The JAI logic: For India this trilateral grouping is more consequential than RIC

Nehru jackets have given way to Modi vests, so it is not surprising that “non-alignment” today is “multi-alignment” and, sometimes, “strategic autonomy”. The recent G-20 summit gave us a snapshot of the geopolitical currents swirling around us.

The summit itself was unexceptional, such collective meetings have lost their relevance these days. What was important were the several trilateral and bilateral meetings of the kind undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He met the heads of several governments, but among the more significant was the meeting, the fourth this year, with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Another important bilateral was with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Modi adopted a realist approach and ignored the outcry over the Khashoggi murder.

A country like India cannot afford to get on a moral high horse given its dependence on Saudi oil and the need for the security of four million Indians who work there and send back huge remittances. Equally important is the potential for Saudi investments in India.

And then there were the two trilateral summits – that of Modi with Russia and China, and with the new JAI grouping of Japan, America and India. A country’s foreign policy depends a great deal on where it is located – this is the essence of geopolitics.

As a continental and a maritime power, India has interests in Eurasia and in what is now called the Indo-Pacific. This is the essence of India’s participation in the RIC/SCO grouping as well as that of the JAI/Quad. Neither of them are military alliances, at best they are prototype relationships, yet to be fleshed out.

For India at present JAI is perhaps the more significant and consequential grouping. Its rationale is rooted in the need to maintain an effective balance of power against a China that is now surging all over in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. The way the US sees it, this balance relates to Southeast Asia and the western Pacific Ocean.

For India, JAI offers a way to deal with both issues. Tokyo has been a major investor in India’s infrastructure schemes and it is ready to partner New Delhi in projects in other parts of South Asia. But though Japan is already a major aid provider to Southeast Asia, New Delhi will have to work hard to associate in schemes in South Asia. As it is, the ambitious Indo-Japanese Asia Africa Growth Corridor to promote connectivity projects in Southeast Asia with India and East Africa seems to be in the doldrums.

Significant Chinese military challenge in the Indian Ocean is still a decade away. Ambitious Indian naval plans are constrained by a shortage of resources which will not ease until India is on the track of high economic growth. Since the US will be the dominant military power in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean in the foreseeable future, partnering with Uncle Sam is a useful option, provided we do not end up getting used to pull his irons out of the fire. Drawing a line in the sand on CAATSA and the Iran sanctions, therefore, is a sound idea.

There is a lot of commentary about how the Quad and other groupings are aimed at stopping the rise of China. The reality is that nothing can stop that rise, short of a war, and that would be a catastrophe for everybody. The aim of groupings like JAI or the Quad is to block Beijing’s worst impulses and nudge it towards accepting that a rule-based international order will serve its interests, just as it has done so in the past 30 years. This is not a futile project, provided the groupings confronting China are credible. But in fairness, all these efforts are still at a very nascent stage, our ties with both the US and Japan are a mile wide and an inch deep. But, for reasons of their own, Japan, the US and India are all interested in it.

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