There was an air of nervousness on the Indian side ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with US President Donald Trump in August 2017. Indian officials were tight-lipped, not sure what to expect from the erratic new president with a reputation of trashing established US foreign policy. By then, Trump’s statements on NATO and EU, and the damage he had done to transatlantic relations, were well known. But all misgivings dissipated when the two leaders met and hit it off famously.
This time around, before Modi and President Joe Biden have their first face-to-face interaction during the former’s US visit this week, there are no such qualms. Biden is a veteran politician, and his foreign policy agenda to contain a rising China in the Indo-Pacific fits with New Delhi’s concerns about Beijing’s muscle-flexing. India is a member of the four-nation Quad grouping and Modi will attend the Quad leaders’ summit in Washington on September 24, hosted by Biden in the White House.
“The first in-person Quad leaders’ summit holds tremendous symbolism, especially for PM Modi as this comes at the same time as his bilateral meeting with President Biden,” says Aparna Pandey of the Washington-based Hudson Institute. The Biden administration has made the Japan-US-Australia-India grouping a priority, placing India in a critical position as a country whose support is key to US strategy. “As of now, Quad focus areas are supply chains and critical technologies, climate change and vaccine production, which are critical to US-China peer rivalry,” adds Pandey. With China pushing its vaccine across East Asia, the Quad, too, hopes to get its supply chain in place and present alternative options. India will begin exporting vaccines from October.
But the move goes far beyond that. The Modi-Biden meeting may not result in any big bang announcements, but is an opportunity for discussing critical issues, especially Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism emanating from there.
The Quad gained momentum since 2017 and the India-China military face-off in Ladakh in 2020 gave a much-needed fillip to the quadrilateral security dialogue. India at the beginning was hesitant join a group primarily formed to check growing Chinese influence. The Quad is focussed on the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and none of the other three has a long, 3,488-km border with China. Indeed, while Australia is protected by the US nuclear umbrella, the US-Japan security alliance has served both countries well since WWII. In fact, the very term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was coined by the US to indicate that the Indian Ocean would now be regarded as an extension of the Pacific, thus taking on board India’s concerns about Chinese naval activity in its neighbourhood. Chinese submarines had docked twice in Colombo harbour in 2014 and its military and commercial vessels regularly ply the ocean.
With frequent attempts by the PLA to keep tension simmering at the border—whether the 2017 stand-off in Doklam or last year’s military confrontation—India’s resolve to embrace the Quad has grown stronger. Besides, the dire possibility of a two-front war against China and Pakistan has been a wake-up call for New Delhi. The best option for India to hold off China is to build effective alliances.
Yet, there are concerns among experts, too, about entering into a close alliance with the US which, naturally, is promoting its own interest. In the light of its incredibly messy exit from Afghanistan, serving the country up to the Taliban on a platter, can the US be trusted? The Ashraf Ghani government was undoubtedly corrupt and incompetent, but by keeping it out of a peace deal with the Taliban and freeing 500 hardcore Taliban prisoners was an unwise step. Today, Afghan civilians, especially women, are counting the cost of that flawed policy.
The latest military pact between Australia, UK and the US, or AUKUS, under which Australia is to build a nuclear submarine fleet with the help of the other two nations, and for which a Australia-France contract for conventional submarines was binned, has created another furore. An enraged France says the pact was done behind its back, and that a major NATO ally cannot be treated with such “cruelty”. Question is, if France can be treated this way, what might happen to less important partners like India?
“The mantra is to deal with the positives and protect India’s interests as best we can,” says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. He agrees that being friends with the US does have its advantages. The India-US civil nuclear deal of 2006 ended India’s status of a nuclear pariah and allowed India the option of nuclear commerce and access to latest technology. With Washington giving India the nod, other countries, including the EU and many East Asian nations, started getting their equations right with India, says Sibal. Yet, as he points out, India must now hedge its bets and ensure it has other options. This is why relations with Russia must remain strong.
Policy wonks in New Delhi realise that India will take time to catch up with China’s proliferating naval might. So, while it modernises its armed forces, building alliances with the US and the rest of the group will give Indian diplomacy the necessary band-width to operate.
Under the AUKUS security agreement, eight Australian nuclear submarines will be deployed in the Indo-Pacific waters, primarily to contain China. While China has the missiles to target US surface ships, it has not successfully developed a technology for deep water anti-submarine capability. In that way, the submarines have a more actionable strategic significance than the Quad, which does, however, remain important for US foreign policy. What is perhaps to be noted is that India’s plea for transfer of high technology from the US—including nuclear submarine technology—has found little traction in the US.
Asked at a briefing about the prime minister’s visit to the US if the AUKUS will reduce the Quad’s importance, foreign secretary Harsh Shringla said, “Quad and AUKUS are not groupings of similar nature. Quad is a plurilateral group of countries with shared vision and values. We also have a shared vision of the Indo-Pacific region being an open, transparent, inclusive region.”
At the moment, India won’t be unhappy about the trilateral pact, regarding it as a force multiplier in the Indo-Pacific. Any move to contain China is a welcome move. Japan, another Quad member with a running territorial dispute with China, is also happy with AUKUS.
India is banking on US reassurance that AUKUS will not undermine Quad. Besides, New Delhi knows only too well the heft of America—the economic gains that can accrue from a close partnership is a restraining hand on a show of open concern.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Sentry Duty On High Seas")