India-China relations: Is the Quad the answer?

The threat of China’s military aggression is being felt across the world, but this is a phenomenon India has been contending with for decades.

Interview Published 28 March 2023 4 minute READ

Isabel Muttreja

Former Marketing Manager, International Affairs, Communications and Publishing

Arzan Tarapore

South Asia Research Scholar, Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University

India’s border with China became the site of tense conflict in 2020, which led to India reinvesting in the Quad. Arzan Tarapore discusses key issues from his International Affairs article, such as how India is responding to increased aggression at the border and how a reinvigorated Quad may hold answers to balancing China in the Indo-Pacific.

What have India-China relations been like in the past?

Relations between India and China have varied over the decades. In the years following World War Two there was some hope they would find common cause in their international outlooks but that was quite quickly extinguished with their border war of 1962.

Since then, the two countries have oscillated between detente and tension. It took decades for them to normalize their relations and slowly build trust through several confidence-building agreements.

This was a dynamic, iterative process, with incursions prompting India to accelerate its infrastructure development, which in turn probably prompted more incursions by China

More recently it seemed the two countries were both willing to set aside their border dispute in order to profit from their burgeoning economic relationship – as, for both, there is no question development and economic growth is the primary national objective.

The question has been the extent to which their unresolved sovereignty and security issues undermine those goals as, at the same time, they both began paying more attention to the security of their territorial claims.

China in particular matched its explosive economic growth with startling military modernization and assertiveness. Its long-standing military doctrine and terrain advantages means it relies heavily on quality military infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau and it has accelerated the pace of those infrastructure upgrades and expansion.

In the 2010s, India belatedly began to improve its own transport infrastructure near the border, which threatened to reduce China’s military advantages. The earlier quiet on the border began to crack and China began launching border incursions with increasing frequency and scale.

This was a dynamic, iterative process, with incursions prompting India to accelerate its infrastructure development, which in turn probably prompted more incursions by China.

What happened around 2020 to change their relationship?

The cycle of competitive security policies on the border reached a tipping point in 2020 with Chinese incursions at multiple points simultaneously in Ladakh, apparently designed to establish a new status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating Indian and Chinese-controlled territory.

The Indian political leadership played down the incursions but both Indian and Chinese militaries rushed to reinforce their positions near the border. They held multiple rounds of military talks which made halting progress.

On 15 June 2020, a skirmish resulted in the loss of 20 Indian troops, and an unknown number of Chinese troops. In the weeks that followed, both sides further reinforced their positions in a scramble to gain positional advantage.

How has India responded to China’s increasing military might?

The Indian government’s response to the Chinese landgrab was to threaten the entire bilateral relationship. In a reversal of decades of policy, it argued China had demolished the painstakingly constructed confidence-building measures on the border, and so the relationship could not continue as normal until the border crisis was resolved.

It imposed new restrictions on Chinese investment in India – even as overall trade continued to increase – and adopted a more assertive diplomatic posture.

Strategically, the 2020 border crisis had two major effects. First, it reinforced the Indian proclivity to see its northern borders as the primary threat to Indian national security.

India has heavily reinforced the border, reassigning some major formations and making numerous new investments in military capability to manage the threat. The significance of this however is that, in the context of budget scarcity, these military improvements come at the cost of potential increases in India’s capability in the Indian Ocean region – ultimately a more consequential zone of competition in the Indo-Pacific.

The Indian government may yet change course and reallocate resources for power projection but, at this stage, I see no evidence of that.

The second major strategic effect of the crisis was to unleash Indian cooperation with its partners, especially the US and the reinvigorated Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US.

India has generally avoided formal international alliances, and the Quad was in hiatus for years – why has India invested in it now?

India had always been mindful not to embrace external partners too closely so as to maintain its freedom of action and to not provoke a Chinese reaction. But since the Ladakh crisis, New Delhi has a newfound willingness to work more closely with the US, Japan, and Australia – because it calculates correctly that these partnerships enhance its freedom to act, and that China has already adopted the aggressive posture India feared.

It is important to note however that the border crisis was not the only driver of India’s strategic adjustment. The crisis coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic which highlighted to India the ineffectiveness of existing international institutional arrangements.

For New Delhi, then, the twin crises of Ladakh and the pandemic stressed the need for new international arrangements, and the Quad offered the best combination of agility and capability to meet the most pressing challenges of the Indo-Pacific region.

What do the Quad partners hope to achieve in their renewed partnership?

Beginning in 2021, the Quad assumed far greater significance. The first national leader summits happened – which have since continued at regular intervals – and its members have all agreed to a continually expanding agenda of work.

It seeks to provide international public goods, and everything from climate action to telecommunications regulations. Critically, it has limited its security role to some niche and relatively unprovocative areas, such as humanitarian assistance and maritime domain awareness – issues which benefit the Indo-Pacific as a whole and do not intensify security competition. It has certainly eschewed military cooperation.

Interestingly, the four Quad countries have also separately accelerated their military cooperation, bilaterally, trilaterally, and even quadrilaterally. But that cooperation lies outside the formal mechanisms of the Quad.

What impact will these Quad actions have on Chinese aggression and the Indo-Pacific region?

This Quad approach, which I call zone balancing’ in my article, is specifically designed to build the capacity and resilience of regional states, and to not inflame dyadic security competition.

The relatively uncompetitive character of these activities helps to deflate Chinese claims that the Quad is an antagonistic new bloc, and to ameliorate southeast Asian states’ concerns over the potential intensification of strategic competition.

New Delhi has a newfound willingness to work more closely with the US, Japan, and Australia – because it calculates correctly that these partnerships enhance its freedom to act

But the Quad’s agenda is not fixed and not bounded. It has expanded year on year and may continue to extend into new areas. This gives it a degree of flexibility and coercive leverage as Beijing cannot be confident about the Quad’s future direction.

This slate of activities has a lot of utility in building the Quad’s regional legitimacy and habits of cooperation among its members. But it conspicuously does not address the region’s most pressing security challenges.

It is not, in its current form, equipped to manage the challenge of territorial disputes or aggression. So the Quad will not address India’s unresolved border dispute with China, potential crises over Taiwan, or the South China Sea.

I would argue, however, that the four members of the Quad have unparalleled advantages of capacity and geography. With further military cooperation, even outside the formal structures of the Quad, they have the potential to deter Chinese aggression, but that remains subject to their political preferences.

Will other countries in different parts of the world adopt similar balancing strategies?

Zone balancing could be an attractive strategy for other countries which want to either avoid the costs of hard military balancing, or to not provoke their rivals.

It has been used in the past – such as the Marshall Plan during the early Cold War – and I would not be surprised if other countries competing with China, or even China itself, use it.

India-China relations: Is the Quad the answer? 2nd part

This is not an either/or proposition – India and the Quad are using zone balancing alongside other hard balancing actions – but it does offer a useful supplement to policy.

Once again, though, it is important to remember it can only do so much and, without tangible security initiatives, it will not deter aggression or conflict.

Arzan Tarapore’s article ‘Zone balancing: India and the Quad’s new strategic logic’ is the Editor’s Choice article in the January 2023 issue of International Affairs. It is free to access and download.