Ep. 42: Mr Modi goes to Washington in the middle of a chill in Indo-US relations

The Quad has been deprecated, and the US is busily kowtowing to China, while trying to sell weapons to India

  
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A version of this essay has been published by rediff.com at https://www.rediff.com/news/column/rajeev-srinivasan-what-did-modis-washington-visit-achieve/20210925.htm

This autumn has been cruel to India. Not only is the instantaneous collapse of the Afghan government a grave concern for India, based on entirely likely new terrorism threats, but then there is the obvious downgrading of the Quad partnership in the wake of the brand-new AUKUS grouping. The Financial Times believes that the Quad will become non-military. 

In a sense, this is not news for India, as it was clear nobody from the Quad would send boots on the ground to help India in case the Chinese invade. But it was tone-deaf for the Biden administration to announce the AUKUS deal just days before the first in-person Quad summit during his term. 

The other two Quad partners, Japan and India, were apparently left in the dark by the Americans. So was France, which was furious at the sudden cancellation of its own $40 billion submarine deal with Australia.

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At the UN General Assembly, President Biden delivered soaring rhetoric about global unity (which was contrasted with former President Trump’s anti-globalist message): “We are not seeking a new Cold War or the world divided into rigid blocs”. That would have gone over a lot better if he hadn’t just abandoned his Afghan allies, or created a new AUKUS bloc. 

Antonio Gutierrez, the UN Secretary General, said pointedly, and perhaps as a direct rebuke to Biden: “A breakdown in trust is leading to a breakdown in values. Promises, after all, are worthless if people don’t see results in their daily lives. Failure to deliver creates space for some of the darkest impulses of humanity. It provides oxygen for easy-fixes, pseudo-solutions and conspiracy theories. It is kindling to stoke ancient grievances.  Cultural  supremacy.  Ideological dominance.  Violent misogyny.  The targeting of the most vulnerable including refugees and migrants.”

The US has a massive credibility gap today, because its rhetoric simply does not match its actions on the ground. In many ways, the US is ceding ground to China, for instance in its reluctance to push for an understanding of the possible lab origins of the Wuhan coronavirus. Open-source intelligence from the DRASTIC group found that Peter Daszak of Ecohealth had sought to cooperate with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in creating an unusual feature, a ‘furin cleavage site’, in bat coronaviruses, that would make them infectious to humans. 

Furthermore, the US is under a Democratic presidency. We remember how badly the Democratic Clinton and Obama administrations treated India: with disdain and disrespect. Not to say that Republicans are wonderful, but these days the Democratic party has been taken over by their fringe leftists, and is remarkably ‘woke’. Thus there is no chance that anything of substance can come out of Modi-Biden meetings. 

The only thing that the US is seeking is weapons sales. Brahma Chellaney has pointed out that all that was actually accomplished by the high-voltage sales program called the Indo-US nuclear deal is that India bought a lot of US weapons. According to India Today, there is a lot on the table today as well. If it were up to me, I’d focus on the submarine hunter-killer P8i Poseidons, and would have nothing to do with the Norwegian-developed NASAMS system, as the Scandinavians are known busybodies.

But the problem, as always, is that India opens its checkbook in return for no diplomatic or military leverage. The US sells technology to India that is obsolete or second-rate. For instance, despite much negotiation from India, the US refuses to sell its strategic nuclear submarine (SSN) propulsion technology to India: the very same stuff it is now selling to Australia. And there is also the threat of sanctions if India deploys its Russian S-400 anti-missile technology, which incidentally China also has. 

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The fact is that Biden has now created a new military alliance, which consists only of white, Anglosphere nations. He has either thoughtlessly or deliberately snubbed the two non-white members of the Quad, that is India and Japan. And perhaps other Indo-Pacific players such as Indonesia. The involvement of Britain, increasingly a marginal power even in Europe, and practically non-existent in the Indo-Pacific, is pure Atlanticism. 

There are two possible explanations: one is that Biden believes the way to deal with China is to surrender the Indo-Pacific to them, and to retreat to being an Atlantic power. Australia is not much of a factor in the Indo-Pacific (will the US revert to the old term ‘Asia-Pacific’?) being far away and sparsely populated. The powers that matter in the Indo-Pacific are indeed Japan, India, and Indonesia. Even France is more of a factor in the Indo-Pacific than Britain is.

The second explanation is that the agenda of “climate, conflict and corona” is uppermost in the minds of the Americans. The many visits of the climate czar John Kerry (an unrepentant Atlanticist, and a disaster earlier as foreign secretary) to India, especially when India is doing much better than many others in moving towards renewables and Paris agreement commitments, suggest that Biden is seeking to hector and bully India into things that are not in its interest.

Yet another example of Biden’s pusillanimity with China is the fact that his Justice Department has dropped charges against the Huawei CFO (and daughter of its founder) who was held for a long time in Canada on charges of criminal activity. In return, China released two Canadians they held on spying charges. Lesson? China learns that hostage-taking and brazenness pays dividends.

As far as the Wuhan coronavirus is concerned, Biden’s approach of hoarding far more vaccine than is strictly necessary for the US has created vaccine haves and have-nots, the majority of whom are in developing nations that have been starved of vaccines, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. 

The AUKUS move is a definite indication that the Quad has been downgraded. What it suggests is atavism: Biden’s America is retreating to a white Anglo-Saxon view of the world. It has even decided to ditch the European Union. This is a Huntingtonian view, in which Biden has ceded Asia to China, and will attempt to rally the white Anglosphere as his last stand against the rampaging Chinese. Alas, this is a chimera.

Robert Gates, former foreign secretary, once remarked that Biden had been wrong on every single major foreign policy initiative in 40 years. Did you notice that China, which is usually quick to fly into a rage, was utterly quiet when Biden made two blunders: fleeing Afghan in disorderly retreat, and humiliating allies with the AUKUS pact? That signifies that China is a votary of Napoleon’s epigram: “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake”. 

The only thing that may salvage Narendra Modi’s trip to the US is his meetings with CEOs, such as those of Blackstone, First Solar, Qualcomm, Adobe, and General Atomics. These firms may recognize India’s steady growth, especially in comparison to the current chaos in China due to Evergrande’s imminent collapse. 

That, and a meeting with lame-duck Japanese PM Suga, may be the only things for Narendra Modi to write home about. 

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Sept 24, 2021, updated Sept 25, 2021.