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HomeGeopolitical CompassSouth & Southeast AsiaZone Balancing: India and Quad's New Strategic Logic

Zone Balancing: India and Quad’s New Strategic Logic

Authors: Arzan Tarapore 

Affiliation: Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: January 9, 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 19


Keywords: Indian Strategy, Quad, Zone Balancing, China’s Rise, the Geopolitics of Indo-pacific Region 



This article focuses on studying the case of India and its strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region. Due to the security and political tensions between the two countries, India is compelled to employ a strategy known as “zone balancing.” However, engaging in a military balance is both costly and risky, as it requires additional internal and external resources for the state. It also necessitates security commitments with other parties, with the most dangerous consequence being a potential misunderstanding by China, a rising power, perceiving it as a provocation and direct threat. Recognizing that China is the strongest and most influential actor in the region, the strategy of military balancing with China may burden India with additional national capabilities, provoke the rising power, or fail to effectively address the strategic challenges posed by its opponent. In light of the radical transformation of the Chinese army and the expansion of China’s territorial demands, which resulted in a deadly border confrontation with India in 2020, what options does India have today? What if these options prove unduly provocative or inadequate for resolving pressing strategic problems?

The central idea of the article revolves around a new dimension of the concept of “zone balancing.” It refers to efforts aimed at enhancing the capacity and flexibility of regional states surrounding the two adversaries so that they can withstand the temptations or pressures exerted by either country. Instead of striving to match the strength of the competing state, which could lead to provocation, the efforts of the balancer focus on shaping the geographical area in a way that renders the opponent unable to extend its strategic influence in that environment. While the ultimate goal of this policy is to gain an advantage over the opponent, the strategy is indirect rather than engaging in a direct competition between rivals. This approach has been labeled “evasive balancing,” wherein India has eased its direct balancing act with China and compensated for it through diplomatic reassurance. One of the key reasons for this shift is the devastating economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Indian economy, which has made the military budget considerably expensive. Unfortunately, the consequence of this evasive complacency was India’s failure to repel the Chinese military incursion into the “Ladakh” region in 2020, resulting in the continued militarization of the border areas between the two countries to this day.

This article posits that India’s fluctuating approach between the strategies of “military balance” and “evasive balancing,” coupled with China’s increasing military intransigence, has deepened India’s cooperation within the Quad. The Quad comprises India, Australia, Japan, and the United States, although it lacks a common security commitment that would transform it into a military alliance capable of establishing an external balance or deterring certain forms of aggression. Nonetheless, for India, the Quad represents a regional balancing strategy.

The study contributes in three primary ways. Firstly, it establishes the theoretical framework for the concept of “zone balancing” and examines why traditional balance concepts fail to explain certain state behaviors. Secondly, it elucidates the conditions that prompt the adoption of “balancing the region” and analyzes the Indian case during its transition from evasive balancing to regional balance. Thirdly, it expounds upon the strategic logic of the Quad group, outlining how this group employs the strategy of “balancing the region” to enhance stability in the Indo-Pacific region without necessitating joint military action among its members.

The article is divided into five sections. The first section discusses the theoretical foundations of balancing and examines India’s past endeavors. The second section introduces the concept of “Zone Balancing.” The third section elucidates India’s strategic readjustment following the events of 2020. The fourth section explores how the Quad applies the strategy of “zone balancing.” Finally, the conclusion discusses the political limitations of the “zone balancing” option as an incomplete strategy.

The main ideas presented in the first section revolve around defining the concept of “balance of power.” It characterizes it as a state of equilibrium between adversaries, involving efforts to achieve both internal and external balance by enhancing economic and military strength on one hand, and forming alliances or diverting alliances on the other hand. In an anarchic international system, states inherently strive to accumulate power individually or collectively. Implementing these concepts necessitates two key factors: a net increase in military capacity and defense spending as an internal currency, and reasonable expectations of security commitments from allies as an external currency.

Within this section, two types of balancing are proposed. The first is direct or negative balance, where a state seeks to weaken the power of its opponent or its allies. The second is indirect balance, also known as “soft balance.” While some critics view soft balance as a broad concept that primarily pertains to a state’s foreign policy behavior rather than a strategy to achieve balance with a security competitor, the notion of indirect balance encompasses several crucial concepts that underpin this proposition. One of these concepts is that smaller states utilize the military capabilities of a relatively benign superpower to deter a more threatening superpower, thus highlighting an international phenomenon.

Additionally, there is the concept of “institutional balance” where states collaborate and consolidate power within international organizations. Another concept is “secret balance,” wherein a superpower seeks to establish security relations with smaller countries through less provocative and more acceptable forms of military cooperation. However, countries may sometimes need to adapt their approaches and even make concessions to maintain control over competition. India serves as a model for this idea, and (Rajagopalan) refers to India’s policy as the “elusive balance.” India shifted from a policy of direct balancing to one of concessions, aiming to reassure China of its non-hostile intentions. Rajagopalan identifies five such concessions. Firstly, publicly acknowledging that India does not seek to contain China. Secondly, continued participation in multilateral forums like BRICS. Thirdly, making unilateral concessions such as refraining from official support for events organized by Tibetan exiles. Fourthly, engaging in high-level dialogues like the informal summits in Wuhan and Chennai. Lastly, and most importantly, showing reluctance to deepen cooperation within the Quad (India, Australia, the United States, and Japan). Rajagopalan cautioned that this policy may not be sustainable and that it deprived India of certain benefits. The Ladakh crisis in 2020 highlighted the limitations of this approach, prompting India to modify its strategy by deepening cooperation within the Quad. However, the article concludes this first section by warning that India is cautious about indicating any foreign military commitments, and most of India’s international defense cooperation, including new arms acquisitions and joint exercises, primarily aim to enhance Indian military capabilities for “internal balance” rather than being directed externally against China.

The second section of the article focuses on the concept of “zone balancing,” which involves reshaping the international arena in which the balancer and the competitor operate. The balancer works to strengthen and bolster regional third-party actors, enabling them to resist coercion or temptations from the competitor. Unlike traditional bilateral balancing, “zone balancing” relies on the regional influence of these third-party countries rather than solely on the strength of the balancer or the competitor. This is achieved by addressing the strategic needs of targeted countries and enhancing their sovereign capabilities to withstand coercion from the opponent.

However, the article cautions that not all forms of international aid can be considered part of the balancing process. The distinction lies in the recipient countries being aware of and actively engaged in the process of “zone balancing,” particularly if they perceive the competitor as seeking expansion at their expense or attempting to coerce them.

In the third section, the article explores the reasons behind India’s strategic adjustment and its adoption of the “zone balancing” strategy. These reasons include: 1. Chinese military deployment in the Himalayas. 2. The breakdown of the diplomatic framework established through bilateral agreements since the challenging process of normalizing relations between India and China in 1988. 3. China’s increasing naval buildup in the Indian Ocean. 4. Predatory Chinese business practices. 5. The crisis in Ladakh that unfolded in 2020. 6. The adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on India.

These factors compelled India to recalibrate its approach in the region, placing greater emphasis on building its national strength. India recognized the necessity of coordinated collective action as the means to deter Chinese aggression, which is fueled by the existing imbalances in the international structure and strategic disruptions.

In the fourth section, the article discusses the implementation of “zone balancing” and the strategic approach of the Quad. The Quad was revived in 2017 after a decade-long hiatus and serves as a mechanism for foreign ministers’ consultation. However, concerns arose regarding the potential transformation of the Quad into an “Asian NATO,” which could lead to division. The Quad meeting in May 2022 confirmed that the Quartet’s agenda extends beyond regional balancing. It encompassed various fields such as healthcare, education, space exploration, cybersecurity, technology, humanitarian issues, maritime affairs, and climate change.

The author identifies three defining features of the Quad’s approach to balancing the region. First, the Quad focuses on safeguarding international interests by positioning itself as a reliable provider of commodities, including vaccines, communication networks, and infrastructure. Security is no longer the sole focus of the Quad’s agenda. Second, the Quad emphasizes informal discussions on security matters. While security is not the primary agenda item, it is not entirely absent either. This approach helps the group avoid being perceived as engaged in traditional balance of power strategies. Third, the Quad pursues a political agenda based on common regional interests. The convening of the Quad summit in 2017 sent a signal to China that there are like-minded countries aiming to contain its influence. This early indication underscored the strategic significance of the Quad. To ensure greater feasibility of their policies, Quad members collaborate in pooling resources and leveraging complementary advantages. For example, they coordinate efforts to enhance the semiconductor supply chain, collaborate on drug development and clinical trials, and share information and data on genetic sequencing. These collaborative efforts make the Quad an attractive entity for other partners who share similar interests. While the conflict in Ukraine posed a challenge to Quad members and caused some divergence among them, the group’s primary focus remains on a specific set of regional interests in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, allowing it to maintain its cohesion.

In conclusion, the author highlights that the strategy of “zone balancing” pursued by the Quad is incomplete without operational effectiveness. While the Quad has followed the theoretical logic of its strategy, it has not provided a comprehensive response to potential large-scale aggression, such as deterring China from attacking Taiwan. The strategy of “zone balancing” remains useful for certain military preparations, but it has not reached the level of military commitment by the Quad’s member states. The group has not demonstrated a commitment to swift and decisive political and military action in the face of aggression. Building military capabilities remains essential for national security and serves as a deterrent against military aggression.

The article suggests that the Quad needs to further organize and refine its approach to “zone balancing.” The group should prioritize consolidating success in broader cooperation beyond areas such as medical vaccines, education, and infrastructure. It must also strive to establish credibility as a reliable provider of international public goods. To achieve this, the Quad must address regional suspicion and misunderstanding about its goals. The strategy of “zone balancing” can only succeed if it is formulated based on subjective assessments of the region’s needs, taking into account the specific challenges and dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region.


By: Dr. Nabil Kahlouche, Strategic Researcher



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