Militarising the 'Quad' to counter China is a providential opportunity whose time is long overdue
Each of the ‘Quad’ countries have specific security concerns that emanate from a belligerent, expansionist and increasingly provocative China. However, the ‘Quad’ has so far remained in the realm of strategic dialogues, white papers and occasional drills
Xi Jinping presides over a powerful military-industry complex that is relentlessly expanding its global footprint, albeit, one with telltale signs of nervousness and urgencies of the most insecure regime. Sustaining this Chinese continentalism is the tightly controlled, integrated and multi-dimensional juggernaut that seamlessly deploys economic, military, geopolitical, psychological and political imperatives in a calibrated 'overdrive'.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been in in power ever since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. To operate in this mode of 'overdrive', the Chinese engine needs inner harmony and ruthless incrementalism to overcome any roadblocks to continue the momentum. While Xi has systematically tightened his grip on the monolithic and monopolistic party to ensure that the power "flows from the top", external factors and circumstances warrant careful manipulations and diplomatic opportunism to tilt the scales in its favour. In the Chinese narrative, posturing is more important than substance because the Chinese only ruffle as much as they can handle and dominate.
Seen in the light of Galwan machinations, the brutal efficiency of Chinese incrementalism, was obvious. The standoff entailed a very limited battalion-level operations from both sides — which is not reflective of the nuclear realities of both sides, or the fact that they represent the largest and the second largest standing militaries in the world! Yet, it was a deliberate ploy with a limited mandate, that could be cemented with additional back-up to retain the upper hand in all de-escalation talks. The Chinese regime and its well-oiled machinery latch on to a ‘opening’ with unmatched speed, be it in international diplomacy, commerce or cartographical adventurism — clinically and deceitfully executed, China remains the high church of unapologetic realpolitik.
To counter the Chinese does not necessarily or practically warrant budgets that can outmatch the Chinese investments in its military — as that is simply not possible.
What is imminently possible and sought-after by multiple stakeholders is a renewed version of the 'coalition of the willing', from a Sino-wariness perspective. America's own longstanding global military advantages are on an unquestionable decline, and it clearly needs to stitch together alliances to mitigate challenges posed by China. This overarching sense germinated the concept of the 'Quad' (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) formation of like-minded democracies ie the US, India, Japan and Australia towards joint-force-projection. Each of the ‘Quad’ countries have specific security concerns that emanate from a belligerent, expansionist and increasingly provocative China.
However, the ‘Quad’ has so far remained in the realm of strategic dialogues, white papers and occasional drills — but still does not have the necessary ‘bite’ of a formal military alliance with a specific purpose eg NATO during the Cold War era. For such a fruition, it even needs a theatre of existence and critical posturing to have the counter-impact on an expansionist China. Such a piece of geography has to be one that is, legitimately owned by a ‘Quad’ partner, is in the realm of practical ‘patrolling’, and yet affords the necessary posturing to potentially ‘choke’ the interest of China, should it threaten the peace and sovereign interests of the ‘Quad’ partners.
Such an invaluable piece of geography is China’s worst nightmare of a doomsday ‘choke point’ at the Malacca Straits. This ultra-narrow (1.5 kilometres wide at its narrowest point), unavoidable and regime-sustaining straits account for the life-sustaining movement to-and-fro from the Chinese mainland that sustains the Chinese juggernaut and funds its hegemonic instincts.
Unfortunately for China, the Malacca Straits opens at the lower tip of the undisputed Indian waters, afforded by the outpost of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 1,200 kilometres away from the Indian mainland. This is a jugular that has only been partially tapped by India, as it has a limited Tri-Services Command, further up the island chain. While the straits meander the Malaysian and Indonesian waters, the mouth opens up just below the sovereign Indian waters and the landmass of the southern tip of Nicobar Islands.
This historically led to an acute sense of vulnerability in China, owing to its own restive and unpredictable relations with Malaysia and Indonesia, let alone India. This vulnerability is said to borne alternative supply chain hyper-projects like the Belt and Road (or its arterial arm, China Pakistan Economic Corridor), Pearl Ports, ‘debt-trapping’ Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, eyeing Coco Islands, Maldives, Bangladesh etc — however, all these efforts have run aground recently, owing to Chinese incorrigibility that barely masks its real intent.
Towards evolving, militarising and basing the ‘Quad’ sensibilities, this peach of a geographical real-estate does unto China, what China repeatedly does and intimidates its neighbourhood with. Even a notional ‘Quad-Port on call’ without necessarily blowing it into a Quad Military Base, does the needful. Currently the Chinese Navy still does not have ‘Blue Water’ capabilities to match the reach of the regional, United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Recently, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups conducted a dual carrier operation, and it was enough to give the Chinese an adequate warning – whereas, allowing the USINDOPACOM to have a dedicated ‘Quad-Port on call’ will have untold consequences, without firing a single shot.
As the US seeks to redeploy 25,000 troops from the European theatre towards countering the 21st Century Chinese threat, the question of exact geographical relocation becomes key.
It is not just the numerical presence of additional 25,000 US troops in the Asian theatre that does the necessary, but it is the sharp commitment towards militarising the idea of an ‘encircling Quad’, in a carefully selected location, that can send deterring shockwaves to the Chinese regime.
The much-bandied alternatives to the Chinese ‘Malacca Dilemma’ have not worked as yet, and the post-Covid world will remain wary of the Chinese ‘ways’, herein lies the opportunity to muscle ‘Quad’ with minimal investments, mandate and efficiency. The cost of defensive realism that besets the ‘Quad’ logic is infinitely more efficient and sustainable than the offensive expansionism that underlies the Chinese impulse. Militarising the ‘Quad’ in such a geography stops the Chinese in their tracks, without spreading the resources thin or struggling unilaterally — it is a providential opportunity whose time is long overdue.
The author is a retired lieutenant-general and former military secretary to presidents KR Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam. Views expressed are personal
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