Executive summary

  • The rise of China and the emergence of a multipolar regional order in the Indo-Pacific has raised questions on the effectiveness of traditional, Cold War period alliance structures to deliver desired security outcomes.
  • India has historically shunned participation in collective defence arrangements but the evolving Indo-Pacific scenario has brought about considerable strategic alignment between India and the political West, particularly the United States, Australia and Japan.
  • Despite the challenges posed by China along its land border, and historical relations with Russia, India’s participation in a collective security arrangement with the United States and its allies is no longer an inconceivable proposition, though not without its limitations either.
  • The challenge is to progress this shared strategic perspective into a collective arrangement for deterrence and possibly defence, which can protect and preserve the existing order from Chinese revisionist activities, whilst serving the national interests of member countries.

Policy recommendations for Australia, the United States and other partners

  • With respect to India, concepts of collective defence ought to be reconceptualised from a linear collective military response model of the Cold War to drawing upon varying levels of military and non-military contributions, through flexible, issue-based arrangements from a larger number of states in order to achieve shared objectives and outcomes.
  • While considerable effort is underway in increasing military interoperability between India and its regional partners, mitigating the political impediments to India’s participation in a collective defence effort requires sustained and persistent attention.
  • Developing collaborative enterprises for shared defence capability development will be vital to providing alternative and viable sources of defence equipment to India as it aspires to greater self-reliance. In turn, this could also help alleviate critical defence capability shortfalls for the United States and its allies in the region by providing an alternative source of supply for select platforms or capabilities.
  • As the military elements of like-minded countries gain considerable experience in combined operations, it will be useful to provide more avenues for engagement with civilian planners in India’s defence establishment through high-end defence desktop exercises and wargames. Ultimately, over time this could lead to the development of something approaching a combined operational doctrine for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
  • While the official position on the Quad precludes any focus on defence and security issues, it nevertheless provides one of the most viable platforms for developing a collective deterrence framework for the Indo-Pacific. The evolution of a meaningful security agenda for the Quad is essential to develop viable collective deterrence and defence architecture for the Indo-Pacific with India.
DownloadIndia and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific: Possibilities, prospects and challenges


In an increasingly contested multipolar regional order, India’s role in shaping the Indo-Pacific security environment is undeniably important. The United States, Australia and Japan, in particular, view India as a critical defence partner and a valuable bulwark against China’s increasingly assertive efforts to alter the regional strategic balance in its favour.1 Concurrently, India views an increasingly revisionist and aggressive China as a threat to its growing economic interests and ambitions to be a regional power.2 Notwithstanding a history of non-alignment, and an avowed commitment to strategic autonomy, it is evident that the evolving Indo-Pacific environment is stimulating greater strategic alignment and military engagement between India and the political West.3

However, even as India’s security outlook for the Indo-Pacific aligns considerably with that of the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies, India’s military contributions to a potential collective defence scenario have been the subject of much speculation and discussion.4 As the only Quad country to share a land boundary with China, there are limits to India’s potential contributions to imaginable collective military efforts, particularly those that may involve direct engagement with Chinese forces. The challenge, therefore, is to imagine the “art of the possible” when it comes to India’s participation in a range of potential collective deterrence and defence futures. For the United States and its allies, thinking through ways in which to maximise India’s contributions in a range of imaginable future contingencies ahead of time could significantly bolster collective defence outcomes in crisis situations, particularly in the IOR where India’s strategic interests would be most immutable and, importantly, where the resources of its partners could be considerably overextended.

This report assesses the prospects of India’s participation in a range of collective defence futures in the Indo-Pacific, and examines conditions and constraints that would influence and inform its engagement in such efforts.

This report assesses the prospects of India’s participation in a range of collective defence futures in the Indo-Pacific, and examines conditions and constraints that would influence and inform its engagement in such efforts. The report suggests that imagining India’s participation in plausible future scenarios requires redefining traditional notions of “collective defence” to suit contemporary security needs and political realities. It also requires an analysis of complexities arising from India’s long-standing geopolitical relationships with its neighbours, particularly the volatile land border dispute with China, as well as India’s historical defence relations with Russia. Finally, doing so also necessitates envisioning a spectrum of options that India might consider adopting in response to different regional contingencies, as opposed to a binary “in or out” framing that characterises traditional military alliances.

Consequently, depending on specific circumstances of a future contingency in the Indo-Pacific, the report considers India’s military contributions from four possible positions: 1) non-involvement; 2) indirect military support; 3) limited direct military support; and 4) substantial direct military support, with respect to a selection of plausible military scenarios between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. The report identifies the nature of military support that India could provide to collective defence efforts in these plausible futures and explores constructive engagement strategies that likeminded countries could pursue to maximise these prospective contributions. Considering all of the above, the report concludes by making long-term policy recommendations for Australia, the United States and other partners to progressively integrate India into a collective architecture for deterrence and defence in the Indo-Pacific within the realm of the possible.

Reimagining collective defence

The term “collective defence,” generally describes collective military action in response to a specific and tangible threat.5 Collective security, on the other hand, is a more generic and open-ended arrangement that compels participating countries to commit resources against any future threat from an indeterminate source. Article 16 of the League of Nations, for instance, sought to establish a collective security arrangement, where “should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other Members of the League…”6 This principle is mirrored in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.7

However, in the case of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the identification of a common adversary (Soviet Union), and the presence of a serious and tangible threat (military attack on Western Europe and the Communist threat to the liberal order), made it a collective defence arrangement during the Cold War period. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War underscored the success of NATO’s collective deterrence efforts but also raised the prospect that NATO would then have to navigate the tricky transition from a collective defence footing to one of collective security without diluting its efficacy.8 However, some would argue that the detrimental effect of these intervening years when NATO countries capitalised on the peace dividend is arguably evident today, as the alliance seeks to re-establish credible collective deterrence in Europe against Russia.9

Royal Australian Air Force and Indian Navy aircrews and maintenance crews from the Indian Navy P-8I Neptune (left) and RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft at RAAF Base Darwin April 2022.
Royal Australian Air Force and Indian Navy aircrews and maintenance crews from the Indian Navy P-8I Neptune (left) and RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft at RAAF Base Darwin April 2022. Source: Australian Department of Defence

The Australia, New Zealand and United States (ANZUS) Treaty is another collective defence arrangement that came into being during the Cold War. However, the unambiguous call to arms within NATO in the event of armed aggression against a member state contrasts with the ANZUS Treaty, which states:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.10

The relative vagueness of the ANZUS Treaty has been the subject of many debates regarding its utility and the extent to which its remaining members (Australia and the United States) are obliged to contribute to a conflict involving either country. For instance, Australia’s participation in a potential Taiwan conflict involving the United States has been the subject of considerable discussion and speculation.11 The bipartisan approach to this question has been to defer any decision until such a contingency arises, and to premise that decision on an assessment of national interests at the time.12 Regardless of one’s view on this approach, it is nevertheless indicative of the manner in which collective defence may be evolving in the post-Cold War period, from an unequivocal and binding treaty-based commitment to a decision based on alignment of interests, and the shared perception of a common and potent threat.

Collective deterrence and defence in the contemporary world

In a multipolar global order with diffuse power centres and dispersed sources of threats, defence of the liberal international order can no longer be based solely upon the linear collective military response model of the Cold War. Indeed, the current global environment is considerably different to that in which historical examples of collective defence architectures evolved. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the most notable feature of the contemporary world is its increasingly multipolar nature.13 Some commentators dispute this, arguing that unlike the Cold War period (bipolar), or the post-Cold War period (unipolar), there are currently no states other than China and the United States with aggregate national power sufficiently high to be classified as “poles” in a multipolar order.14 However, this argument tends to focus on a narrow, historical definition of polarity, and ignores the relative growth of a number of influential actors in the post-Cold War period, nor does it assess relative balances of power in distinctly regional, rather than global contexts. Current multipolarity arises from the relative diffusion of power across several states and non-state entities, and not from their amalgamation into distinct power blocs, as was the case during the Cold War.15

The disruptive aspects of multipolarity have been more visible in contemporary times. Actors that are not Great Powers have been able to stress-test existing deterrence mechanisms, take advantage of their ineffectiveness, and cause significant disruptions. For instance, Russia, whilst a shadow of its past self, has initiated what portends to be a prolonged European conflict, the first since the Second World War. In the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis backed by an obdurate Iran have extended the battlelines out to the Red Sea, creating global repercussions for trade and maritime security and imposing considerable cost-effectiveness challenges to the United States military.16 Clearly, existing arrangements have proved inadequate in these instances, to deter and defeat threats to the liberal international order.

A significant factor that militates against classical notions of collective deterrence and defence is the nature of contemporary threats to the regional order in the Indo-Pacific. During most of the Cold War, the predominant threat was that of a nuclear war between NATO and the Communist bloc. Nuclear war continues to be the most catastrophic global threat but the ability to initiate – and deter – one has been acquired by several states.17 Moreover, US-led extended deterrence and collective defence arrangements were designed around the Atlantic and Europe as the most likely arena for conflict, and are comparatively thin beyond bilateral alliance arrangements in the Indo-Pacific, notwithstanding a proliferation of “minilateral” security initiatives in recent years.18 This has allowed China to pursue its strategic aims through a combination of aggressive “grey zone”19 and military coercion against states with which it has longstanding disputes, most visibly in the South China Sea and along the contested border with India.20 By sustaining a level of coercion below the threshold of outright kinetic conflict, and employing non-military and quasi-military tools of statecraft, China’s actions have largely offset collective deterrence effects whilst keeping collective defence out of play.

By sustaining a level of coercion below the threshold of outright kinetic conflict, and employing non-military and quasi-military tools of statecraft, China’s actions have largely offset collective deterrence effects whilst keeping collective defence out of play.

At least three principal factors ought to influence contemporary thinking about collective defence and deterrence. First, the likelihood of “limited wars” has increased. Here, the term “limited war” describes the objectives of the aggressor, and not necessarily the intensity or the means used to prosecute the conflict.21 Since such conflicts are localised in scope, they may be best deterred or defeated by collective arrangements suited to the specific environment and political-strategic circumstances, and based upon the common perception of that localised threat.22 Second, as some states find themselves increasingly vulnerable to the direct and indirect consequences of regional instability, they have developed capabilities for protecting their national interests, but which can also be effectively utilised for threat mitigation in a collective context. This is evident, for instance, in the acquisition of high-end defence capabilities by states such as the Philippines and Indonesia.23 Third, and most importantly, many such states, notwithstanding their relative position in the global order of power, are willing to deploy national capabilities, and be active stakeholders in shaping the international order, rather than being passively led into the Great Powers’ version of it. As compared to the Cold War period, more states have the wherewithal and the political will to advocate and actualise their national interests, often against the preferences of stronger states.24 A standing, one-size-fits-all structure for collective deterrence and defence, based on a formal alliance system, is therefore less likely to achieve the critical mass of consensus required in the face of emergent threats compared to new, more flexible forms of collective defence. Therefore, new and emerging collective defence and deterrence architectures in the Indo-Pacific would be best served by drawing upon varying levels of military and non-military contributions, through flexible, issue-based arrangements from a larger number of states in order to achieve shared objectives and outcomes.

India and collective defence

Historically, India has been averse to participating in collective defence arrangements. As the Cold War blocs solidified in the 1950s, newly independent India, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, felt that aligning with either side would constrain its hard-won independence and freedom of choice in foreign policy and national security matters.25 There were significant rational factors that shaped India’s attitude to alignment dynamics during the Cold War. The most consequential of these were India’s relative military weakness and domestic stresses, due in large part to which Nehru was unwilling to get involved in “the problems of Europe.”26 Consequently, Nehru, together with Josip Tito (Yugoslavia), Kwame Nakrumah (Ghana) and Sukarno (Indonesia), delivered the Bandung conference of 1955, which eventually launched the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Attempts by Western states to undermine the Bandung Conference further imbued the NAM with a strong anti-West sentiment.27 In this context, Acharya says, “[i]t remains an important question whether NAM would have taken a different, less anti-American course had the administration treated the Asian neutrals with greater empathy and tactfulness and engaged them directly (rather than relying on Britain).”28

The non-alignment experiment

However, non-alignment as a normative centrepiece of India’s foreign policy began to unravel as it confronted multiple military challenges from China and Pakistan. During the 1962 war with China, as the Indian Army faced a humiliating defeat and the prospect of losing territory along the Himalayan border to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) loomed large, Nehru was compelled to seek military aid from the United States.29 Despite the ongoing Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy agreed to provide India with military aid and also asked the United Kingdom and Canada to join the effort. For Nehru, who had aspired to friendly relations with China and to eschewing any assistance from the West that could dilute India’s non-alignment policy, this was a chastening experience, tempered only by reassurances of the US ambassador that the aid would not be conditional on India joining a military alliance with the United States.30 To make matters worse, the USSR refused to keep up its earlier commitment to provide India with fighter aircraft, siding instead with Communist China, thus highlighting the complicated environment and complex alignment dynamics within which India sought to maximise its autonomy.31

Though these developments created favourable conditions for greater alignment, the US-India relationship could not flourish in the post-Kennedy and Nehru period. In the long-standing rivalry between India and Pakistan, particularly over Kashmir, the United States, concerned at the prospect of a weakened Pakistan — its closest ally in South Asia in the fight against Communism — chose to side with it. Consequently, in the 1971 war with Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the Treaty of Friendship with the USSR, as the Nixon administration tilted towards Pakistan.32 The US Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and its task force sailed into the Bay of Bengal in solidarity with Pakistan, much to India’s chagrin and alarm.33 While the conflict ended in India’s favour, and the presence of the US Navy task force ended up being more symbolic than anything else, the suggestion that the United States could intervene militarily against Indian interests, became enduringly imprinted in the collective Indian psyche. This acted as a strong constraint on efforts to build friendly ties with the United States and its allies for many decades.34

As the Cold War came to an end, there was considerable debate within India’s strategic community on the value and benefits of non-alignment. The NAM had been a novel concept that had sound ideological aspirations, but its member countries lacked the resources and the strategic heft to pursue truly non-aligned foreign policies. For India, in particular, the return on investment in the NAM was poor: for example, none of the NAM member countries offered any support to India during conflicts with China and Pakistan. India refused to join the US-led sanctions against Iran for its nuclear proliferation activities, but Iran continued to vote against Indian interests in Kashmir at the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).35 These factors compelled India to rethink its policy of non-alignment. TP Sreenivasan, a former Indian diplomat and deputy ambassador to the United States, summed up India’s troubled relationship with non-alignment and the new direction of its foreign policy when he stated:

India has already moved away from a pathological attachment to non-alignment and opted for selective alignments on the basis of mutual benefit. To harp on the primacy of autonomy, to the exclusion of finding common cause with others is a sign of weakness and lack of self-confidence… Strategic autonomy comes automatically to the powerful. In the pursuit of power, selective alignments are more crucial than non-alignment.36

India’s economic and strategic reorientation

The end of the Cold War also coincided with India’s turn to economic liberalism. India’s embrace of the liberal economic order has been described as an unstated, yet visible alignment with the US-led order, if not with the United States itself.37 India’s economic reforms were accompanied by growth in its military capabilities, particularly in its navy, which were interpreted by Indian and US defence officials alike as a means for India to become a “net provider of security” in the region.38 Indeed, India’s successive maritime policy and strategy documents articulated a role for its navy that went beyond the mere defence of its territorial integrity.39 With sustained economic growth, India became increasingly invested in the liberal economic and strategic order and recognised that the impact of Chinese revisionism on this order would be detrimental to India’s interests.40 Moreover, as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) grew in size and capabilities; developed significant infrastructure along the disputed border with India; and expanded its naval activities across the Indian Ocean, the balance of power in the Sino-Indian contest shifted rapidly in favour of China. This compelled India to pay greater attention to the threat posed by China — an undertaking in which it continues to find convergence with the United States and its allies. As a nation increasingly dependent on the seas for sustained economic growth, India became particularly concerned by China’s ability to project naval power into the Indian Ocean.41 The economic reform of the early 1990s was therefore a watershed moment for India’s foreign policy. Combined with increasing Chinese military capabilities and assertiveness, it encouraged India to envisage a progressively greater role for itself in preserving and sustaining a regional order that better served its national interests.42

Indian army convoy moves along the Srinagar-Leh National highway towards Ladakh on 17 June 2020. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent clash with Chinese forces in a disputed border area.
Indian army convoy moves along the Srinagar-Leh National highway towards Ladakh on 17 June 2020. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent clash with Chinese forces in a disputed border area.

Much has transpired in the last two decades to make new collective deterrence and defence arrangements a more viable, if not a preferred option for India to secure its strategic interests. With the increasing importance of India and the Indian Ocean to the liberal international order, the Indo-Pacific began to emerge as a strategic idea in the early 21st Century, one that India was quick to embrace. In this context, India’s then-external affairs minister, and later president, said in 2007:

India is fully alive to this shift and the need to manage it not only in a non-disruptive manner but in a synergistic one as well. Pessimists would look for seeds of conflict or at least balance of power scenarios in this oceanic shift. I for one see it as a potential stabilizer, an enabler of greater prosperity, and as another keystone in the edifice of global interdependence. India, with its growing capabilities and confidence, and its history of benign and active international engagement, is ready to contribute its maritime might to ensure such a positive outcome.43

While President Mukherjee discounted balance of power considerations from India’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region, it is a critical consideration in the context of China. For much of the period since independence in 1947, India’s continental concerns along the northern land borders with Pakistan and China dominated its security discourse. The prospect of a “two-front” war against China and Pakistan acting in collusion remains India’s gravest security concern.44 Within this axis, however, India now identifies China, rather than Pakistan, as its single largest security threat.45 The breakdown of the uneasy détente at the Sino-Indian border on multiple occasions since 2020, and the subsequent alteration of ground positions in favour of China, have highlighted the increasing asymmetry between the military forces of both countries.46 While the trans-Himalayan balance of power has long favoured China, India’s geographical advantage — which afforded it the ability to exploit China’s “Malacca dilemma” in the IOR — had until recently put the overall strategic balance between the two countries on a more even keel.47 However, China has largely been able to reduce the impact of potential disruptions to its sea lines of communication (SLOC) across the IOR in the event of a conflict.48 Indeed, the PLA Navy has grown in size and capability, giving it an expanding reach within the IOR to offset India’s geographical advantage to a large extent.49 Even as India continues to augment its military capabilities, a raft of socio-economic and structural challenges will prevent it from achieving anything close to parity with respect to China in the foreseeable future.50 As the balance of power continues to shift in favour of China, it is becoming increasingly evident that India could benefit from being part of a collective arrangement to counterbalance Chinese power in India’s maritime areas of interest.

Recognising the need for mutual support

The reorientation of India’s national security focus beyond continental considerations has brought about a corresponding expansion of its strategic horizons.51 For much of the last century, the geographical bounds of India’s national security engagement were limited to countries that it shared land boundaries with, and to the immediate maritime vicinity within the IOR. With economic growth and the rapid spread of its diaspora, however, India now looks well beyond its immediate neighbourhood in assessing risks to national security.52 Yet there are limits to what India can realistically achieve by itself, diplomatically and militarily, in the expansive Indo-Pacific region. In its stated ambition to be a stabilising force in the greater Indo-Pacific region, India’s political leadership accepts the inevitable need to work with like-minded partners. At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Modi said:

We will promote a democratic and rules-based international order, in which all nations, small and large, thrive as equal and sovereign. We will work with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open; our nations secure from terrorism; and our cyber space free from disruption and conflict.53

A subtle, yet important development that indicates India’s evolving approach to collective defence in the Indo-Pacific is the public acknowledgement of the need for external assistance in future military confrontations with China. During the 2020 Galwan border crisis, the United States supported the Indian military effort by providing intelligence inputs and expediting the delivery of vital equipment, including loaning two MQ-9B surveillance drones.54 In February 2024, India’s defence secretary acknowledged the US contribution and expressed the hope that, “our friend US will be there with us in case we need their support.”55 He went on to state that mutual support in the face of a common threat would be a critical consideration for India. India has received external assistance from different countries in past conflicts with Pakistan and China but its political establishment has avoided publicly acknowledging or seeking support for such contingencies. These recent developments suggest that while it may not expect direct US intervention in India’s bilateral disputes, India is nevertheless assured that a degree of support is available to it if required and requested. It may also suggest that India’s expectation of US assistance is accompanied by a willingness to reciprocate within the realm of the possible, particularly if its own interests are protected or advanced in the process of working with the United States.56

While it is unlikely that India will ever seek to be part of a formalised defence arrangement, India’s willingness and ability to contribute to new forms of collective deterrence, if not defence, appears to be growing.

Evidently, India’s views on collective defence have evolved with its changing economic and strategic environment. While it is unlikely that India will ever seek to be part of a formalised defence arrangement, India’s willingness and ability to contribute to new forms of collective deterrence, if not defence, appears to be growing. India’s revised outlook is discernible in the alignment of its threat perceptions with those of the United States, Australia and other like-minded partners, reflected in India’s participation in the word and deed of its different bilateral defence relationships along with multilateral order-building arrangements such as the Quad. This is based on the premise that contemporary collective defence arrangements can exist, sans the “attack on one is an attack on all” principle, and that such arrangements could be established ad hoc, for specific contingencies limited in time and space.

Constraints on India’s participation in collective efforts

That said, two important factors may constrain India’s participation in a range of Indo-Pacific collective deterrence or defence efforts: India’s military vulnerability along the disputed land border with China as a pressure point against wider military activism; and its enduring defence relationship with Russia, particularly with respect to military equipment.

First, India is the only Quad country that shares a land border with China. As the largest disputed interstate boundary in the world, it has the potential to be a volatile flashpoint between the nuclear powers, particularly considering recent clashes between amassed troops on both sides.57 Of particular concern to India is the relative asymmetry in military capabilities, with China enjoying a distinct advantage in the theatre. The humiliating loss to China in 1962 remains an enduring memory in India’s collective consciousness.58 Consequently, India is concerned that joining the West in a collective defence effort against China could provoke Chinese retribution across the land border if not delicately calibrated, potentially resulting in a considerable loss of territory and face for India. However, as discussed earlier, recent conflagrations along the Sino-Indian border have triggered greater alignment between India and other Quad countries, particularly the United States, and, as discussed later in this report, demonstrated the value of mutual support for India to deter and defeat Chinese aggression along the border. India’s political and military leadership also realise that proportionate retaliation, and not appeasement, is the way to counter Chinese aggression and deter future coercive activities.59 Therefore, the extent to which India may contribute to any given collective deterrence or defence effort would depend heavily on its assessment of impacts along the Sino-Indian border, and the ability to counter and accept the costs of Chinese retaliation along the land border.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attend the Quad Foreign Ministers panel discussion in New Delhi, March 2023.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attend the Quad Foreign Ministers panel discussion in New Delhi, March 2023.Source: Getty

Second, India’s enduring relationship with Russia could also pose considerable problems for prospective Indo-Pacific collective security arrangements. This relationship is understandably problematic for the United States and its allies, as it has shaped India’s response, or lack thereof, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.60 For India, however, its partnership with Russia has been cemented over decades of transactional gains, especially in periods of military crises, such as the 1971 war with Pakistan.61 The most significant element of this relationship is the arms trade, which has underpinned India’s military capabilities since the 1970s. Access to advanced military systems at relatively low costs, and the transfer of critical technology, otherwise unavailable from the West, has resulted in the Indian military’s order of battle being dominated by Russian-origin equipment.

However, there are growing indications that India may prefer to decouple from Russia as a preferred source of military equipment and that the United States or other third-party suppliers like France could seek to fill the void.62 On the Indian side, this is motivated by questions around the ability of Russia to remain a reliable defence partner in view of the Ukraine war, and importantly, the effectiveness of modern Russian weapon systems on the battlefield.63 The process of weaning India away from Russian military systems will likely be a protracted one. Even if it stopped acquiring any new systems from Moscow immediately, Russian-origin systems will continue to be in service with the Indian military for decades, thus posing enduring interoperability constraints for India in prospective coalition efforts with partners operating Western equipment.64 However, recent military acquisitions from the United States, particularly critical platforms such as the P-8 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft, and MQ-9B remotely piloted aircraft, have visibly augmented the Indian military’s interoperability with US, Japanese and Australian armed forces in the maritime domain.65 Increased platform interoperability however, is only an enabler of effective combined operations and needs to be preceded by a political decision by India to be part of a collective defence arrangement.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following talks in Moscow, December 2023.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following talks in Moscow, December 2023. Source: Getty

While the prospect of India’s active participation in a collective defence arrangement with Western countries is weighed down by significant historical and geopolitical factors, there are compelling drivers and motivations to surmount these obstacles. For Australia, the United States and Japan, India’s active role as a balancing power in a multipolar regional strategic order is critical.66 For India to realise its aspirations to be a power of consequence in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to be actively involved in deterring and defeating revisionist proclivities that endanger its interests in shaping a favourable regional order. There is a strong basis for operationalising a framework for collective deterrence, if not defence, as a natural successor of the habits of cooperation, cultivated through security engagements between India and the United States, Australia, Japan and France.67 This will not occur quickly or easily, but setting realistic expectations of the effects that India might be able to deliver, and an awareness of the circumstances in which it would be willing to deliver them, would be the first steps in that direction.

The prospects for collective deterrence

While the three scenarios discussed subsequently in the report engage with India’s options in a collective defence setting in the Indo-Pacific, its approach to collective deterrence is easier to discern. India’s security engagement with Quad countries has grown significantly, even as member countries maintain, individually and collectively, that the Quad itself is not a platform for collective defence.68 However, it is evident that India’s foreign policy is being increasingly driven by the need to balance China in two distinct ways. By advancing security cooperation with countries of the political West, namely the United States, Australia, Japan and France, India has sought to mitigate asymmetry in military capabilities with respect to China. Joseph Nye Jr describes India’s evolving relationship with the United States in the following words:

Although it [India] no longer speaks of non-alignment, nor is it interested in restrictive alliances. Following the basic logic of balance-of-power politics, India and the US seem fated not for marriage but for a long-term partnership – one that might last only as long as both countries remain concerned about China.69

By advancing security cooperation with countries of the political West, namely the United States, Australia, Japan and France, India has sought to mitigate asymmetry in military capabilities with respect to China.

India’s security outreach among Indian Ocean littoral states, on the other hand, has been described as “zone balancing” by Arzan Tarapore, who characterises it as being analogous to deterrence by denial, and “suited primarily to reducing the risk of coercion or subversion of the third-party state,” while being somewhat unsuitable in the event of overt military threats to the country.70 In either case, India’s approach can be characterised as actions designed to enhance “general deterrence” against China in the Indo-Pacific, which Lawrence Freedman describes as “an institutionalized perception by a state or group of states that, despite continuing antagonism, it should not expect to be able to resolve its disputes with another state or group of states by military means.”71 Therefore, while India is already an active proponent of collective “general deterrence” in the Indo-Pacific, questions remain as to what extent India would be willing to extend this into “immediate deterrence” as part of a collective effort, in the event of a contingency in the Indo-Pacific. The conceptualisation of more active collective defence measures as a point along a continuum of options indicates that, in scenarios where India would be willing to commit its military units in support of a coalition operation, it would seek to establish effective immediate deterrence in the lead-up to the military action.72 Lack of sufficient warning time and ineffective communication of deterrent effects to China are likely to eventuate in a regional crisis.73 It is therefore important that India continues to contribute meaningfully to augment collective general deterrence in times of relative stability, which would dissuade China from initiating aggressive actions.

Likely scenarios in the Indo-Pacific and India’s response

The most plausible contingencies in the Indo-Pacific warranting a collective defence effort are likely to involve China on one side, and the United States, Australia, Japan and (potentially) India on the other.74 In any given instance, India’s willingness to contribute would be determined by an assessment of risks to its national interests from participation or not in the conflict, and its ability to manage Chinese military retribution for any involvement. This cost-benefit analysis would be underpinned by two primary factors: firstly, the nature of the threat requiring a collective response; and secondly, the location where India’s contribution would be sought. Based on these determinants, India’s military options would lie on a continuum, marked by discrete changes in posture, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The continuum of India’s options in a collective deterrence and defence effort

The continuum of India’s options in a collective deterrence and defence effort

Historically, Indian military assets have never operated under external command and control arrangements except in the case of United Nations operations. This explains India’s non-participation in international coalitions such as the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a 38-nation maritime partnership that conducts maritime law enforcement operations in the IOR.75 It was only in 2022 that India became an associate member of the CMF, deploying an Indian naval ship for short durations in 2022 and 2023 to participate in exercises.76 Recently, without an official announcement or much publicity, India became a full member of the CMF.77 While this may indicate the beginnings of a significant policy shift for India’s external military deployments, the nature of its involvement in the CMF remains to be seen. The fact that India has never seconded its military assets to a coalition command authority, together with its traditional aversion to military alliances, suggests that even if India provided substantial military support to a collective defence effort, it would expect to operate with relative autonomy, maintaining operational control over the employment of its assets and the objectives to be achieved. However, the Indian military, particularly its navy, has extensive experience in exercising for combined naval operations in a multilateral setting such as in exercise Malabar, and in bilateral environments such as in AUSINDEX and JIMEX. Therefore, if India makes a political decision to be part of a coalition operation, its military platforms will be able to operate effectively in a combined command and control setting.

In an evolving scenario, India’s preferred option is unlikely to remain static, and will probably move in either direction along this continuum. The elements defining each discrete position are described below.


India would not make any military contribution to the collective defence effort. It may afford political support to the alliance’s cause through statements of condemnation against China, or by voting in favour of the United States and its allies at resolutions in the United Nations. While maintaining a public stance of non-involvement, India is likely to undertake some preparatory planning and deployment of military units in a purely defensive role, particularly if it expected possible Chinese action along the land border.

Indirect military support

Under this option, India would not participate in planning military operations or deploy its military units in support of the allied effort. However, it could provide discreet surveillance and domain awareness support in an area away from the principal theatre of conflict (for instance, maritime surveillance in the IOR with the primary conflict in the Western Pacific or the South China Sea). India could also provide satellite surveillance and other intelligence support to augment Western coalition capabilities where required. Additionally, India could offer bases for maintenance and logistic support to allied units operating with extended supply lines, enabling provision of essential repair and resupply. India could also conceivably provide search and rescue, and rear-area medical support to allied military units.

Limited direct military support

In addition to the contribution described above, India would be willing to commit a limited number of military assets to the primary theatre of allied effort. The constraints on contributing additional assets would be driven by operational considerations, such as deployment at extended ranges from Indian bases and the lack of sufficient units for essential defence requirements closer to home, rather than on political and diplomatic factors. In other words, India’s support would be overt, and it would be willing to risk Chinese retribution as a consequence.

Substantial direct military support

In exercising this option, India would be willing to commit substantial military assets to a collective defence objective. This is likely to be India’s preferred option in contingencies which have a direct impact on India’s national interests, particularly its direct security and territorial integrity. India may also exercise this option in contingencies outside of the area of its primary interest, if the risks of military involvement are manageable, and if its international stature is significantly enhanced as an outcome of the collective defence effort.

Scenario one: Taiwan conflict

Military non-involvement is likely to be India’s preferred option in the event of a US-led response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Any Indian involvement in favour of US-led efforts would almost certainly invite Chinese retaliation along the land border, with the potential for China to impose significant military or economic costs on India. There are some speculative and conjectural suggestions that India could open an additional front along its land border with China, or interdict Chinese maritime trade transiting the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal in support of the United States and its allies.78 However, India is unlikely to seek active participation in such a conflict, considering firstly, the asymmetry in military capability which heavily favours China, and secondly, the limited benefits from interdicting Chinese shipping in the IOR to the overall outcome. In the near future, therefore, it is most likely that India would not get militarily involved in a conflict around Taiwan, and its response would be limited to issuing diplomatic statements urging restraint on both sides. Arguably, India’s neutrality and non-involvement in a conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan would hurt its relations with the West, particularly if there is an expectation in Washington and other allied capitals that Delhi would assist.79 It is important, therefore, to manage such expectations on both sides before the crisis unfolds.

Rather, India’s likely preferred option in the event of a Taiwan contingency may evolve with time. Recent developments indicate that India may be preparing to respond to a potential crisis in the Taiwan Straits. In August 2023, three former Indian chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force held closed-door discussions with Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.80 Interestingly, they were accompanied by former Indian military officers with experience in scenario simulation and wargaming for Indian professional military education establishments. At the same time, India’s chief of defence staff commissioned a study to examine the impact of a Taiwan-centred war on India, and India’s options in such a scenario, ostensibly at the urging of the United States.81 It is therefore evident that the Indian Government anticipates some form of possible military involvement – or at least some form of request for such involvement – in the event of a future Taiwan crisis. Sustained engagement with the United States, Australia and Japan may encourage India to contribute in a limited manner to the coalition effort, particularly if China’s response to India’s involvement could be contained or blunted. Even if India chooses to not get involved, which is the expected outcome at this stage, ongoing conversations are essential to manage expectations and prevent the souring of India’s relations with the West.

Chinese Naval Ship Nanning takes part in the multinational naval exercise ‘AMAN-23’, February 2023.
Chinese Naval Ship Nanning takes part in the multinational naval exercise ‘AMAN-23’, February 2023.Source: Getty

A situation in which India may choose to abandon the option of non-involvement would be one where China decides to expand a Taiwan conflict to continental Asia, by simultaneously attempting to alter the status quo along the land border with India. While China may be reticent to open a second front, it might choose this option to deter or distract India from providing support to the Western alliance, or to take advantage of general instability generated by its actions in the Pacific. Consequently, PLA forces along the Indian border may initiate escalatory actions, and in an extreme scenario, launch pre-emptive strikes on Indian forces.82 In this situation, India would first seek to limit Chinese gains in the Himalayas, establish a stalemate along the border, and then possibly provide support to the allied war effort, at least until China agrees to deescalate along the land border. India’s contributions, in this context, could include surveillance of Chinese merchant and naval shipping in the IOR and sharing intelligence on PLA deployments along the Sino-Indian border, which could contribute to developing a picture of the PLA’s overall disposition, and the possible provision of logistic support to coalition units passing through Indian ports. Therefore, while China’s likely punitive response may deter India from aiding the United States and its allies, any pre-emptive action on the part of PLA forces along the Indian border would provide strong incentives for India to contribute to a wider collective effort against Chinese actions.

Scenario 2: Countering aggression by PLA (Navy) or Chinese maritime militia in South China Sea

This scenario relates to the Indian Navy’s presence and operations in the South China Sea, and the possibility of PLA (Navy) or Chinese maritime militia seeking to disrupt a maritime exercise involving Indian naval units.

The Modi government has considerably increased its diplomatic engagement with Southeast Asian countries and Western Pacific littoral states in the last decade. Concurrently, the Indian Navy has increased its presence and activities in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean.83 As part of its maritime diplomacy and outreach activities, the Indian Navy frequently conducts exercises with navies and coast guards of regional countries and also participates in high-level exercises with the US, Australian and Japanese navies — both bilaterally and through the Malabar series of exercises. China has objected to the Indian naval presence in the South China Sea, and also to the inclusion of Australia in the Malabar naval exercises, claiming that such exercises harm its interests and are detrimental to regional peace.84 Besides issuing statements of disapproval, China’s reaction to these naval activities has thus far been restricted to monitoring and shadowing them by “spy” vessels.85 However, it is evident that the PLA Navy, the Chinese Coast Guard and the maritime militia are adopting progressively aggressive tactics to dissuade maritime activities of other regional states.86 The possibility that a multinational naval formation with Indian naval vessels may be subject to aggressive manoeuvres from Chinese vessels is, therefore, only growing. Such an encounter could escalate and compel India to respond as part of a collective unit.

In the event that a deployed multinational naval formation comprised of Indian units has to respond to a rapidly escalating situation at sea against the PLA Navy, Chinese Coast Guard or the maritime militia, it is likely that India would commit substantial resources to a collective cause. This would involve modifying rules of engagement for Indian units to conform with those of the multinational naval formation, and possibly placing them temporarily under the tactical command of another naval authority depending on the makeup of the coalition. By providing as much immediate support to the coalition cause as it would be able to deploy, India would hope to end the confrontation quickly, without ceding any strategic ground to China. This outcome would be important for India, as it would determine the degree of freedom with which Indian naval units could continue operating in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific theatres subsequently.

Depending on the area of operations, India could provide additional reinforcement, particularly in the form of aerial platforms such as the P8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Even while responding to Chinese escalation in full measure, India is likely to advocate for containing escalation, and to bring hostilities to a rapid end. India’s preference for China to not laterally escalate the conflict to the land border would play a key role in limiting the scale and scope of India’s contributions to an SCS collective operation. While India would provide all the surveillance, intelligence, and logistic support that the coalition force would require, it would also likely keep any of its submarines, should they be part of the coalition formation, away from potential engagements unless they were to be directly attacked by Chinese units. This would be considered prudent to prevent further escalation of the situation, and to prevent placing a submarine in harm’s way if avoidable.

Scenario 3: Indian Ocean contingency

The entire maritime region from the Suez Canal in the West up to the Sunda-Lombok straits in the East has been identified as an area of “primary interest” for the Indian Navy.87 Ostensibly, this is the maritime region which has the greatest impact on India’s national interests. The extent to which India is willing to commit military resources in this region is demonstrated by its ongoing anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden over more than a decade, and more recently, the Indian Navy’s deployments and interdiction operations at an “unprecedented” scale in the Western Indian Ocean in response to the Red Sea crisis.88 The Indian Navy’s intervention in this crisis is particularly instructive, not merely in terms of the operational impact it has generated, but also in light of the fact that the Houthis are backed by Iran, a country with which India has sought to maintain good relations, much to the angst of the United States.89 However, the Indian Navy’s response has thus far been restricted to protection of shipping and has not entailed offensive operations against the land-based Houthis themselves in the manner that the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian has engaged in targeted strikes against Houthi missile batteries and operating locations. Offensive operations on another country’s territory are likely to remain off-limits for India in the foreseeable future but the aforementioned situation suggests that, in the maritime domain, India would be willing to defend its interests with force, even if it meant engaging agents of historically friendly regimes.

As discussed earlier in the report, India is unlikely to play a role in a military conflict between China and the United States and its allies around Taiwan. However, a plausible scenario in which India could play a significant role would be in the protection of maritime trade and critical cargo transiting the IOR. In the event of a conflict in the Western Pacific, China may choose to obstruct or interdict commercial and military shipping bound for allied states such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. While the bulk of Chinese military forces would likely be centred around the theatre of conflict, it is possible that a limited number of submarines and other support vessels could be deployed in the IOR to interdict allied merchant shipping and guard against US or other allied intervention via those oceans (for example, vessels redeploying from US Central Command to the Eastern Indian Ocean or South China Sea). In particular, merchant ships carrying critical cargo for the war effort may be interdicted, if not targeted by the PLA Navy.

In such a scenario, India could contribute to missions providing safe escort for merchant ships transiting through the region. Indian military units could undertake these missions either as part of a composite coalition force or independently. India’s contributions to these operations could include anti-submarine and anti-shipping air surveillance and ship escort missions with surface, sub-surface and air-defence protection. These missions would leverage India’s advantageous geographical location astride the Indian Ocean shipping lanes, and the Indian Navy’s experience in conducting safe convoy escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Such missions would be justified as purely defensive operations to maintain free flow of trade within the maritime area of primary strategic interest to India, and in consonance with its ambition to be a “net security provider” in the region. While its actions would be certain to irk China, India could take this opportunity to project its considerable naval power as a responsible regional actor, while seeking to minimise escalation, if any, along the land border with China.

India could also be part of a collective defence effort in the IOR if an Indian Ocean littoral country sought specific assistance to deal with a pressing security threat, particularly in case of a threat posed by Chinese state-sponsored actors. These threats could take the form of persistent illegal fishing by Chinese fishing fleets in the exclusive economic zones of small island nations in the IOR, coercive activities by the maritime militia, or other overt activities to the detriment of political stability in the target country. There is historical precedence for India’s intervention at the request of a regional country: in 1988 India responded to a call for assistance from the Maldivian government that was facing a coup from a rival faction.90 If the specific intervention required actions against Chinese agents, India could seek the assistance of United States and other partner countries like Australia and Japan, especially if these countries had military forces deployed in the region. Such operations would also be aligned with India’s aspirations to be a “net security provider” and responsible regional power.

Policy recommendations for Australia, the United States and other partners

India has a complicated history of engagement with the United States and the political West, which creates challenges in the creation of a collective deterrence and defence framework for the Indo-Pacific. India has a unique set of strategic challenges, of which the Chinese threat across its land borders is the most significant. Ongoing dependence on Russia for considerable numbers of military capabilities and an avowed adherence to strategic autonomy pose further constraints on India’s participation in a collective defence arrangement. Nevertheless, the pursuit of a viable, relevant and effective collective security arrangement for the Indo-Pacific involving India is an important endeavour, and one that is likely to yield positive outcomes with focused efforts, persistence and patience. Collectively and individually, the United States, Australia and Japan can each contribute to making India’s participation in a substantive collective security arrangement a more viable option going forward through a number of means.

Focus on mitigating political impediments to collective defence

The biggest obstacles to India’s participation in collective defence arrangements are its China problem and the Russian conundrum. Where it is in its national interest, India’s decision to contribute to a collective defence arrangement would be a political one, based largely on its ability to manage risks and constraints emerging from these factors. There is a tendency to focus on the operational and tactical aspects of military interoperability as impediments to combined operations and intelligence sharing.91 Yet while these aspects may limit operational effectiveness, they are not the primary constraints to greater Indian appetite for participation in collective security arrangements. As demonstrated by the increasing complexity of bilateral and multilateral military exercises among Quad countries, military forces, particularly navies can work around such limitations, and still achieve a high degree of interoperability. Moreover, long-term efforts to resolve tactical incompatibilities need to be underpinned by higher political directives, which would be forthcoming only if India’s political leadership is convinced of the viability, need and benefits of investing in collective deterrence or defence efforts. This is particularly relevant with respect to achieving a high level of multi-domain interoperability, which may be essential to counter Chinese capabilities in the maritime space. As Sudarshan Shrikhande notes, “the necessary degree of interoperability could be achieved without a formal alliance, but it will be challenging to achieve this without formal treaties and excessively intrusive enabling agreements,”92 arrangements driven by political will as much as technical or operational necessity.

Notwithstanding their converging strategic outlooks, there are limits to what India’s partners in the political West can offer to alleviate its China problem, particularly along its land border. India’s willingness to contribute to a collective defence effort, particularly one that counters China, will be determined by an assessment of the extent to which the United States and its allies could assist India in managing Chinese threats to its security. US assistance provided during the Sino-Indian clashes since 2020 has undoubtedly left a positive impact on the prospect of future military cooperation in a contested environment. Yet, as mentioned earlier, India would be constrained in providing overt support to the allied cause in case of a high-end conflict over Taiwan or even in a South China Sea scenario, given the threat of PLA escalation along the land border. In that sense, it is imperative for India and its top defence partners to manage their respective expectations of military support in case of contingencies through sustained, high-level dialogues. This will help to temper expectations of the art of the possible on all sides, and minimise the risk that disagreements on some issues could prevent the delivery of positive security outcomes elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

Fortunately, this is already happening. Indeed, there has been a significant uptick in political engagement on regional security issues between the West and India, with notable positive outcomes. India engages in “2+2” dialogues with the United States, Australia and Japan, in addition to the leaders’ bilateral and multilateral (Quad) summits. The statements emerging from these high-level engagements reflect the progressive alignment of strategic perspectives of India and its dialogue partners.93 There is today a greater appetite in New Delhi to engage with questions that would have been off-limits earlier, such as deliberations on India’s diplomatic and military options in the event of a Taiwan conflict, and greater engagement with these countries in the Indian Ocean, including permitting access to sites traditionally off-limits to foreign counterparts such as air and naval facilities at Port Blair on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.94 The proliferation of bilateral ministerial engagements between India and the other Western countries has reinforced shared interests and threat perceptions, with positive implications for multilateral settings like the Quad. In his opening remarks at the second India-Australia 2+2 ministerial dialogue, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, said:

Our bilateral relationship has certainly grown rapidly, but it has larger implications for the region, and a lot of other countries look to us and to our relationship in many ways as a factor of stability and security.95

Political acceptance is a fundamental requirement for India’s participation in a collective defence arrangement, without which high levels of military interoperability would be inconsequential in a real-world crisis.

This was echoed in the joint ministerial statement, which highlighted the importance of the bilateral partnership to regional security outcomes, and in a follow-up interview by Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Richard Marles, who said, “we give rise to the greatest power of deterrence when the world can see Australia and India working so closely together in the Indian Ocean.”96 For India, it is becoming increasingly evident that a collective approach to deterrence and defence in the Indo-Pacific will best protect its national interests. However, this marks a sizable shift in India’s traditional foreign and security policy outlook, one which needs to overcome the inertia of decades of non-alignment, and a strong preference for unilateralism in security operations. Much like altering the course of a large merchant vessel at sea, this will be a slow, and at times tedious, evolution. For the United States, Australia and Japan, it would be beneficial to frame collective deterrence and defence as the means to maximise India’s capabilities and options for protecting its wider suite of national interests, and not merely as its contribution to collectively balancing China in the Indo-Pacific.

Mitigating political obstacles to India’s participation in collective deterrence and defence will be a slow process, for these will define the aperture in which rapid and tangible progress can be made in addressing operational military issues. Political acceptance is a fundamental requirement for India’s participation in a collective defence arrangement, without which high levels of military interoperability would be inconsequential in a real-world crisis.

Collaborative defence capability development

A common challenge for India and its partners is the growing gap between required and available defence capabilities. With increasing pressures on defence spending, no country can seem to maintain the range and depth of military capabilities most regard as appropriate to the strategic circumstances they face. The shortfall in defence capabilities for India is further exacerbated by the fact that, despite efforts to diversify international providers and to enhance its indigenous defence industrial base, Indian forces will remain dependent on Russia for important defence supplies and systems for the foreseeable future. While India appears increasingly keen to wean itself off Russian military supplies, it needs to find viable, sustainable alternative sources for meeting its military equipment requirements.97

The United States has emerged as a significant supplier of military systems to India in recent years, especially in the maritime domain. Since 2008, US-India arms trade has surpassed US$20 billion, providing India with modern transport and maritime surveillance aircraft, combat and anti-submarine helicopters, uncrewed platforms and critical ammunition.98 However, substituting Russian dependence for American is neither financially sustainable for India, nor a viable option in isolation for it to develop indigenous military industrial capacity. As such, the Indian Government has accorded high priority to indigenisation and self-reliance in defence capabilities as a long-term national objective, regarding international partnerships as a key input into that mission.99 This is reflected in recent developments such as the launch of the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem, one of several lines of effort to enhance India’s industrial and technological capacity for indigenous design and manufacturing of defence equipment through deeper engagement with strategic partners other than Russia.100

Indian Naval Ships Shivalik and Kamorta in the final stages of preparations to depart Fremantle for the sea phase of Exercise AUSINDEX 2017.
Indian Naval Ships Shivalik and Kamorta in the final stages of preparations to depart Fremantle for the sea phase of Exercise AUSINDEX 2017. Source: Australian Department of Defence

Australia also faces considerable challenges in balancing the need for fiscal prudence with an essential uplift in military capability. In this environment, mutual support for self-reliance through shared development, design and production of military capabilities could serve the dual purpose of building military capabilities, and importantly, making collective defence a natural outcome of such cooperation. The availability of common platforms is already augmenting interoperability, as is evident in the increased engagement between P-8 aircraft units in the US, Indian and Australian militaries. There are promising signs of political recognition of possibilities in this area, evidenced in the Indian media release of the recent 2023 meeting between defence ministers of India and Australia, which stated:

The two ministers agreed that deepening cooperation in defence industry and research would give a fillip to the already strong relationship. The Raksha Mantri suggested that shipbuilding, ship repair and maintenance and aircraft Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) could be the potential areas of collaboration. The two ministers also discussed cooperation for joint research in underwater technologies…They concurred that a strong India-Australia defence partnership will augur well not just for the mutual benefit of the two countries but also for the overall security of the Indo-Pacific.101

The joint statement from this meeting “underscored the potential for cooperation between India’s Innovation for Defence Excellence and the Australian Strategic Capability Accelerator to explore innovative solutions to joint capability priorities.”102 It is also significant that a similar MRO arrangement with the United States has already been operationalised, with maintenance for US Navy ships being conducted in Indian shipyards.103 Three shipyards in India have already signed ship repair agreements with the US Navy, with a fourth being currently audited for this purpose.104

With common economic and strategic constraints, India and other Quad partners would benefit significantly from collaborative capability development efforts in uncrewed systems; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance equipment; and in shipbuilding. A progressive approach to shared capability development, commencing with inexpensive but expendable items such as sonobuoys and torpedoes for the P-8 aircraft, and their distributed stockpiling, would have considerable benefits for all Quad countries.105 Whilst creating avenues of sustainable military capability development for all four countries, shared development of military capabilities with and amongst Quad countries is also the most viable pathway for India to reduce dependence on Russian arms supplies, and develop its own industrial and technical capacity for manufacturing military equipment. By progressively integrating with the United States and its allies in joint capability development efforts, India would probably be more inclined to participate in collective defence efforts with these countries.

Develop a combined operational doctrine for the IOR through wargaming and tabletop exercises

The numerous bilateral and multilateral exercises that India conducts on a regular basis with regional countries has resulted in significant enhancement in interoperability across progressively complex scenarios. These engagements allow for increasingly sophisticated interactions at operational and tactical levels of military organisations. Similarly, there has been a significant uptick in ministerial (national-strategic) level engagements among these countries. However, translating competencies acquired in exercises to effective collective deterrence and defence efforts requires India and other like-minded countries to develop a combined operational doctrine. For India, this is particularly important in the IOR where its national interests are most immutable and its appetite for collective military action is likely to be highest.

While military-to-military and political engagement between India and partner countries has been on a steady rise, there is a visible lack of interaction between national military-strategic planners of India and other partner countries. These echelons are generally staffed by civilian personnel and are responsible for policy and planning, capability development, and the military posture of defence forces. While its military forces plan and execute contingencies during international exercises such as Malabar, national defence planners in India are rarely exposed to planning for regional contingencies in a coalition environment.106 This could be remedied by conducting progressively complex tabletop exercises and wargames for regional contingency planning by multilateral agencies. Over time, outcomes from these exercises could be used to develop a combined operational doctrine for the IOR. Currently, such exercises have been instituted for defence-adjacent functions such as HADR and counterterrorism.107 Expanding the scope of these exercises to include high-end military contingencies will yield dual benefits of institutionalising a collective approach to regional deterrence and defence, whilst simultaneously exposing the civilian establishment of India’s defence ministry to this concept. Importantly, the development of such a doctrine will also bring to fore the constraints and realistic limits of regional collective deterrence and defence efforts.

Evolve a security agenda for the Quad

Finally, even as officials in member countries remain coy about a security agenda for the Quad, it is evident that this grouping offers the greatest potential for developing a relevant and contemporary collective deterrence and defence arrangement for the Indo-Pacific. Admiral Shrikhande, a former Indian Navy flag officer, who headed its Foreign Cooperation and Intelligence agency, has described the revitalised Quad as “one of India’s most significant foreign policy developments since the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 1971.”108 While the Quad should continue to function as a grouping with a diverse cooperation and capacity-building program, a more concerted effort to build out a security agenda is vital for effective collective deterrence against Chinese adventurism.109

While the Quad should continue to function as a grouping with a diverse cooperation and capacity-building program, a more concerted effort to build out a security agenda is vital for effective collective deterrence against Chinese adventurism.

Significant groundwork has been laid in recent years to develop the skeleton of a collective deterrence and defence arrangement between India, the United States, Australia and Japan. India has signed foundational agreements with other Quad countries related to logistics support, information security protocols, and cross-servicing arrangements.110 These agreements are slowly being operationalised, for instance, through transit operations of maritime reconnaissance aircraft from the Andaman and Nicobar islands; the repair of US Navy vessels in India; and the establishment of sustained information and intelligence sharing mechanisms.111 However, much of this work has happened at the bilateral level.112 Other than the naval exercise Malabar, there has been negligible effort in standardising and extending bilateral arrangements across the multilateral entity. By working as a unified construct in implementing the preceding recommendations, the Quad is likely to evolve as an effective mechanism for collective deterrence and defence in the Indo-Pacific, yielding significant benefits to member countries, particularly to India. This is also the grouping within which India is most likely to contribute as part of a collective deterrence and defence effort.


The current Indo-Pacific environment is characterised by a multipolar order with diffuse sources of threat, an increasingly revisionist and aggressive China intent on upending the existing order, and the reduced ability of the United States to underpin security with existing Cold War alliance systems. Deterring and defeating threats to the regional order, particularly those posed by a recalcitrant China, are undoubtedly a collective endeavour but need to be based on a contemporary definition and understanding of collective deterrence and defence. While India has historically shunned collective defence arrangements, its active involvement in efforts to protect the regional order is essential. In a setting where collective defence arrangements can offer a range of options for specific contingencies, India can make meaningful contributions.

India’s acceptance of the need for collective deterrence and defence is driven by its increasing economic strength, its aspirations to be a regional power, and importantly, a shared understanding of threats to regional stability. India’s geographical advantages in the IOR, and the increasing capability of its military to be an influential regional deterrent make India’s participation in a collective arrangement for regional deterrence and defence important. Recent developments, particularly the rapid advancement in India’s relations with the political West, and the increasing threat it faces from China across its land borders, may encourage India to play an active role in managing regional contingencies in a coalition environment. For the United States and its allies, this would be highly desirable.

India could exercise a range of options within a collective defence arrangement, depending on the impact on its national interests, the risks it would entail, and the availability of suitable military capabilities for this purpose. Through constructive, sustained and focussed engagement, the West, particularly through the Quad, can influence each of these factors so as to maximise India’s contribution to collective deterrence and defence in the Indo-Pacific.