Harsh V Pant
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has embarked on his first foreign tour in six months to engage directly with the Joe Biden administration in the United States (US). Given the trajectory of India-US ties in recent decades, all bilateral engagements between the two nations come with a sense of anticipation, but this visit will be watched even more closely as it will dare to tackle some key challenges that have emerged in the last few weeks. America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the signing of the AUKUS trilateral defense pact have raised some questions in Indian strategic circles about the Biden administration’s commitment to the larger India-US bilateral project.
Modi’s visit will not only entail bilateral engagements with his Australian and Japanese counterparts, Scott Morrison and Yoshihide Suga but will also see the PM address the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The highlight will be the first in-person Quad summit. Biden had called the first leaders’ summit of Quad in March, giving a renewed impetus to a platform that lacked energy and dynamism. That was in virtual mode, and now, in less than six months, the grouping will be meeting again in the in-person format, underlining the growing importance of Quad in the ever-so-volatile Indo-Pacific region.
The four Quad nations will be meeting days after two of their partners, the US and Australia, sprang a surprise by signing AUKUS, enabling Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines. Though the US has reassured India that this pact is not likely to detract from Quad or bilateral cooperation, concerns have risen in India that the strategic dimension of the Quad engagement can get diluted if Washington begins to privilege AUKUS and other such arrangements. Unlike AUKUS, which is a security alliance, however, Quad’s agenda is distinct. For India, as articulated by foreign secretary Harsh Shringla, “The Quad is a plurilateral grouping with a vision for a free, open, transparent and inclusive Indo-Pacific.”
Yet, there are messages galore in AUKUS, and New Delhi will have to be able to use the openings provided by emerging alignments. Washington is responding to those who have been raising doubts about the durability of America’s regional commitments in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the aftermath of the Afghanistan debacle.
Signing this deal soon after withdrawing military forces from Afghanistan is a way for the US to reassure its allies and partners that it will now focus on the Indo-Pacific, and in so doing, it is now willing to empower its regional allies. Sharing sensitive technologies, such as nuclear-powered submarine technology, is the beginning of a long process in this age of heightened contestation in strategic technologies. The US is showing that it is willing to walk the talk, and both Washington and Canberra are willing to bear the costs that come with making such decisions.
For India, which has long complained about its like-minded partners not being ready to make costly choices, this new trilateral security partnership should come as a welcome move, one that will complement all its other engagements in the region, including Quad.
The concern in New Delhi would be about the US, the United Kingdom (UK), and Australia mishandling France in forging the new pact. The Indo-Pacific strategic realities are rather fragile and need sustained commitment and consensus among like-minded nations. If AUKUS leads to a weakening of the French and broader European commitment to the Indo-Pacific, then that would only diminish the efficacy of the nascent security architecture and deterrence framework in this maritime geography.
It is not without reason that France and India reached out to each other soon after the AUKUS announcement, with France assuring India of its “commitment to the strengthening of India’s strategic autonomy, including its industry and technology base, as part of a close relationship based on trust and mutual respect”.
Given India’s close and deepening ties with all major stakeholders in this unfolding drama, New Delhi’s role becomes even more crucial in ensuring that the broader coalition of like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific is not only sustained but also gains in strength. Modi’s role at the Quad summit as well as in his bilateral engagements with the US and Australia becomes even more significant.
The other issue pertains to India’s western frontier where instability engendered by the rise of the Taliban regime has confounded New Delhi’s calculus. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation-Collective Security Treaty Organization (SCO-CTO) outreach summit on Afghanistan earlier this month, PM Modi made India’s position clear by underlining that “the transition of power in Afghanistan is not inclusive, and it has happened without negotiation”, and highlighted Indian concern that “if instability and fundamentalism persist in Afghanistan, it will encourage terrorist and extremist ideologies all over the world”.
India will find it difficult to play its rightful role in the Indo-Pacific if its western frontier continues to remain volatile. Modi will have to put it across to his American interlocutors that as much as the western and eastern peripheries are linked for India, for the US too, the challenges emanating from Af-Pak are only likely to grow with China expanding its footprint in Afghanistan.
In his first address before UNGA this week, Biden declared that the US is “not seeking a new Cold War”. New Delhi, too, has no interest in a world divided into rigid blocs, but structural challenges emanating from the Indo-Pacific demand that not only India and the US strive for a more robust partnership but also ensure that a growing coalition of nations with a shared interest in seeking a secure and stable region continues to gain momentum. PM Modi has his task cut out.
This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times titled Why Modi’s visit to the US matters dated September 22, 2021.
About the Author
Harsh V Pant is a professor, King’s College London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.