As China’s military has modernized, Beijing’s territorial pursuits have become more pronounced. In May 2020, after years of mounting tensions on the India-China border, China pressed its claims in Ladakh. The resulting deadly skirmish on the Line of Actual Control shattered the existing strategic balance that had defined the bilateral relations between India and China, and New Delhi became convinced that the region needed more effective bulwarks against Chinese coercion. But what options do states like India have to balance the threats posed by ambitious neighbors, especially when internal and external balancing can be costly or provocative? How might India deter Chinese intrusion in the broader Indo-Pacific region, and if so, who will help?
In a new International Affairs article, Shorenstein APARC South Asia Research Scholar Arzan Tarapore advances the concept of ‘zone balancing’ to answer these questions, using it to explain India's post-2020 strategic adjustment, including its warmer embrace of the Quad—the minilateral grouping comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States. According to Tarapore, zone balancing provides a convincing rationale for the Quad's recently-clarified strategic logic.
Zone balancing is a term that denotes efforts to build the capacity and resilience of third-party states, differently from efforts to match the rival state's power symmetrically, as in internal and external balancing. In zone balancing, “the balancer seeks to harden other states against the adversary’s coercion or inducements, thereby limiting the adversary’s opportunities to build strategic influence […] the balancing is still designed to gain an advantage over the adversary, but indirectly, by shaping the ‘zone’—or geographic region—of strategic competition, rather than directly, as a dyadic race for power between rivals.”
Tarapore cites the Marshall Plan as an early example for the application of zone balancing. For additional context, he establishes the theoretical foundations of more common approaches to balancing, and how India has applied such strategies against a rising China. The case of India demonstrates how changed structural conditions prompted it to shift emphasis from evasive balancing to zone balancing. Before concurrent crises drove New Delhi’s post-2020 strategic adjustment, “India had cautiously sought to soften its balancing against China by persisting with diplomatic reassurance—an approach Rajesh Rajagopalan labeled in this journal as ‘evasive balancing’.”
Evasive balancing managed to regulate the India-China rivalry for some time but ultimately failed to deter China from aggression against India. The most notable crisis that prompted the shift to zone balancing was the border dispute in May 2020, when Chinese forces launched major incursions into the Indian territory of Ladakh, prompting a deadly skirmish, as well as further militarization of border areas that marked a rupture in the broader bilateral relationship.
Enter the Quad, the minilateral security grouping comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Minilateral security organs like the Quad could address some of the challenges posed by China, and India began to see the Quad as the logical vehicle to implement zone balancing. Re-established in late 2017, after a decade-long hiatus, The Quad “represented a signal, especially to China, that powerful like-minded states could and would coordinate…Beijing regarded this as a U.S.-orchestrated effort to contain China; therefore, simply sustaining the Quad and slowly building its momentum posed a threat to China’s plans.”
According to Tarapore, this signaling function was the early Quad’s greatest strategic significance, regardless of its architect's intentions. The Quad’s significance has shifted since the leaders’ summits began in 2021, and its mere existence is no longer enough; it seeks to achieve policy outcomes.
Indeed, zone balancing depends on policy outcomes: “building target states’ capacity and resilience depends on the achievement of actual effects, whether material or institutional…These effects are greater when we also consider the informal Quad, with some or all of its members acting in other channels, for example to track submarines across the whole Indo-Pacific, or to build resilient undersea communication cables in the south Pacific.” While achieving policy outcomes represents new ground for the formal Quad, the group's capacity for zone balancing to advance a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific,’ even without officially committing its members to combined military action, remains a promising prospect.
Like any deterrent strategy, zone balancing is limited in its applicability. For Tarapore, zone balancing alone “is not enough to safeguard regional stability…most fundamentally, the Quad’s zone balancing does not offer broad-spectrum protection against aggression.” Insisting that the Quad’s strategy of zone balancing can succeed only if it “leavens its priorities with a sensitive and nuanced appreciation for regional concerns,” Tarapore emphasizes that the Quad’s success as a vehicle for zone balancing relies on its credibility as a provider of international public goods and its ability to deliver on key policy goals.