The historic March 12 virtual summit between the leaders of the four QUAD members states—Australia, India, Japan, US—signals a decisive ramp-up in cooperation in a grouping mainly tasked with containing China’s spreading influence. The summit has widened collaboration within QUAD, for instance by adding a big economic component to it, and by committing to jointly work for the development and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to low-income countries—the last step in direct challenge to China’s vaccine diplomacy.
As the only country in the group that shares a land border with China and that is not a US alliance partner either, India occupies a unique position in the ‘Asian NATO’. India would not have agreed to add teeth to an overtly anti-China grouping had it been more assured of Beijing’s goodwill. The Chinese for their part are furious that India has agreed to ‘encircle’ China. Greater salience of QUAD, they warn, would hinder regional cooperation as it would undermine the more local groups like the BRICS and the SCO, both of which have India and China.
Commentaries in China’s state-controlled media express alarm at the QUAD’s consolidation. Addressing the virtual meet, US President Joe Biden reiterated his commitment to “free and open Indo-Pacific”, again highlighting the US goal of China’s containment. It’s easier said though. Unlike a united China, the QUAD comprises countries occupying four different parts of the globe, adding to the difficulty of collaboration. Plus, it isn’t clear QUAD member states are ready to compromise their important economic bilateral ties with China in order to pursue the grouping’s more strategic goals.
Yet the broader trend of bifurcation between the leaders of the ‘free world’ and China’s autocrats the QUAD’s consolidation signals is unmistakable. This will also have a direct impact on smaller countries near India and China. In the short term, it is hard to see how countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all of which have been gracious recipients of Chinese cash, can be persuaded to distance themselves from their chief benefactor. There is another calculus at play as well. As much as these small countries fear China, they fear a traditionally meddlesome India even more. Ruling elites there believe only China offers a credible hedge against India’s regional ‘expansionism’.
The rise of Chinese mercantilism aside, perhaps most worrying for democrats in the region is the creeping authoritarianism in India, the South Asian giant. Smaller democracies here mirror the political trends in India. For instance, as Modi and the BJP consolidate power by fanning sectarianism in India, Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh, the Rajapakshas in Sri Lanka and, arguably, even KP Oli in Nepal have looked to employ similar tactics to cement their hold on power. Free speech is in assault everywhere in the region. Modi’s India is no beckon of democracy other democracies in the region can look up to.
Erosion of India’s democratic credentials plays directly into China’s hands as it continuously expands its presence in South Asia by emphasizing its ‘strictly economic’ model of cooperation. The US, though important, has been too far to matter much to these smaller countries. The QUAD’s consolidation could therefore be a game-changer. For instance, in not a distant future, they may have to choose between ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ vaccines. In a sign of things to come China has eased visa rules for foreigners who have gotten Chinese jabs. Nepalis who got jabbed with India-made Covax, including this writer, need not apply.