Four big global themes of China’s growing international menace, COVID 19 vaccination partnership, post-pandemic economic recovery and the climate crisis are expected to dominate the first meeting between US President Joe Biden and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 24.
Afghanistan post-US withdrawal and its security implications for India will also figure significantly but likely as a secondary theme. That the Biden-Modi meeting is taking place in the shadow of the first in-person summit of the so-called Quadrilateral or the Quad, a grouping of America, India, Japan and Australia, means that there will be some overlap of issues in the bilateral interaction.
There are expectations that Prime Minister Modi would touch upon AUKUS, a just-formed security pact between the US, the UK and Australia aimed at China and the Indo-Pacific. The AUKUS pact gives Australia nuclear-powered submarines meant to patrol the South China Sea and nearby areas as China increasingly grabs territories.
While Afghanistan is crucial for India from the standpoint of its national security, for the US there is a clear shift away from it to focus mainly on China. The abandonment of Afghanistan is clearly a matter of grave concern, but Indian security and defense policymakers would also have their sights trained on the fact that the US is quite unambiguously and aggressively taking on China as manifest in AUKUS and by implication through the Quad. That India can to some extent bank upon the Quad vis-à-vis China, if not militarily but otherwise, is a matter of some reassurance even though it is the only country of the four which has long suffered territorially, financially and militarily because of Beijing.
The Quad countries between them account for a combined GDP of close to $33 trillion ($22.73 trillion for the US, $ 2.85 trillion for India, $5.3 trillion for Japan, and $1.6 trillion for Australia) as opposed to China’s $14.6 trillion. There are those in India who would like the Quad to acquire a more militaristic-security-specific contour, but the Biden administration is not particularly inclined at this stage. It sees AUKUS as the way out of that expectation.
The White House is more interested that the Quad play a major role in a new emerging world order. “The Biden-Harris Administration has made elevating the Quad a priority, as seen through the first-ever Quad Leaders-level engagement in March, which was virtual, and now this Summit, which will be in-person,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement announcing the summit. “Hosting the leaders of the Quad demonstrates the Biden-Harris Administration’s priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific, including through new multilateral configurations to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
It appears to be a two-pronged approach via AUKUS and Quad, with the former a sharply defined security pact and the latter a broader, somewhat nebulous arrangement whose sweep is also beyond China with the consequence for the economic development in the Indo-Pacific.
One specific issue that the Indian prime minister could raise relates to the looming imposition of sanctions on India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). They relate to India getting ready to take the delivery of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia at the end of 2021. CAATSA, signed into law in 2017, sanctioned Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
President Biden is in a position to grant India a waiver, but it is not clear yet that he would. With September already ending and the end of 2021 just three months away New Delhi would feel the urgency to preempt any prospective US sanctions. In this context, it is important to remember that Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been known to oppose to the idea of a waiver. He has argued that expanding the waiver process “undermine[s] the very essence of those sanctions against Russia.” In his capacity as chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee President Biden has his work cut out should he choose to consider a waiver for India.
CAATSA sanctions against India will be greatly counterproductive at a time when the US is enlisting it as a possible counterweight to China as well as some kind of a sobering influence over Afghanistan, not to mention its crucial partnership in vaccine diplomacy as well as the climate crisis.
All these are big themes where India’s enthusiastic participation is decisive. Add to that the fact in the aftermath of Washington upending France’s $66 billion diesel-electric submarine deal with Australia, enraging Paris enough to prompt President Emmanuel Macron reach out to Prime Minister Modi and the diplomatic equations look rather complicated. That Macron and Modi agreed to “act jointly” in the Indo-Pacific would not be lost on the Biden administration.
Notwithstanding that Modi will be in Washington for just two days, the issues at hand are disproportionately big and global in nature.