Zone balancing: India and the Quad's new strategic logic

An article in International Affairs, Volume 99, Issue 1, January 2023, Pages 239–25.

International Affairs

When a state faces a rising great power rival, it has a range of balancing options from which to choose. But a balancing state may consider many of the most common options to be either too costly or unduly provocative. Thus India, for example, considered 2020 to be a strategic watershed—with a clearly more aggressive China on the border, and a clearly more disorderly international system after the COVID pandemic—but has undertaken only modest military balancing. What alternative options do such erstwhile balancers have?

This article addresses both those theoretical and empirical puzzles, by introducing the novel concept of ‘zone balancing’ as another option in a balancing state's repertoire. Zone balancing seeks to shape the international field of competition in which the balancer and rival operate—specifically, to build the capacity and resilience of third-party states, to shrink the rival's ability to coerce them.

This article advances that concept and uses it to explain India's post-2020 strategic adjustment, and especially its warmer embrace of the Quad—the minilateral grouping comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Zone balancing effectively explains the Quad's recently-clarified strategic logic, and predicts some of its limitations.