After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and with the ongoing threats of the Covid-19 pandemic, the regional and international environment has been tense, unfriendly, unreliable and unpredictable. Perhaps because of that Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to physically undertake his current tour to the US and the UN, conscious of just how important each meeting was. There was a host of challenges in the grind of meetings with the US hierarchy, the Quad leadership, US business leaders and the speech at the UN General Assembly, besides other events.
The US is under intense pressure with its international image and perception about its leadership being at one of the lowest points in the post-Cold War period. A severe loss of confidence is leading to a reappraisal of its policies and response to developing situations. China and Afghanistan are the two watchwords.
Ever since Barak Obama assumed the Presidency in 2009, the US has been seeking an exit strategy from Afghanistan. What ultimately transpired in terms of that strategy was unmitigated chaos in August 2021 leaving American pride and future in tatters. For the US, the current Quad summit at Washington after the recent signing and announcement of the AUKUS alliance, Joe Biden’s first address to the UN General Assembly and an opportunity to discuss issues of mutual interest with strategic partners could be viewed primarily as an exercise in regaining confidence by the Biden Administration. It’s also an exercise in reprioritizing domains, especially those of the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific while undertaking new initiatives in the field of pandemic management and climate-related issues. There was an expectation from the US leadership for the need to overturn some age-old beliefs and policies such as dependence on Pakistan to stabilise Afghanistan and the region around it. However, with a degree of realism, we may surmise that the Biden administration being under intense pressure a departure from status quo was least likely. Yet, indications of intent to change do appear to be in the air.
For PM Modi this was one of his visits with probably the greatest security-related concerns in mind but the discussions appeared to veer towards non-traditional security threats which too were on the agenda. The strategic issues troubling his government relate to the sudden spurt of confidence acquired by the Sino-Pak combine due to a couple of reasons. First is China’s attempted coercion of India at the Ladakh border from April 2020 onwards giving a fillip to Pakistan’s role too in the collusive threats to India along the northern and western borders. Second is the sudden alteration of the situation in Afghanistan in Pakistan’s favour. The US presence there had provided India with a degree of security. Third is the tricky question of transnational terrorism and the threat that it poses to India, especially with Pakistani sponsorship and involvement. The US has for long apparently turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s grand strategy of using political Islam as an instrument to promote turbulence in South Asia particularly in Jammu and Kashmir to wrest that territory from India through the spread of separatist trends and radical ideology. Pakistan’s geostrategic location has been its USP but it’s been a challenge getting the US to realise that the same factor of geo-strategy plays both ways, in favour and against the US and its partners who are attempting to stabilise the region.
The Chinese coercion had put India on course to be an effective part of Quad. However, the dilemma regarding the securitisation of the Quad has prevented the emerging partnership from putting this on a focused course of progress. This dilemma has been multiplied by the surprise decision to set up the security-related alliance AUKUS, with the inclusion of the UK and the exclusion of India and Japan from within the Quad grouping. The natural question being asked is whether the US despite the smoothly progressing strategic partnership has suddenly found India inadequate as a partner with whom it could share advanced technology, such as the one which is apparently at stake with AUKUS. Perhaps what the US wishes is the long term securitisation of a part of the ‘Five Eyes’ where a greater degree of trust already exists.
Vice President Kamala Harris in her meeting with PM Modi spoke of the need for Pakistan to rein in terrorists so that their presence does not impact US and Indian security; reappraisal of US-Pak relations with respect to Afghanistan was also alluded to. An altered approach from the known stance appeared evident but without a degree of certainty. India has long demanded sanctions on Pakistan to temper its regional and international behaviour. However, pushing Pakistan even more into the Chinese fold deters the US from being more bullish towards Pakistan. A strong Indian delegation participating in the vice-president’s delegation-level talks signified the importance that the Indian side accorded to the Vice President. She is likely to play an increasingly important role in US security affairs and an early rapport with her and her staff will always be beneficial. Kamala Harris may have been typecast in India as being uncomfortable with some facets of the Indian government but with the context of the times only relevant security-related issues were correctly placed on the table and nothing else.
The Quad, climate change, shared democratic values, technologies, diaspora, diversity of both nations, Gandhi and the principles of non-violence, and much more were the subjects of PM Modi’s discussion with President Biden. If one expected that there would be direct references to China and the common threat to Indo-US interests, it would be unrealistic at this juncture when Biden did not even name China in his UN General Assembly speech. Much was said by Biden and it complemented the Vice President’s references without repetition. Gloved within it were enough messages of shared interests that will help in taking forward the Indo-US relationship in a mature way without unrealistic expectations.
Modi balanced his speech to the UN General Assembly. His first message was clearly addressed to Pakistan — “It is absolutely essential to ensure that Afghanistan’s territory is not used to spread terrorism and for terrorist activities”, he said projecting India’s core concerns on Afghanistan. Contextually, he mentioned regressive thinking and extremism as on the increase in the world. “In these circumstances, the whole world has to make science-based, rational and progressive thinking, the base of their development programs,” said Modi, exemplifying his belief how social and technological progress helps overcome extremist ideologies. Judging by the mood of the visit, PM Modi also spoke more generically on security issues and laid much more emphasis on non-traditional security issues. He did flag the Covid origin issue and the dubious nature of ‘ease of doing business ratings, both of which will rankle China. Even Quad discussions were focused largely on aspects other than kinetic but with a clear messaging for China.
Public sentiment in India may not be fully satisfied since too many expectations unfairly anticipate vitriolic content in Indian statements and strong statements by the US leadership or other stakeholders. I consider the Indian approach highly mature, contextual to the prevailing environment and the content of what was said as sensibly balanced and yet conveying the message. Clearly, this is the time to take stock, appraise each other on prevailing threats with clarity and commence the process of consultation on the future course. The Modi tour has probably achieved all that with much finesse and a sense of balance.
The author is a retired Lieutenant General of the Indian Army. Views are personal