There are limits to what India can deliver for the Quad — quadrilateral cooperation between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US). But the claim in a recent piece in the Financial Times, which argues that the Covid calamity has exposed New Delhi as a weak link in the grouping, flies in the face of evidence.
India’s “failure” to export vaccines has undermined Quad’s ability to resist China, which is exploiting the situation, the argument goes. It is flawed.
The disruption in India’s vaccine exports, caused by a devastating second wave of infections in the country, is a hiccup, at worst.
While India’s inability to export vaccines has created a space that China is currently trying to exploit, this argument ignores the fact that Beijing was exporting vaccines in large numbers even before India stopped exports.
The mismatch in supply and demand meant that there was space for China even then, as no country could have met the demand alone.
India was exporting vaccines before the second wave struck and will resume exports at some point. Many countries that have had to buy Chinese vaccines over the last few months due to a lack of options would want to switch back to Indian jabs at the first opportunity. When both Indian and Chinese vaccines were in the market, many of these countries chose the former due to the lower efficacy of the latter, a lack of transparency, and the demands China imposes, as seen in Paraguay’s case.
New Delhi was holding fort for the Quad and competing with China in supplying vaccines to the world, even working with Taiwan at one point — at a time when Washington was unwilling to export, resorted to hoarding supplies, and failed to do its bit to help battle the pandemic globally.
Far from being a weak link, India has repeatedly shown willingness to counter China's territorial aggression and strategic ambitions.
One, India is the only member of the Quad that is standing up to China militarily.
Starting in the middle of the pandemic in May last year, the Indian Army remained deployed in eastern Ladakh through the harsh winters in response to China’s aggressive manoeuvring along the Line of Actual Control.
India shed blood in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, leading to the first Chinese casualties in combat in decades.
A month later, it sent troops to the peaks of the Kailash Range, bringing the two countries, in the words of Lieutenant General Y K Joshi, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, “on the edge...absolutely on the brink” of war.
Around 60,000 Indian soldiers, along with tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and artillery guns, remain deployed in Ladakh today, with the Indian Army hinting that it is in no hurry to send them back to their peace-time locations.
India had responded similarly to the crisis in Doklam, a piece of strategically important territory that belongs to Bhutan and is claimed by China. When the People’s Liberation Army tried to build a road in the region in 2017, Indian troops entered Bhutan’s territory, intervened, and stopped Chinese construction activity, making an important statement of intent.
Unlike the messaging from US allies in east Asia, where Beijing has gone about building military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea with little resistance, the signal from New Delhi has been clear — China’s aggression and attempts to change the status quo on the frontier won’t go unchallenged.
Two, India was the first country to oppose China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), calling out the project for its lack of transparency and pushing countries into a debt trap much before alarm bells rang in Washington and Brussels.
It was the only major country that refused to attend the BRI summit hosted by China in 2017. Even the US sent a high-profile delegation to the event led by then senior director for Asia at the National Security Council Matthew Pottinger.
India’s sharp critique of the BRI was in sharp contrast to the silence offered by the US, Australia, and Japan on this issue until a few years ago.
Three, India took the lead in the onslaught against Chinese apps believed to have been used for data harvesting and snooping by Chinese authorities.
Over 170 Chinese applications, including TikTok, for which India was the largest market with over 200 million registered users, were shut down by India, spurring restrictions and investigations against these apps in other countries.
Four, in 2020, India opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership after negotiations stretching over many years to avoid dependence on China, with which it already has a massive trade deficit.
Five, India has shown greater willingness than before to work with Quad partners on security challenges, including maritime security in the Indian Ocean, where it has moved beyond its old concerns about external actors and significantly expanded its engagements with the US, Australia, Japan, and France over the past few years.
It has worked with partners on facilitating logistics support and increasing maritime awareness, and regularised strategic dialogues.
India invited Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercise with the US and Japan last year, upgrading the war game to a quadrilateral affair in the middle of the most serious military standoff with China in over four decades.
Clearly, the growing resource gap with China and the aggressive behavior that it has exhibited recently has not deterred India from safeguarding interests that clash directly with Beijing’s.
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