This interview was conducted with Professor Swaran SINGH for Sinosphere on developments in the Asia-Pacific region. The main topics of the interview include India-China relations, Indo-Pacific Concept, East and South China Seas, ASEAN, and Quad Alliance System.

  1. How much can the Quad Alliance limit China’s regional expansion moves? Considering that the Quad members have different relations/interests with the US, do you expect Quad will turn into a multilateral NATO-like alliance in Asia and the Pacific Region?

Answer: Given that the unprecedented economic rise of China has been the single most important factor redefining the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India — which aims to ensure the stability of this region — remains driven by the need to ensure China plays by the rules.  However, NATO will be a wrong template as Quad security architecture is being built on much broader canvass for calibrating strategic, economic, diplomatic linkages amongst its stakeholders that includes these four members as also others of the Quad Plus (South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand) as also countries like Germany and France.

  1. Given the military partnership between Russia and China (despite India’s privileged partnership with Russia), what strategic problems could it create for India in the diplomatic and military sphere?

Answer: China’s excess and Russia’s deficit of foreign exchange and friends have brought them closer where China has emerged as major buyer of Russia’s energy and defence equipment. This has coincided with India’s drift towards the United States emerging its major defence supplier and Russia opening defence cooperation with China’s closest ally, Pakistan. But Russia remains latest supplier of India’s defence equipment and India has persisted with it even in face of pressures from the United States as was shown in case of India’s purchase of S-400 air defence systems. These drifts surely provide formidable challenges for diplomatic fine-tuning and inter-operability of defence equipment but have been so far well managed by the personal chemistry of political leaders.

  1. Considering the rapidly growing Chinese arsenal right next to India, the Indian multi-layered defense system has capable to prevent possible threats from China in case of a hot conflict?

Answer: There is no doubt about elements of asymmetry becoming substantial in China-India military systems comparisons. But numbers and nature of military inventories form but only part of inter-state equations, even in case of fighting an actual war. There are always multiple other pull and push factors which become increasingly influential in face of rapid rise in global connectivity and awareness that makes any clash between powerful nations like China and India of global interest triggering anxieties and interventions of great powers.  Recent episode of Galwan valley saw President Trump repeatedly offering mediation and Russia hosting multiple China-India meetings at ministerial level. Plus both China and India understand the cost of fighting a war that could derail their ambitious growth and development trajectories. This explains why ‘restraint’ continues to be the defining feature of their border fact offs.

  1. How can it be evaluated in terms of India that Russia, which is an ally with China in many areas, recently has expressed to India that it is ready to play a role in the Indo-Pacific concept and resolve the mistrust among the QUAD nations? How would India meet such a demand in terms of its national interests?

Answer: India has always argued in favour of Russia being treated as important partner in the emerging Indo-Pacific formulations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2018 speech at Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore had outlined India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific and India has since repeatedly underlined this sentiment of ensuring that Indo-Pacific does not become militarised or an exclusive club of few nations. And, recent expansion of Indo-Pacific in terms of Quad Plus and increasing interest shown by others like China, Russia, Germany, France only reinforced India’s vision and facilitated India’s stronger engagement with Quad. India remains engaged with both Russia and China in BRICS, SCO, RIC and others so, amongst Quad members, India would be least worried about any potential of Russia or China joining Quad or the Indo-Pacific debates in general.

  1. The defense ministers of Japan and India recently affirm their opposition to any use of “coercion” to bring political change in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. How can this response take action, given China’s activities on the Indian border and East and South China Seas? Will it be a military response or a Diplomatic response?

Answer: Coercion has not been part of India’s civilisation DNA and strategic experts like George K. Tanham had since early 1990s defined this to taint India having no strategic culture. This has been rebutted by Indian experts who believe that India believes in dialogue, not war, being the ultimate tool of resolving inter-state problems. Likewise, Japan’s new prime minister Suga Yoshihide has repeatedly shown his being sensitive to not building Quad or other alliances that could cost Japan’s relations with China.  This was perhaps partly triggered by confrontationist US policies during Trump years that saw Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, repeatedly being the only foreign minister at Quad meetings articulating China threat while others have focused on the larger positive agenda of building a regional security architecture to address all regional challenges. So clearly both Japan and India would prefer to resolve all their issues with China through diplomatic channels.

  1. European countries such as France, Germany, and Britain consecutively shared their Indo-Pacific strategies and stated that they would send their aircraft carriers to the region. What role can India play in the Indo-Pacific strategies of European countries as a regional power?

Answer: India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific remains driven by its consciousness about the security and development challenges of the India Ocean region. India is the only Indian Ocean nation in the Quad though the US has had a formidable presence in this region. At one stage India had been weary of great powers military presence in this region but emerging India and its changing equations with great powers make it far more receptive to their partnering with arrangement where India has an influential say in all matters. India is already seen as the ‘net security provider’ in this region and from that vantage point India should have no qualms about France, Germany or Britain reviving their engagement with the Indo-Pacific security architecture. Recent years indeed have already witnessed India and France enhancing their bilateral partnership in ensuring security in the India Ocean region.

  1. How India-US 2+2 Dialogue can impact India’s overall military modernization and both countries’ interoperability towards China?

Answer: India-US 2+2 Dialogue surely is a reflection of the transformation that their partnership has undergone during the last fifteen years or more. This has seen India signing three foundational agreements with the US that makes India qualified to procure all advanced military technologies from the US that are accessible to its alliance partners. Given that bulk of India’s defence equipment remains of Russian origin as Russia has been India’s major fence supplier from early 1960s, this does involve some challenges of inter-operability both within India’s own defence systems as also vis-a-vis China which has also been procuring Russian defence equipment.  But access to modern technology is more important for India’s defence modernisation. Plus partnership with the US also opens up doors of its two dozen other friends and allies that adds to India’s stature influencing India’s overall equations with China such that military may not need to fight any destructive war with China.

  1. India decides not to join the RCEP agreement. What are India’s key concerns not addressed? What did India gain and lose by not joining the RCEP?

Answer: Given that Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is world’s largest regional arrangement of its kind and involves fastest growing economies, it would have been good for India to join it. But India’s cost/benefit analysis have led it to stay out of it as of now. This is because India already has had problems of trade deficit with five of its fifteen members and given the extant template of RCEP, that problem was all set to expand and India cold ill afford that kind of partnership. The extent RCEP does not open avenues for India’s skilled manpower and in face of some of these partners nations subsidising their exports, it can hurt India’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. But RCEP surely understands that India would have joined it as its second largest economy after China and therefore has not closed its doors on India. This means India will be able to join RCEP provided its concerns are accommodated to make it a win-win equation.

  1. What kind of evolution can India-US relations undergo in the context of China during the Biden administration period compared to the Trump era?

Answer: In face of Trump’s personalised, whimsical, confrontationist approach to China, it saw a rapid increase in India-US partnership with three foundational and many other agreements being signed during 2016-2020. China’s unprecedented economic rise and more recently its ratcheting up tensions on the border surely contributed to India’s growing closeness to the US. From his comments on China so far, Biden wishes to follow a more institutionalised approach and to take US friends and allies along in addressing his China challenge.  This may not mean any diminishing of India-US partnership — which has enjoyed strong bipartisan support and stands institutionalised — but this could surely make India-US interactions bit less ostentatious.

  1. Recently Russia and China conducted the second joint air patrol with Strategic Bombers in the Asia-Pacific region. What could this mean for an Indian Defense even it is partially dependent on Russia?

Answer: Increased defence cooperation between China and Russia — India’s traditional defence supplier — has surely been a factor; it is often cited to explain India’s gradual drift towards the United States and other European suppliers. But India has only expanded its basket of suppliers and not given up on Russia. Indeed, India has conducts military exercises with both China and Russia both at bilateral level as also in multilateral settings like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Of course, India now conducts far more military exercises with the US both at bilateral level as also in multilateral settings like the Malabar naval exercises.

  1. Do you think Indian Military leadership missed out on PLA’s rapid progress in warfighting by having focused on Pak Military for decades?

Answer: While India’s equations with Pakistan may be rancorous and roisterous making daily headlines compared to subtle equations with China yet China has always been India’s bigger military challenge. Indeed, Pakistan becomes such a challenge thanks to its time-tested all weather friendship with China that has been the main as also the most reliable supplier of its defence equipment especially its nuclear and missile technologies. So Indian leadership has surely been most alert to China’s military modernisation and has sought to respond to it based on its own threat perceptions and wherewithal at its disposal. Their restraint shown in recent border face-offs remain an apt example to show how Indian military has repeatedly stood up to this China challenge.

  1. Given China’s expansion in the East-South China Seas and even extending to the Pacific Islands, what alternative can India develop in the Indian Ocean region?

Answer: Compared to China’s expanding footprint in East and South China Sea — where India remains committee to supporting the principles of freedom of navigation and rule of law etc. — it is China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean that remains India’s major security concern. India has responded by strengthening its own maritime reach using maritime modernisation as also network building in the region. This has seen India working with the Chinese navy as well. This has seen two navies not just work together in various anti-parity networks in the Gulf of Aden but also partner in their joint patrolling and anti-piracy operations.

  1. Given the tensions with China, how can Vietnam play a strategic center role for India in the Indo-Pacific concept?

Answer: Recently, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, had held few online interactions with the Quad Plus nations enthusing many more aspirant nations that wish to joint the Quad. Vietnam is one of them. This clearly reinforces India’s long-standing relationship, including its defence cooperation with Vietnam. Given that both India and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China this no doubt remains a factor in their shared threat perceptions. But it would be stretching it to call Vietnam as a strategic centre for India’s Indo-Pacific vision.

  1. Does India prefer to forge strategic alliances with the more powerful Quad members, rather than forming alliances with ASEAN countries against China?

Answer: When we talk of ‘alliance’ we often assume ‘military alliance’ which is a non-starter. Second, its not matter of what India ‘prefers’ but what ‘choices’ India has to address its strategic concerns. Surely, China’s unprecedented economic rise and its expanding footprint has transformed regional geopolitics that calls for contemplating new templates of regional security architecture. This is what has led to the creation of Quad. ASEAN was a prefect choice to be on the driving seat of all regional security dialogues. But this role of ASEAN was premised on the principle that it would never hurt the core interest of any of the great powers. With rise of China as a major power and its engagement with ASEAN from later 1990s East Asian financial crisis have clouded the situation with experts raising questions if Quad Plus would potentially replace ASEAN as the central axis of the Indo-Pacific security architecture.

All views expressed are of the writer and do not represent that of the

Professor Swaran SINGH is Chairman of Centre for International Politics, Organisation, and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi