Prime Minister Narendra Modis’ visit to the United States comes at a particularly critical time, as India’s security and strategic environment have been seriously disrupted both east and west. That the part of the world in which India finds itself is in the midst of a transformation only states the obvious. Events in the region and beyond are evolving at a breathtaking pace, especially after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. New strategic alignments and alliances are taking shape, even as old relationships suddenly seem to have regained their relevance. Old threats reappear, and this too in much more destabilizing and destructive ways. The certainties of yesterday are replaced by the uncertainties of the future. It is in these very difficult times that Narendra Modi will attend the very first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of the four Quad countries, the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Equally important will be his first bilateral with the US president, as well as his meetings with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia.
These meetings come at a time when the Biden administration has shifted its strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific and looming competition, contestation and even confrontation with an increasingly aggressive China. The strategic challenge and the threat posed by China will of course be at the heart of the discussions within the framework of the Quad. But so far, the Quad has focused not so much on tackling the military aspects of the threat from China, but more on the non-military dimension of the challenge. Cooperating and coordinating on supply chains, developing critical technologies, dealing with climate change, ensuring connectivity and developing infrastructure are things that are supposed to form the foundation of the partnership between Quad countries. The importance of working together in these areas should not be underestimated. These are all necessary elements on the non-military side of a forward-looking strategy to reduce the competitive advantage that China currently enjoys. The only problem is that these do not respond to the clear and current military threat that China poses not only to its smaller neighbors, but also to some of the Quad countries.
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Although the Quad has come a long way in recent years, member countries continue to grapple with the question of transforming it into a sort of military alliance. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, US President Joe Biden said his country is not looking for a new cold war. For their part, the Indians have been quite adamant in stating that Quad is not Asian NATO. There appears to be a reluctance, even reluctance, to move towards a formal military alliance. Although the four countries have engaged in very close security cooperation at the bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and multilateral levels, this cooperation is limited to joint exercises and consultations. There has also been some coordination of their approaches, for example on freedom of navigation and reiterating their commitment to a rules-based order. But that’s about all. Whether the Washington meeting will move things forward on the military front is not entirely clear. After the recent military pact between Australia, UK and US (AUKUS), there is a chance that something similar will be put on the Quad table. But even if that were to happen, it will take a lot of discussion before anything is finalized. Meanwhile, China is busy building its own alliances without any of the constraints and restrictions that seem to weigh on Quad countries.
Prior to the Quad meeting, Prime Minister Modi will have his bilateral meeting with President Biden. It will be a crucial meeting to determine the future trajectory of Indo-American relations. While the relationship remains strong overall, there are some rather unnecessary irritants to democracy, civil rights, etc. who infiltrated and began to encroach on bilateral relations. Having a conversation on these issues will provide an opportunity to correct and push back some of the misconceptions and misperceptions that have been deliberately created and peddled by the usual suspects in India and abroad. But there are also emerging areas of divergence, which have gained prominence in recent weeks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and Iran. These will need to be addressed as they could have an impact not only on bilateral relations, but also on the Quad.
Unlike the other Quad countries which are an ocean and a continent far from Afghanistan, India is practically at the forefront of the terrorism that may emanate from it. With the Americans having abandoned Afghanistan, India will have to explore new options in the region. This includes rekindling, rebuilding and re-energizing its ties with two of America’s pet peeves, Iran and Russia. While the stance of these two countries on Afghanistan remains fluid for now, these two offer India the best chance to stay in the game and protect its interests. But will the Americans be ready to give way to India? Or will they insist that India adhere to the sanctions regime they have imposed, which will put India in a terrible dilemma.
India will also want clarification on how the United States intends to fight terrorism in the Af-Pak region. Obviously, Operations on the Horizon (OTH) are a bit of a stretch. They won’t really work, let alone if it involves using Pakistani airspace and / or sharing intelligence and entering into security cooperation with the Taliban (and by extension the Haqqani and Al- Qaeda). Will the Americans once again fall into the trap of Pakistani deception and deception and ease the financial and diplomatic pressure on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which in turn will further strengthen India’s enemies? on its western front? Will the United States seek basic rights in India to conduct some of its OTH operations? Will India be prepared to extend such facilities to the United States, especially given the political implications of such a decision? Is it even practical for the United States to use India as a staging area for OTH operations given that they will still have to use Pakistani airspace, which might not be available for drones or planes? taking off from India? If such bases appear along the western border of India, then why not allow similar bases or at least listening posts along the northern and eastern border of India with China?
Obviously, all will not work out in the meetings that Modi holds with Biden or with the other leaders of the Quad. But the hope is that the Prime Minister returns with at least a clear direction in which the Quad and bilateral relations with the United States are headed. On this will depend the political choices India will make in the future.
The author is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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