Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of Japan and Australia arrived in Washington at a time when US President Joe Biden’s popularity rating had tumbled on account of the ignominious exit of the US from Afghanistan and the revolt of President Emmanuel Macron of France over the formation of the AUKUS alliance behind his back.
Biden had publicly declared that he should have been more cautious in both cases. As the only non-ally among his guests, Modi gave a morale booster to Biden by raising bilateral relations to a higher level and embracing the Quad even after the formation of AUKUS.
India is crucial to Biden, who was beaming as Modi praised his vision and spoke of a “transformative” decade in bilateral relations. The meeting did not look like a getting to know event, but as a meeting of old friends, already engaged in a dialogue.
At one point, Modi’s characterization of the relationship was translated as “natural strategic partners” and “natural allies” by the media, a phrase that former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee had used for the first time in 2000.
Modi prepared the ground for a cordial meeting by not criticizing AUKUS, even though India had concerns about the timing of the announcement and the nuclear proliferation aspects of AUKUS.
The bilateral meeting was devoid of any disagreement even on trade or human rights issues. Biden categorically stated that the “two of the largest democracies in the world are destined to be stronger, closer and tighter and I think it can benefit the whole world.” He also announced the beginning of a new chapter in relations. As the only country in the neighborhood of Afghanistan, which shares the US position, India has become more important to the US than before.
Both the leaders had the same view about the Indian diaspora as having contributed to the welfare of the two countries. “India-US relations are about family ties, including four million Americans, who make the United States stronger every single day,” said Biden, who has appointed nearly 70 Indian Americans to important positions in his administration, the largest ever. They talked like equals even though they were not on first name terms basis like in the Obama days and hugs were ruled out by the pandemic. But the meeting could not have been more cordial.
PM’s meeting with Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris made a surprising reference to Pakistan in her conversation with Modi, pointing out that Pakistan has been harboring terrorists. This reflects a change in US attitude to Pakistan after the Kabul fiasco, announced by Secretary of State Blinken a few days ago. Modi was particularly warm towards Harris, particularly when he extended an invitation to her to give India a chance to celebrate her victorious journey. He also brought memorabilia for her relating to her grandfather.
However, Harris made a statement, which underlined the need for democracies to be vigilant. She said that as democracies around the world are under threat, “it is imperative that we defend democratic principle and institutions within our respective countries… And that we maintain what we must do to strengthen democracies at home and it is incumbent on our nations to of course protect democracies in the best interests of people of our countries.”
Even though Modi noted the mild warning, he did not respond to her to avoid any dissonance. But he spoke about India as the mother of democracies and reiterated India’s commitment to democracy in his UN General Assembly Address.
The Quad meeting
The first face to face meeting of the Quad was the main reason for Modi’s visit to Washington. China was uppermost in the minds of all leaders at the summit. The masks that they donned were undoubtedly associated with the Wuhan virus, for which China was responsible one way or another.
The Quad and AUKUS were clearly designed to contain China in the Indo-Pacific. China was seen as propping up the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, comprised of many known terrorists. As the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China held the key to finding solutions to the “climate chaos” facing the globe. And yet, criticism of China was restrained and cautious, even though China made no secret of its condemnation of the collective moves against it.
The declaration of the AUKUS on the eve of the Quad summit resulted in a major revolt by France, but the French objection was more to the massive economic loss on account of the cancellation of its submarine deal with Australia, not to the strategic alliance of AUKUS. President Biden said that he should have been more cautious in this case also.
India felt that, with a robust defence arrangement in place to meet the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad can afford the luxury of concentrating on terrorism, the pandemic, climate change, technological development and supply chains. All these are vital issues for the US and India and there are many differences to be ironed out. The pandemic is still raging in parts of both the US and India and the vaccine coordination, certification and curbs on travel require greater attention.
Main points from Quad meeting
The joint statement by the Quad said, “We denounce the use of terrorist proxies and emphasize the importance of denying any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups, which could be used to launch or plan terror attacks, including cross border attacks.” Even more importantly, it said, “We also recognise that our shared futures will be written in the Indo-Pacific, and we will redouble efforts to ensure that the Quad is a force for regional peace, stability, security and prosperity.”
It also noted that the partnership in COVID-19 response and relief marks a historic new focus for the Quad. Even if Quad did nothing else, it would justify its existence as the pandemic is the greatest threat to peace and security in the world so far.
The Quad stated that it was committed to a region that is “a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity — a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also inclusive and resilient”.
The Quad took note of the fact that COVID-19 has caused continued global suffering, the climate crisis has accelerated, and regional security has become ever-more complex. They committed themselves to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
This is nothing but a euphemism for containment of China. Further, they said that they stood for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states.
The Quad leaders waxed eloquent on the work they have done together in combating COVID, but none of the countries in the group can claim much success in bringing the infection level to safe levels or having vaccinated enough of their citizens. But a significant result of the involvement of the Quad in the pandemic relief efforts is that Presidents, Prime Ministers and foreign ministers became adept in health matters.
On climate change, there are deep divisions in the Quad. As the only developing country in the group, India expects financing and technology to adopt environment friendly technologies and maintain their economic growth. In fairness, India cannot be expected to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050 unless gigantic progress is made in nuclear and renewable energy. Collaboration in cyber space and new opportunities in space cooperation are part of the Quad’s agenda.
A Quad Fellowship programme, which will provide 100 graduate fellowships to leading science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduate students across the four countries is an important initiative.
The Quad will closely coordinate diplomatic, economic, and human rights policies towards Afghanistan and will deepen counter-terrorism and humanitarian cooperation in the months ahead in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2593.
It reaffirmed that Afghan territory should not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, or to plan or to finance terrorist acts. It reiterated the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan and denounced the use of terrorist proxies and emphasized the importance of denying any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups which could be used to launch or plan terror attacks, including cross-border attacks.
The declaration also covered denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the violence in Myanmar. The statement ended with a declaration that the commitment to realize a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific was firm, and the vision for this partnership remained ambitious and far-reaching. “With steadfast cooperation, we rise to meet this moment, together,” the Quad leaders stated.
The Quad partnership and its link with AUKUS
As a testament of the Quad after the tumultuous developments in our neighbourhood, resulting in a likely China-Pakistan-Taliban axis, the joint statement falls short of a commitment on the part of the Quad to safeguard the region, unless the position taken on the Indo-Pacific and Afghanistan itself implies that the four countries will work together in any kind of security challenge.
It is here that the link between the Quad and the AUKUS assumes importance. The presumption is that the improvement in bilateral relations between the US and India will amount to a strategic partnership in the full sense of the term. The Quad partnership and its link with AUKUS also gives the necessary muscle power to the partnership. In a situation where India is determined that it will not be a party to any alliance and that it will maintain its strategic autonomy at any cost, India cannot expect any greater security guarantees.
The Quad can, however, bask in the reflected glory of AUKUS, a nuclear pact in the Indo-Pacific is clearly a much stronger message to China than the Quad’s strategic statements, which are confined to global issues. China has reacted more sharply to the AUKUS than to the Quad.
The French position has called into question the loyalty of countries in alliances, characterising it as “a stab in the back”, but the purpose of the new alliance has been justified on the ground that it was meant to be an enabling arrangement for Australia to receive nuclear propulsion technology for submarines. This, however, adds another dimension to the situation resulting from Australian violation of the NPT, which is an embarrassment to Japan and India.
The new characteristics of the Quad that have emerged in Washington has softened its image as an anti-China alliance and it may encourage other countries in the region to join the group and thus increase its strength and reach.
Addressing the UN General Assembly
An address to the General Assembly was the highlight of Modi’s visit to New York on his way back home. He spoke broadly on a number of issues including extremism, open seas and effectiveness of the UN. He spoke on India’s vaccine development and invited global manufacturers to come and make vaccines in India.
Modi said that those who were making use of regressive thinking as a political tool should understand that terrorism posed an equally serious threat to them. He urged that the world must fulfil its duty by providing help to the people in war-torn Afghanistan. He said that our oceans are our shared heritage and we must use ocean resources and not abuse them.
The UN must improve its effectiveness and enhance its reliability to remain relevant. Questions were being raised about the UN’s failure to deal with the climate crisis and the pandemic. He pitched strongly for UN reform, which should take into account the changes in the world power structure. “How long would a country have to wait particularly when the transformational changes happening in that country affect a large part of the world?” he asked.
Modi said that he represented a country that is proud to be known as the mother of democracy. He gave his own example as the strength of Indian democracy, by pointing out that a little boy, who at one time used to help his father at his tea stall at a railway station was addressing the UN General Assembly for the fourth time as the Prime minister of India.
He sent a clear signal to China and Pakistan without mentioning them by name. Of course, the whole world was aware of the stinging words in which an Indian diplomat castigated Pakistan for terrorism, extremism and false claims of on Indian territory. For the first time in the United Nations, India demanded that Pakistan should vacate the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
PM Modi had excellent bilateral discussions with the President and the Vice President of the United States, extended a warm invitation to the Vice President to visit India to give the people of India a chance to celebrate her victorious journey, he reinforced the role of the Quad even after the formation of AUKUS, sent the right message to China and Pakistan, created a mechanism to fight the pandemic and united the democratic world against autocratic regimes, an impressive accomplishment in the 65 hours he spent on American soil.
(T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed here are personal.)