Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to the United States since President Joe Biden came to office has set an ambitious bilateral agenda and together with the leaders of Australia and Japan also moved the ball forward with the first real-life summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad.
India has reason to be pleased because two of its biggest security problems – China and Pakistan – have come into sharper focus, prompting more coordination and action by Quad partners.
The idea is to use a combination of muscle and mind to counter China’s runaway plans on the one hand and keep tabs on Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan on the other by holding firm on the commitments made in the UN Security Council.
Both the India-US and the Quad joint statements denounced “the use of terrorist proxies” – a code for Pakistan’s foreign policy – and stressed the need to combat terrorism in Afghanistan.
The statements emphasised that Afghan territory should not be used to shelter or train terrorists. At the core was a promise to closely coordinate policies and stick to the UN Security Council resolution 2593, passed last month under India’s presidency.
Taliban and their benefactors in Pakistan are on notice and that’s a good start, as far as New Delhi is concerned. If this line holds under pressure – because there will be pressure via China – it will prove that democracies can enforce the “rule of law.”
The bilateral meeting between Modi and Biden preceded the Quad summit, giving the two men an opportunity to spend some quality time together.
Fears about how Biden might greet Modi, who is not a favourite of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, turned out to be largely misplaced. The meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris also went smoothly without any Kashmir bumps.
'Who We Are': Biden's Gentle Reminder
The US president was warm and friendly, going off script to joke about finding possible relatives in India. There was much mirth and laughter in the Oval Office. But Biden did gently remind his guest that the US-India partnership was not just doing things together, it was also about “who we are.”
He talked of shared responsibility to uphold democratic values and the joint commitment to diversity.
The Biden administration has taken a more humble approach to preaching values by admitting all democracies are works in progress, including their own. It’s a far cry from the days of old when American diplomats thought nothing of lecturing and giving prescriptions.
A flurry of statements and fact sheets issued in the wake of the high-wattage meetings should keep Beijing and Islamabad busy for some time. There is little doubt that China’s aggressive and grasping ways prompted Quad’s rebirth. Not so fast, said the Quad leaders who have come together faster than expected to present a joint front.
Countering China's Influence in the Indo-Pacific Region
The other major part of Modi’s visit was the Quad summit. It was deemed a success first because it happened given past hesitations of some members about coming out openly in formation to meet what is delicately described as “the China challenge.”
Second, because the Quad expanded its agenda from vaccine distribution, climate change and emerging technologies to space, cybersecurity and a Quad Fellowship to provide scholarships in the STEM fields.
The quickening of pace and agenda expansion was because in 2020, China “happened” with a blatant land grab on the border with India and punitive trade sanctions against Australia because Canberra dared to question Chinese trade and investment policies and to demand a real investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even a few months ago, New Delhi was skittish about saying the word “Quad” out loud but there was Modi posing for photographs with Biden, Scott Morrison and Yoshihide Suga with the Washington Monument looming in the background. However, the real background for this coming together was China and its growing influence across the Indo-Pacific region.
The four leaders never mentioned China in their opening statements but the intent, the design and the message of the Quad summit were aimed at Beijing and its client next door. Modi called Quad a “force for global good,” Biden stressed the “positive agenda” of the four democracies and Suga talked of the “strong solidarity” among the members.
Morrison came the closest to naming names when he talked about creating a world order that favours freedom and is free from coercion, and where disputes are settled peacefully. Those are not attributes of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy.
But how do the leaders ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and reduce Chinese influence? The answer is by providing better alternatives and reducing vulnerabilities all around since China’s game is geoeconomic by controlling technologies, building infrastructure and creating dependencies by burying countries under debt.
The Vision of 2021 QUAD Summit
If there’s one word that captures the Quad leaders’ vision, it is technology – the frontier where the contest with China might be decided. The Quad joint statement said the purpose of “critical and emerging technology” should be to address the biggest challenges facing the world today, whether it is ensuring equitable growth or fighting climate change or controlling pandemics.
India’s decision to resume exports of vaccines, including to COVAX, starting next month was welcome by Quad partners. The statement said that the goal of delivering one billion doses by the end of 2022 announced at the virtual Quad summit in March will be met.
A new initiative will map capacity and identify weak spots in supply chains of crucial technology such as semiconductors and their components. Diversification of 5G technology is another essential idea to reduce dependence on China. The Quad wants to set technical standards and follow a consensus-based approach where various stakeholders can have a say.
The vision is grand and ambition vaulting. The Biden administration has taken the idea of the Quad forward with determination and if India plays its cards right, it can grab a large piece of the manufacturing pie as new supply chains get created.
(Seema Sirohi is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)