Quad recedes into shade. It’s the RCEP, stupid!

(Second RCEP Summit, Singapore, Nov 14, 2018)

The ill-starred quadrilateral Joint-Secretary level format of ‘Asian democracies’ – US, Japan, Australia and India – would have held its third meeting in Singapore on Wednesday. Again, there was no joint statement issued after the meeting. In fact, unlike previous occasions when the four Asian democracies issued press releases separately from their capitals, this time around none of them did.

Clearly, there is no strategic vision or anything worthwhile to recount. The Quad is receding deeper into the darker patch in the shade. Time has come to ask some searching questions.

Fundamentally, Quad and the US’ “Indo-Pacific strategy” are joined at the hips. Quad was intended historically – both in its immaculate conception in 2007 and in its revival in 2017 – as a ginger group to spur the containment strategy against China.

But our then mandarins who were passionately devoted to promoting western democracy in communist China (both in 2007 and in 2017) have retired to the pavilion. Today’s policymakers do not have any such messianic zeal.

Thus, we are caught in a twilight zone. From all appearances, Modi government is seeking normalization of India-China relations and, arguably, its elevation to a qualitatively new level. The alacrity with which the MEA clarified that the meeting in Singapore on Wednesday will only be at the level of joint secretaries and any reports to the contrary are “factually incorrect” must be noted.

Indeed, the strategic landscape of Southeast Asia has phenomenally transformed during the past year or two. The scope for fishing in the troubled waters of South China Sea has drastically diminished. China and ASEAN are discussing a Code of Conduct and senior Chinese officials insist that a framework will be negotiated within the next 3-year period. Various CBMs are also being initiated such as the first-ever China-ASEAN Maritime Field Training Exercise in Zhanjiang in China’s southern Guangdong province on October 22.

The US seems to be getting the message too that the ASEAN is not enamored of the American attempts to insert itself into the grouping’s relations with China. Notably, US Vice-President Mike Pence who sent the pigeons flying only recently,  has made some conciliatory remarks about China in a chastened mood. At any rate, the ASEAN no longer attributes much credibility or consistency to the US’ Asia-Pacific policy as a whole. The regional perception is that the US presence / influence is in inexorable retreat. The ASEAN’s focus is instead on regional integration and it is dead serious about expeditiously concluding the Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership or RCEP (the proposed free trade agreement between the 10 member states of the grouping and the six Asia-Pacific states with which it has existing FTAs – China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.)

The Indian policies have assimilated these regional trends. Prime Minister Modi underscored unequivocally in his policy speech on the Asia-Pacific region at the Shangi La Dialogue in June 1 that his government does not regard “Indo-Pacific” as a strategy. Succinctly put, Modi distanced India from any US-led containment strategy against China. Significantly, he made this major speech in the downstream of his Informal Summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in end-April.

Equally, Modi stressed repeatedly that India attaches “centrality” to the ASEAN in its entire approach to the Asia-Pacific strategic landscape. Taken together, Modi’s speech at Singapore stands out as a milestone in India’s Asia-Pacific policies.

Looking ahead, for Indian diplomacy, the main challenge lies in negotiating the RCEP to ensure that its long-term economic interests are optimally secured. India’s relative tariffs are relatively high by world standards. The participating countries would expect tariff cuts on 90 percent to 92 percent of each side’s tariff lines under the RCEP, but India has said that the ratio should be no higher than 80 percent. India also has specific interests as a major service exporter. In the final analysis, however, India will be unwise to opt out of the RCEP. This is going to be a tough call politically for Modi who attended the 2nd RCEP summit at Singapore on Wednesday.

It is a sign of the immaturity of our strategic discourses that undue importance is given to the Quad, whereas India’s tryst with destiny in the Asia-Pacific actually lies in the success of our RCEP negotiations where the US is not even a protagonist. Isn’t it time to give a quiet burial to Quad – jettisoning the ephemeral and the grandstanding and instead train thoughts on the permanent and the tangible?

We must have a sense of proportions. As things stand, Quad may at best serve only the dubious purpose of irritating the Chinese. Is it worthwhile? Our dalliance with Quad is somewhat like junior minister Kiren Rijju playing the Dalai Lama card circa 2016-2017. It came to no good ultimately. On the contrary, India’s integration with Asia-Pacific will largely depend on the RCEP pact, which is now at the final stages of negotiations.