Home / Opinion / Columns /  Is India falling behind in an age of global partnerships?

Suddenly, the geo-political world is alive to geometric possibilities. The quadrangular Quad—made up of Japan, the United States, India and Australia—met in Washington last week, right after a major announcement from the triangular and awkwardly named Aukus (for Australia, the UK and US). Aukus, in turn, upstaged the bilateral arrangement—remember that two points make a line—between France and Australia. A furious France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington (for the first time in 243 years), before agreeing to reverse that decision. Germany, which is not currently part of any Asian geometry, is also unhappy.

Geometry and drama have arrived with a flourish in the Indo-Pacific. The Aukus naval deal is expected to nuclear-propel not only Australia’s new submarines, but also its role in the Indo-Pacific. The conventional diesel-submarine deal between France and Australia to build 12 Barracuda submarines would have required these subs to resurface every so often in a process called ‘snorting’. It is not yet clear which type of sub design Australia will choose and exactly what technology the US and UK will share with it, but Aukus will let Canberra acquire technology for eight fast-attack subs that will be far superior. It appears likely that its new submarine fleet will be based on the UK’s Astute Class, built by BAE Systems, or the US’s Virginia class systems built by General Dynamics. Based on the choice and final configuration, these subs will be able to launch ballistic and/or cruise missiles from under the sea. As a separate part of the deal, Australia is acquiring Tomahawk Cruise missiles from the US for its destroyers. Australia will join only six other nations—the US, UK, China, Russia, India and France—with nuclear-propelled submarines. This is about nuclear-propulsion and Australia has stated that it has no plans to acquire nuclear weapons, and therefore this deal does not contribute to a “nuclear arms race" in the Indo-Pacific.

The Aukus deal is a strong and tangible signal from the three allies that they consider China a strategic competitor in the coming decades. The high-trust, high-technology military partnership between the US and UK is now being extended to include Australia, putting in place a new menage-a-trois that leaves out other Nato allies of the US, France and Germany in particular. This also signals that the ‘geography’ of global geo-politics is shifting from Europe to Asia, even as the topography shifts from primarily land-based to ocean-based defences.

In the meantime, the Quad has been struggling to upgrade itself from a “dialogue" to a true security “partnership". India and Japan share a common strategic adversary in China with the US and Australia, but are more ambivalent about signalling an outright adversarial relationship that has a formal military component. India is the only country among the world’s large economies that shares a land border with China, and the incumbent government does not want to risk a spillover of tension into domestic politics. Japan is in the middle of a domestic political transition and retains its post-World War II-era schizophrenic approach to its military capacity and projection.

While the Indian establishment has generally welcomed the Aukus deal, it is both positive and negative of the country. It is positive because it outsources a ‘nuclear-propelled’ détente in the Indian Ocean. If Aukus and China hold each other in military check, India would have more space and time to grow its economy in relative peace. And grow its economy, India must, since that is what counts for table-stakes at the geo-political game. It is negative because, in effect, it marginalizes India’s role. As India knows painfully well from its attempts to join the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member, gaining retrofitted access to power in an evolving world order is not easy.

For India, real success will come if it is able to help create and lead a ‘trade and security’ grouping that harnesses Aukus’s benefits. China leveraged its World Trade Organization (WTO) ascension in 2001 to spectacular effect. A big part of China’s ability to occupy a prominent position in geo-politics today comes from that success. Against the backdrop of a weakening WTO, India’s tactical mistakes in not joining the Trans Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership leave it relatively isolated on both trade and security. An ill-timed focus on self-reliance at the time of a devastating pandemic makes the job of getting surpluses and friends that much more difficult.

Unless India (with some help from Japan) acts quickly, the Quad may yet fade into irrelevance. India will need to either stop dithering on full commitment to the Quad or else focus its efforts on building a much wider community aligned on common trade and security interests. This new configuration, with shared interests and to some extent shared values, could include India, the US, post-Brexit UK, Canada, France, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan.

A 12-sided arrangement is a dodecagon. Given the complexity of instituting such a wide partnership, a regular dodecahedron with 12 faces, 20 vertices, 30 edges and 160 diagonals would be more appropriate. Geometry, as most high schoolers can attest, can get complicated quite quickly.

P.S: ‘Ganita Chakra Chudamani’ Brahmagupta of the 7th century CE was the first mathematician on record to provide the formula for the area of a cyclic quadrilateral.

Narayan Ramachandran is co-founder and senior fellow at the Takshashila Foundation.

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