Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Confusion on what the Quad is and its future


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Quad countries

Mains level: Paper 2- Non-alignment and Quad

The article analyses the basics of India’s foreign policy and its implications for the Quad.


  • There is confusion on what the Quad is and its future in India’s international relations.
  • Sustaining that confusion is the proposition that India is abandoning non-alignment in favour of a military alliance with the US in order to counter the China threat.

4 Question on Quad’s future and India’s role

1) What is the nature of alliance?

  • Alliances involve written commitments to come to the defence of the other against a third party.
  • Working of alliance varies according to the distribution of power within the members of an alliance and the changing nature of the external threat.
  • Alliances come in multiple shapes and forms — they could be bilateral or multilateral, formal or informal and for the long-term or near term.
  • Alliances feature in India’s ancient strategic wisdom and contemporary domestic politics in India.
  • Yet, when it comes to India’s foreign policy, alliances are seen as a taboo.
  • Part of the problem is that India’s image of alliances is frozen in the moment when India became independent.
  • After the Second World War, a newly independent India did not want to be tied down by alliances of the Cold War.
  • That notion is seen as central to Indian worldview.

2) Does India forge alliances?

  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, India has experimented with alliances of different kinds.
  • During the First World War, some nationalists aligned with Imperial Germany to set up the first Indian government-in-exile in Kabul.
  • In the Second World War, Subhas Chandra Bose joined forces with Imperial Japan to set up a provisional government.
  • Policy of non-alignment among the great powers also did not rule out alliances in a different context.
  • For example, when Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim turned to Delhi for protection amidst Maoist China’s advance into Tibet during 1949-50, Nehru signed security treaties with them.
  • India turned to the US for military support to cope with the Chinese aggression in 1962.
  • Indira Gandhi signed a security cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union in 1971 to cope with the crisis in East Pakistan.
  • Then, as now, there was much anxiety in Delhi about India abandoning non-alignment.
  • India does do alliances but the question is when, under what conditions and on what terms.

3)  Is the US offering India an alliance against China?

  • The current political discourse in Washington is hostile to alliance-making.
  • President Donald Trump does not miss an opportunity to trash US alliances.
  • In any case, formal commitments do not always translate into reality during times of war.
  • Even within the long-standing US military alliances with Japan and the Philippines, there is much legal quibbling over what exactly is the US’s obligation against, say, Chinese aggression.
  • In case of the Quad, it is quite clear that Washington is not offering a military alliance, nor is Delhi asking for one.
  • Because it knows India has to fight its own wars.
  • Both countries, however, are interested in building issue-based coalitions in pursuit of shared interests.

4) Instrumental nature of alliance

  • Agreements for security cooperation are made in a specific context and against a particular threat.
  • When those circumstances change, security treaties are not worth the paper they are written.
  • Consider India’s security treaties with Nepal, Bangladesh and Russia.
  • The 1950 Treaty was designed to protect Nepal against the Chinese threat.
  • Now, Nepali communists have long argued that the Treaty is a symbol of Indian hegemony.
  • India’s 1972 security treaty with Bangladesh did not survive the 1975 assassination of the nation’s founder, Mujibur Rahman.
  • India’s own enthusiasm for the 1971 treaty with Moscow waned within a decade.
  • Today Beijing is Moscow’s strongest international partner, a reality that has a bearing on India’s strategic partnership with Russia.

What India can learn from China about alliances

  • Mao aligned with the Soviet Union after in 1949 and fought the Korean War against the US during 1950-53.
  • He broke from Russia in the early 1960s and moved closer to the US in the 1970s.
  • Mao, who denounced US alliances in Asia, was happy to justify them if they were directed at Russia.
  • He also welcomed Washington’s alliance with Tokyo as a useful means to prevent the return of Japanese nationalism and militarism.
  • Having benefited from the partnership with the US, China is trying to push America out of Asia and establish its own regional primacy.
  • Delhi could learn from Beijing in not letting the theological debates about alliances cloud its judgements about the extraordinary economic and security challenges India confronts today.


The infructuous obsession with non-alignment diverts Delhi’s policy attention away from the urgent task of rapidly expanding India’s national capabilities in partnership with like-minded partners.

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