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Reflections on Modi’s visit to the U.S.

by Vaishali Basu Sharma - 1 October, 2021, 12:00 1265 Views 0 Comment

Following a deftly-sequenced series of meetings and summits, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “landmark” three-day visit to the US included the first in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad leaders’ summit, his address to the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, bilateral and multilateral engagements with US President Joe Biden, his counterparts from Australia Scott Morrison and from Japan Yoshihide Suga, US Vice President Kamala Harris and interaction with top CEOs.

The first in-person bilateral meeting of the two leaders at the White House commenced on a light vein in which PM Modi told President Biden that he has brought documents to prove that the Bidens in India were related to him. Modi and Biden discussed a wide range of priority issues, including combating Covid-19, climate change and economic cooperation and during his talks with US Vice President Kamala Harris both decided to further cement the Indo-US strategic partnership and discussed global issues of common interest, including threats to democracy and the Indo-Pacific. PM Modi described India and America as “natural partners”.

Modi’s Address to UNGA

Prime minister Narendra Modi was the first speaker to address the 76th session of the UNGA in New York, the day after his visit to Washington. At the outset, terming India as the “mother of all democracies,” Modi launched a defence of the state of democracy in India. This was a subtle rebuke to Turkey and Pakistan in reference to their support of Kashmiri separatism. In contrast to Pakistan PM Imran Khan who named India more than a dozen times, in a speech that focused on Kashmir, Modi made no reference to Pakistan or China. However, in a veiled attack on Pakistan, he said that countries with “regressive thinking” using terrorism as a “political tool” should understand that it is an “equally big threat” for them also. emphasized the need to ensure that Afghanistan’s territory is not used to spread terrorism or for terrorist activities.

PM announced the decision to restart India’s vaccine exports through the international COVAX alliance. Speaking at length on India’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the scientific development of vaccines, including a “DNA vaccine, an mRNA vaccine and a nasal vaccine” he extended an invitation to global vaccine manufacturers to “come, come to India and make vaccines”. Displaying chutzpah Modi did not shy away from referring to the issue of the “origins of the Covid virus” and the cancellation of the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business Index”, both of which have been laid at China’s door for a lack of transparency in global institutions.

Quad Summit Avoids Naming ‘China’

Under the rubric of Quad, leaders of the world’s pre-eminent democracies Australia, India, Japan, and the United States convened at the White House on September 24, to coordinate positions and issue shared commitments on global issues, coronavirus pandemic, emerging technologies, and climate change. In order to support the critical role of Quad governments in fostering and promoting a diverse resilient secure intelligent telecommunications ecosystem, a 5G deployment and diversification effort was announced.

Before the meeting, White House underscored the “unofficial nature of the Quad” gathering and said that ‘it is not a regional security organisation but as the leaders want to focus on the challenges confronting the Indo-Pacific region, the issues will be addressed.’ Deeply suspicious of the Quad, as an “exclusive, closed” whose purpose is counter to China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region group the Chinese foreign ministry issued a caustic statement to the effect that, “Seeking exclusive closed cliques against a third country runs against the trend of the times and aspirations of countries in the region,”…. “It (the Quad) will find no support.”

The Quad joint statement does not mention the word China. The Quad statement indicates a deliberate attempt to broaden the scope of cooperation away from security orientation towards the role that it can play in engagement on technology, which is becoming increasingly entwined with geopolitics. The areas under discussion range from semiconductors and telecommunications to space security and technology governance. It is likely in an effort to avoid any overt antagonism within the Indo-Pacific that the latest Quad gathering stressed its ‘non-security.’ Aside from joint military exercises, there is no formal security dimension to the group. This is probably for the best. India whose relations with China are already hindered by traditional rivalry and competition, must avoid security alliances.  India has entered the Quad summit from a position of confidence and should focus on non-security tools, climate change, vaccine production plan and cybersecurity threats. The timing of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s release after a three-year U.S. extradition fight, just as the Quad meeting ended, is a clear signal of the Biden administration capitulating to China. US’s deliberate exclusion of China from the Quad, allying with AUKUS on nuclear propulsion technology all indicate that on security issues it is not a reliable partner. While the Indo-pacific is important for India perhaps it should not be forgotten that the Western flank is where our main security threats are emanating from.​ ​Although a strong Indo-us partnership strategy makes sense because ​the US continue​s​ to be a primary source of high technology, but ​as far as our main security threats are concerned, there is still scant alignment​. India must seek more reliable strategic security allies like France and Russia.

Broadening the Scope of Cooperation

The focus on the technology issues particularly with respect to how the countries concerned can really cooperate together in terms of setting the norms for very important fifth-generation technologies like 5G and space assets was visible in the Quad summit statement as well as the attended bilaterals. A substantial take-away from the Washington visit was the India-Australia bilateral in which Modi and Morrison agreed on some important new initiatives, including low emissions technology partnership and ultra-low-cost solar programme, which will help in further deepening the economic ties between the two countries.  As part of his meeting with top CEOs PM also met Stephen Schwarzman chief of Black Stone. They deliberated upon various investment opportunities in India, including those arising due to the National Infrastructure Pipeline and National Monetisation Pipeline. With Vivek Lal, he discussed India’s strides in drone technology, including the path-breaking reforms and PLI scheme.  Modi and PM Suga welcomed the launch of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) between India, Japan and Australia earlier this year as a collaborative mechanism to enable resilient, diversified and trustworthy supply chains, and to particularly reduce India’s dependence on China. Quad countries agreed to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and to update or communicate ambitious NDCs by the upcoming UK conference on Climate change at COP26.

In an optimistic welcome return to face-to-face, in-person, at times mask-less diplomacy the Quad summit was a coordinated demonstration of relative unity among democracies in the face of a shifting global order. While the summit was a confident display of democratic unity, the agenda may never fully manage to break free from the realities of domestic and regional politics. For instance, several Republican senators swiftly condemned Huawei CFO’s release, “The release of Ms. Meng raises serious questions about President Biden’s ability and willingness to confront the threat posed by Huawei and the Chinese Communist Party.” Unless the US is able to overcome the deep domestic political divisions, its domestic fragility may prevent it from playing a productive global role at all.

Integrating with the Japanese, Australian and US economies on SCRI, is not an easy task for India. Freer trade with Japan and the ASEAN bloc has resulted in more imports than exports with our trade deficit with ASEAN has risen from $5 billion in 2011 to $24 billion last year. With the US, even a limited trade deal has proved elusive. And if the U.S. joined the supply chain alliance, it would likely insist on tighter rules on intellectual property, extensive labor law reform, and a range of environment and investment protections that would be difficult for India to comply with. Participating in any alternative supply chain to rival China will mean a major overhaul of the country’s regulatory regime.

As the world recovers from the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic politics will assume primacy and will ultimately intrude upon leaders’ ability to meet these global commitments. For India, it was an opportunity to confidently place itself as the world’s largest, and perhaps the most vibrant democracy, its concerns regarding terrorism and attendant threats emanating from the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, pursuing high technology partnerships, and with the Quad statement possibly realization that on core security issues it will have to chart its own course.

Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma
Author is an analyst on Strategic and Economic Affairs. She has worked as a Consultant with the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She tweets at @basu_vaishali
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