the ambitious project of the Chinese President.
After the 2+2 dialogue, last week Sushma Swaraj said there was a “growing convergence” of views on the Indo-Pacific. “We see the Indo-Pacific region as a free, open, and inclusive concept, with ASEAN centrality at the core, and defined by a common, rules-based order that both our countries are pursuing,” she said.
In an indirect reference to the alternative to BRI, she welcomed US interest in expanding its economic trail in this region. “We agreed to strengthen our bilateral cooperation as well, in order to achieve the common goals related to connectivity and infrastructure, and work together with other partners in this region as well to achieve these goals,” she added.
The joint statement said the two countries engaged to work together, and in concert with other partners, towards advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, based on recognition of ASEAN centrality, with respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, good governance, free and fair trade, and freedom of navigation and overflight.
“Noting the importance of infrastructure and connectivity for the Indo-Pacific region, both sides emphasised the need to work collectively with other partner countries to support transparent, responsible, and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development,” it said, in a reference to the alternative to BRI.