Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania
India in Transition

India in the Indo-Pacific: Leveraging a “Low-Resolution” Liberal Order

Kate Sullivan de Estrada
May 8, 2023

The most recent Summit-level meeting of the four Quad nations—Australia, Japan, India, and the United States—in March 2023 began with a familiar refrain: “Our meeting today reaffirms the Quad’s steadfast commitment to supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific.” 

But what is a “free and open Indo-Pacific?” Talk of “freedom and openness” in the context of Quad membership is more than a rhetorical veneer for a pragmatic security partnership. The terms “freedom and openness” are rhetorical frames deployed by these key regional actors to call into question the legitimacy of China’s role and behavior in the region. Presenting the Indo-Pacific as “free and open” intends to include within this space those rule-abiding states who champion and uphold such values and exclude those states who do not.

India’s stakes in and through the Quad are obvious: via the Indo-Pacific construct and through membership of this exclusive quartet, New Delhi has seen a recent and swift elevation of its status and agency. Yet India’s inclusion within and leverage of a liberal vision for the Indo-Pacific is more complicated than it might initially appear. India—through both the discourse and the policies of its leaders—understands several aspects of the apparently shared Quad objectives of “freedom and openness” distinctively. What we see in the region—and what India supports—is a low-resolution liberal order. This visual metaphor portrays an order whose detail is weakly defined: an order whose normative content is therefore flexible rather than rigid in interpretation and that outwardly projects a “likemindedness” sometimes more superficial than deep. 

This should not be surprising. Since the end of the Cold War and even earlier, India’s caveated embrace of the liberal international order has sought to appeal to a broadly conceived liberal community of states as part of a wider quest for recognition, status, and material dividends. In economic terms, India integrated more fully into the world economy following its 1991 economic crisis and the IMF’s subsequent demands for structural adjustment. At the level of the Indian polity, Indian representatives took to emphasizing India’s decades-long and largely successful democratic experience in public speeches and multilateral initiatives. And, taking cues from a liberal security order, India signed a momentous and redeeming civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US in the early 2000s. India and the US would go on to upgrade their defense cooperation in 2016 and develop a diffuse and non-binding form of security cooperation through the Quad from 2017. 

Despite significant convergence with the dominant norms of the post-Cold War liberal international order, India’s commitment has nonetheless remained—to use the language of India and international affairs scholar Deepa Ollapally—“instrumental and partial.” Indian leaders have contested key elements of the US-led liberal international order because India’s experiences of that order have not always been positive. For India, the liberal international order has functioned more as a normative and material resource than an article of faith, with elements selected and rejected as required.

This strategic approach persists, but India’s room for maneuver may be greater than before. The US, as the preeminent liberal actor in the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, continues to command particular social power in defining the Indo-Pacific as a liberal security order. Japan and Australia, at various moments across recent shifts in leadership, have also championed the idea of the Quad as a community that delivers shared security on the basis of specified liberal values. India, by contrast, is working to keep malleable established ideas about what constitutes legitimate liberal identity and behavior. This allows New Delhi to pursue its often distinctive interests and avoid succumbing to the role of a “liberal socialisée” in the shadow of the US and its allies.

A higher-resolution examination of the Quad members’ commitment to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific reveals that India’s pattern of engagement with the Quad displays particular strategic and political visions. First and foremost, India has been unwilling to pursue an overt collective strategy of Chinese containment. Since the tense—and at one point violent—border standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley in mid-2020, New Delhi’s appetite for strategic partnerships has grown, and its caution over strategic cooperation, with the US in particular, has diminished. Yet, Indian strategic elites are resistant to a deeper institutionalization of the Quad along hard security lines. India has, for example, not joined the US in enforcing freedom of navigation via patrols in the South China Sea and has continued high-level defense cooperation with Russia. This latter policy limits India’s interoperability with the other three Quad partners, whose alliance partnerships among themselves permit deeper levels of advanced technological exchange.

Certainly, since 2017, India has embraced elements of the Quad’s institutionalization, including summit level meetings and working groups. However, India’s relationship with the Quad has remained caveated. 

Indian leaders have contested the regional logics of the space within which the Quad is imagined. In a major statement at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi argued that “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members” and that India instead prioritizes regional “inclusiveness,” recognizing, in particular, the “centrality of ASEAN to any ordering and decision-making in the Indo-Pacific.” The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, launched by India in 2019, also conveyed a similar inclusive rather than exclusive approach, centered on rules based on basic common interests rather than shared values, and with no plans for institutionalization. 

Other apparently shared regional liberal values are more discordant beneath the surface, too. The Quad leaders have pledged to “prioritize the role of international law in the maritime domain, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” Yet India’s stance on freedom of navigation is similar to that of China: India asserts rights to restrict the activities of foreign military vessels in its Exclusive Economic Zone, in opposition to US readings of customary law. As a consequence, India has been a longstanding target of US freedom of navigation operations. 

Importantly, for this quadrilateral partnership of four democracies, where domestic liberal identity cues are concerned, too, ministers affiliated with India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government have pushed back against open criticism from US civil society that India is witnessing growing illiberalism under Modi’s leadership. The US, Japan, and Australia have all refrained from officially raising concerns that India is undergoing a phase of democratic backsliding. The Quad powers’ persistent, collective celebration of their shared identities as democracies produces a paradox at the heart of the grouping: it has created a permissive space for illiberalism and democratic erosion in India, alongside tolerance for diversity in domestic governance models across the region.

Beyond the region, the convergence of some Quad interests within the Indo-Pacific does not equate to India’s straightforward embrace of US, Japanese, or Australian commitments. The importance of India’s relationship with Russia as an indicator of India’s commitment to strategic autonomy has become particularly salient following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Jaishankar argued in November 2022, “the Quad was never envisioned as four countries having identical positions on all issues.”

In the midst of a period of order transition, contestation over legitimate forms of identity and the values that shape action are to be expected. Since the Indo-Pacific order is still nascent, we would expect India to shape the terms of engagement of the Quad grouping and the nature of Indo-Pacific order in ways that reflect its own identity and interests. The current context of flux and the pivotal significance attributed to India’s material and ideological balancing function in the region give India greater agency over the kinds of identity and behavior that can be considered legitimate in a liberal space.

Ultimately, within the Indo-Pacific, India’s low-resolution embrace of liberal identity and values has currency at a moment of flux in which India seeks status enhancement and a short-term security bulwark against China. However, within and beyond the Quad, vis-à-vis the US and other custodians or followers of a US-led liberal international order, India’s rejection of traditional alliance formation, resistance to formal institutions, insistence on regional inclusiveness, and refusal to accept external judgments on its democratic identity are already making their imprint on order-building on the Indo-Pacific. They confirm the existence of a low-resolution liberal order, where the terms “free and open” are used and understood flexibly as a means to bridge the gaps between three treaty allies—the US, Japan, and Australia—and India, in the pursuit of the social exclusion of China, during a period of regional order transition. 

Kate Sullivan de Estrada is an Associate Professor in International Relations of South Asia at the University of Oxford and author of a recent, open access article for The Pacific Review, titled “India and Order Transition in the Indo-Pacific: Resisting the Quad as a ‘Security Community’.”

This article is the first in a four-part IiT series focused on India in the Quad, the geopolitical grouping that also includes Japan, Australia, and the US, whose leaders are meeting for the annual Quad Summit in Sydney in May 2023. As India's perception of the China challenge continues to evolve, its approach toward the Quad—which has expanded in ambition and activity since the COVID-19 crisis, the 2020 Indo-China clash in Ladakh, and amid growing Sino-US tensions—calls for additional scholarly scrutiny. Subsequent pieces in the series will look at India's individual relations with each of its fellow Quad nations.

(IiT Consulting Editor: Rohan Venkat, writer, India Inside Out; Editorial Consultant, Centre for Policy Research)

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

© 2023 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.