Illustration: Craig Stephens
Brian P. Klein
Brian P. Klein

How rising India’s Quad role is helping it find its place among global powers

  • New Delhi is moving quickly to take on more multipolar responsibilities as it grows into a diplomatic and economic force within Asia and beyond
  • This shift from a neutral position is largely due to China’s growing influence, with relations plagued by mistrust over armed conflict along their shared borders

India is on a diplomatic roll. New Delhi has been signing agreements left and right with a host of major international partners in what appears to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s calculated attempt to secure a place among global power brokers. By all accounts, it’s working.

In Tokyo last month, members of the Quad – the United States, Japan, India and Australia – met and agreed to greater cooperation across a range of issues, including major potential geopolitical flashpoints.

Their joint statement read in part, “The Quad is committed to cooperation with partners in the region who share the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” This means not only support for the international rules-based system, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but more specifically the East and South China seas.

Such a far-reaching declaration marks a significant departure from India’s non-aligned positioning during the Cold War. New Delhi deftly managed to court both the US and the Soviet Union at the time as the two superpowers battled for spheres of influence.

Even though India continues to be a major buyer of Russian military equipment, it has maintained strong cultural and economic ties to the US. Thousands of young Indians regularly apply for student visas, filling much-needed technical roles in the US after graduation.

In the 2021 financial year, even with the limiting effects of the Covid-19 outbreak, the US granted more than 250,000 non-immigrant visas to Indian nationals. That is more than double the number granted to Chinese.


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India’s move away from a neutral position in global affairs is largely because of China’s growing influence throughout Asia. With India-China relations plagued by mistrust over armed conflict along their shared borders, it is no wonder a shift is occurring.
The 2020 military confrontation in the Galwan Valley, where at least 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers died, marked a significant escalation in tensions. China is building a bridge over a lake in Ladakh in territory claimed by India. Beijing is also strengthening ties with Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka through its Belt and Road Initiative.
It would be natural for New Delhi to see these developments as an encirclement strategy. This geopolitical reality is pushing India closer to the US, Japan and other like-minded democracies.

In the past two months, India signed an investment incentive agreement with the US International Development Corporation, the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement and a raft of agreements with Germany, including a US$10.5 billion green development deal.

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As isolated events, they might not amount to much but, taken together, they mark a turning point in India’s growing international stature. Its continued purchase of discounted Russian oil aside, New Delhi is enjoying its fulcrum moment as great powers seek to tilt the subcontinent in their favour.
Even beyond the geopolitical sphere, New Delhi is on the rise as its economic potential is recognised in diplomatic circles from Europe and the US to Japan. India has one of the world’s largest concentrations of young people, an economy poised to break out sometime this decade and an expanding tech sector that is driving significant growth.

In its midyear world economic outlook, Morgan Stanley has India defying the global slowdown trend with a buoyant 7.4 per cent growth, compared to China’s 4.2 per cent and the US at 2.6 per cent. Even among consensus estimates, India outpaces both developed and developing countries for 2022 and 2023.


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Similar to China’s rapid ascent through economic development, India’s domestic market opportunities could become a sizeable attraction for much of the region. While there are still a number of protectionist trade policies in place and Western firms have run into difficulties trying to develop their presence there – similar to China at a comparable stage of development – the potential for significant gains remains.

India also has little by way of historical baggage in its dealings with greater Asia. It has mainly played a subcontinental role with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but it has not, for example, expanded militarily or held any designs on broader regional dominance.

When the Sri Lankan government ran into serious financial problems recently, partly stemming from its lavish borrowing from China as well as a pandemic-induced economic downturn and corruption, India granted the country a US$1 billion line of credit. That helped save Colombo from default.

India, however, has not been a leader in broader financial bailouts far from its shores. China, which has invested heavily in Sri Lankan infrastructure, has also offered the country a US$1.5 billion currency swap to help it repay its obligations.

Sri Lankan officials inspect a ship carrying a consignment of humanitarian aid donated by the Indian government at the port in Colombo, on May 22. New Delhi sent milk powder, rice and emergency medicine. Photo: EPA-EFE

That parochial influence could hinder New Delhi from taking on broader, more difficult leadership roles. India also suffers from some of the worst poverty on the planet, and climate change is likely to make parts of the country uninhabitable this century.

These challenges might prove too much of a drag on India’s ambitions to enlarge its reach. That is why engagement with the Quad is so significant. It offers a way to ease into the complexities of multipolar responsibilities without the need to shoulder heavy burdens alone.

India is taking a more active role in regional and international affairs, marking another pole in the emerging multipolar world. As China’s rise has shown, making room at the table doesn’t come easy.

While some might view this as an unwelcome change in the status quo, Asia is better served by a balance of multiple powers committed to a rule-of-law-based international system and the security it enables. Countries will need to adapt and embrace the rise of yet another major player in Asia on a coequal footing to ensure a peaceful and prosperous 21st century.

Brian P. Klein is founder of RidgePoint | Global, a strategic advisory firm. He is a former US diplomat