Against a dizzying array of geopolitical developments directly affecting India’s security, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden will meet in-person for the first time next week for the Quad summit, along with leaders of Japan and Australia.
The summit on 24 September will be followed by a 50-minute bilateral meeting between Modi and Biden during which a range of issues will be discussed starting with the security situation in Afghanistan post-US departure, COVID-19, the danger of sanctions against India under a US law to the implications of the latest security pact of US-UK-Australia announced on Wednesday, 15 September.
Vice President Kamala Harris is also expected to attend the White House meeting.
The plate is full. While the bilateral talks will focus more on Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, the Quad meeting is expected to announce progress in vaccine manufacturing, critical technologies and climate change initiatives.
Modi will also have bilateral meetings with Japan’s outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 23 September.
In some ways, AUKUS – a brand new security alliance of Australia, UK and the US announced on Wednesday – has taken some of the fizz out of the Quad summit. The trilateral pact has consumed security experts because of its tradition-breaking dimensions, what with transfer of nuclear-propulsion technology and attack submarines gliding far and wide to keep an eye on Chinese activities.
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But India has more immediate concerns to raise with Biden. It is in the front row of the theatre that Biden left – Afghanistan – and the theatre in which he wants to perform next – China. Living next to a potential playground for terrorists and an itchy, wolf-warrior aggressor is more than a hefty challenge.
Modi will be curious to know from Biden if he plans to review US policy on Pakistan as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during Congressional hearings on Afghanistan or will it be business as usual.
It’s important to ask even in the knowledge that no revolution is about to rock the State Department. Hope keeps diplomacy alive.
On the China front, Biden will have an answer and it will be 'AUKUS' under which the US and Britain will help Australia build and deploy nuclear-powered submarines. A stronger maritime surveillance capacity helps augment security, including India’s.
By bolstering the capabilities of “friendly” countries in the Indo-Pacific, the US is raising the stakes vis-à-vis China. Greater cooperation with Australia in cyber warfare, artificial intelligence and quantum computing is also envisioned. It appears that the “muscle” that could rest on Quad’s arms will be the heft of AUKUS.
But India can’t really complain because it hasn’t been in favour of militarising the Quad – at least not overtly – given the realities of its immediate geography.
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But the increasing frequency and complexity of exercises achieves the same objectives.
It might be useful to add here that India has sought submarine technology from the US for some years but nothing has moved.
“We are not allies but we are a major defence partner,” an official said ruefully about the hierarchy that determines who gets what to a large extent.
There is a degree of shock from the sudden entry of AUKUS since India just completed a 2+2 dialogue with Australia but did not get any sense of the new security pact in the offing.
No one did, not even France, which was supposed to supply regular diesel submarines to Australia for $44 billion.
French officials are livid at the cancellation of the contract as strong accusations of “back stabbing” fly across the oceans. It complicates India’s life a bit because both Australia and France are India’s strategic partners.
Modi and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar are expected to ask a few questions of their counterparts on Quad vs AUKUS and what the future might look like. Will one be a subset of the other or will they operate independently while working towards the same objective – creating a better balance with an overly aggressive China?
Although India did not immediately officially comment on AUKUS, some Indian experts see it as a positive development because it gives credence to Biden’s thesis that he needed to get the US out of Afghanistan in order to focus on the China challenge. He is doing so now.
Another big issue on Modi’s list will be to get Biden to answer the CAATSA question once and for all. CAATSA refers to Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a US law aimed at Russia but broad enough to affect other countries.
India is likely to face US sanctions under CAATSA for buying the Russian S-400 air defence system and become collateral damage as it so often does in the broad sweep of American policy making.
The Biden Administration needs to remove this sword hanging over Indo-US relations and sooner the better. India is expected to get the first batch of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in December and it’s time Washington either granted a waiver to India or amended the law. Any hint of sanctions – light or heavy, temporary or long-term – will set relations back by at least a decade.
The trust built painstakingly over the years will be destroyed in moments. Equally importantly, India is buying the S-400 to beef up its defence against China – the primary reason for getting the Quad together.
The whole idea of America’s current grand strategy is to balance China with the help of allies and partners such as India. Imposing sanctions would be counter-productive.
As Ashley Tellis, an eminent South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment, said on Thursday, 16 September, the Biden Administration should think about amending the law to “get India out of this conundrum” which is not of India’s making but “of our making.”
To put constraints on India’s ability to defend itself against China does not advance US national security interests, he said, at a webinar organised by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum ahead of Modi’s visit.
(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.)