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China Focus of Modi-Biden, Quad Summits

By Ambassador T P SREENIVASAN
September 25, 2021 16:16 IST
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The bilateral and Quad summits, in which Prime Minister Modi played a significant role, has sent the right message to China, observes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and US President Joe Biden at the White House, September 24, 2021. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
 

China was the unseen guest at every meeting in Washington and New York this week and it was uppermost in the minds of all leaders and strategists.

The masks that they donned were undoubtedly associated with the Wuhan virus, which was kept a secret, if not released accidentally or deliberately by China as a biological weapon of mass destruction.

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.

President Joe Biden called the first face to face Quad summit in the context of his declining popularity on account of the humiliating defeat the US suffered in Afghanistan.

He remained steadfast on his decision to end the war, but admitted that he could have handled the withdrawal better.

He must have felt comfortable in the company of like- minded countries, who seemed to accept the leadership of the US, despite the recent setbacks it suffered.

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 fall out of AUKUS.

President Biden confessed that he should have been more cautious in this case also.

On the whole, the bilateral summits and the Quad gathering marked the beginning of the recovery of President Biden even as Mr Trump tightened his grip on the Republican Party and gained ground.

As the only 'non-ally' of the US to be in Washington for a bilateral dialogue and a reaffirmation of the importance of the Quad as a stabilising force in the Indo-Pacific, India was crucial to Mr Biden, who was beaming as Mr 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, Mr Modi's characterisation of the relationship was translated as 'natural strategic partners' and 'natural allies' by the media, a phrase that Mr A B Vajpayee had used for the first time in 2000.

Mr Modi prepared the ground for a cordial meeting by not criticising 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.

Mr 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 neighbourhood of Afghanistan, which shares the US position, India has become more important 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 Mr Biden, who has appointed nearly 70 Indian Americans to the 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.

Vice President Kamala Harris made a surprising reference to Pakistan in her conversation with Mr Modi, pointing out that Pakistan has been harbouring terrorists.

This reflects a change in US attitude to Pakistan after the Kabul fiasco, announced by Secretary of State Antony J Blinken a few days ago.

Mr Modi was particularly warm towards Ms Harris, particularly when he extended an invitation to her to give India a chance to celebrate her victorious journey.

He also brought for her memorabilia relating to her mother, which must have touched her.

She may not change her championship of human rights, but she may try to appreciate the situation in Jammu and Kashmir in future.

Having established the bilateral affinity and agreed to meet some of the grave challenges together, it was logical for Mr Modi to embrace the Quad as it has evolved and its security dimension changed after the emergence of AUKUS.

With a robust defense 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.

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 recognize 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.

I have rarely seen summits fail as there will always be some little silver lining, even if it fades away subsequently.

But the bilateral and Quad summits, in which Prime Minister Modi played a significant role, has enhanced Mr Biden's stature, sent the right message to China, created a mechanism to fight the pandemic and united the democratic world against a common foe.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan (IFS 1967) is amer Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
A frequent contributor to Rediff.com, you can read his fascinating columns here.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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