The first visit by a member of the Biden administration underlines India’s position as an indispensable ally to Washington and places the emphasis on activities related to the Quad to curtail unchecked Chinese ambitions.
The momentum to kickstart the operations of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) grouping of nations has now begun in earnest with US defence secretary Lloyd Austin already prepping for a significant visit to New Delhi in the middle of this month.
Austin’s visit is yet another clear signal of the importance with which the United States views India’s role in this select gathering of countries when it comes to augmenting the Indo-Pacific vision. It is an endorsement to India’s geo-strategic thrust which is already being acknowledged across the region and globally.
Austin will touch down in New Delhi while adding a few more stops in Indo-Pacific countries to his itinerary. As far as the optics are concerned this will be the first official visit by a cabinet member of the new Biden administration.
Speaking earlier to the media Austin had acknowledged details of his visit saying, "I am looking forward to that first gathering of Quad leaders. It will be the first-ever gathering of Quad leaders. I already had bilateral discussions with [Indian PM] Narendra Modi and [Japanese PM] Yoshihide Suga, the PM of Japan and PM of India.”
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison had already set the ball rolling last week by announcing that the Quad would be conducting its first-ever meeting soon. The foreign ministers of the four Quad countries had already met in a virtual meeting last month. There are behind the scene moves in play to ensure that the leaders of the Quad nations - India, US, Japan and Australia – can all attend a series of discussions aimed towards thwarting the unchecked ambitions of China.
The Biden administration has made public that there would be no change in policy as far as strengthening of ties with India is concerned. A defence cooperation between the two countries, worth $20 billion, is already in play and the US President has made no secret of the fact that the contribution of India and the Indian diaspora in the US is significant. A statement by the US state department put India’s importance in perspective saying, The US state department last week said, "It’s these offers of advanced US defence platforms that demonstrate our commitment to India’s security and sovereignty. It demonstrates our commitment to that global, comprehensive, strategic partnership."
India is making waves globally, amidst the pandemic, as a model state acutely aware of its responsibilities towards its partners and smaller nations who have buckled under the pressures brought about by the pandemic and, with it, eventual economic meltdown. India’s foreign policy and humanitarian approach, through providing pharma and vaccine aid across the world, has been lauded even as it stared down China over a territorial dispute which lasted months.
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It isn’t just New Delhi that has frosty relations with Beijing. Washington’s reputation has been stung hard by Xi Jinping’s destructive decision making and, following the exit of former president Donald Trump, current head of state Joe Biden has inherited a set of headaches which includes, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a global health crisis (claiming more than 500,000 lives in the US alone), weapons proliferation, breakdown in climate change policy, coercive and unfair economic practices, state crackdowns in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.
The US will have to display a coherent strategy when it comes to confronting and reining in China and India would be their most valuable ally in this mission. There is a lot at stake for this current US administration chief among which is restoring America’s international standing which had taken a bit of a beating under former president Trump. It’s a Catch-22 for US president Biden – should Washington continue to engage with China, through multiple platforms including financial and economic activity, or should it decouple itself?
The Pentagon’s China Task Force, overseen by its director Ely Ratner, set up specifically to address the “proliferation of policies, activities and initiatives related to China . . . to ensure that those activities [are] synchronized, prioritized, and coordinated to the greatest extent possible,” will be stretched to the limit.
The Indo-Pacific carries much import in this context. Washington has created the post of an ‘Indo-Pacific coordinator’ and named diplomat Kurt Campbell in charge of it. He reports to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
According to Reuters, Campbell is leading an effort to ensure that the US works with its Quad allies on a plan to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in Asia to counter the influence of China. Aware of its own standing as the global hub for vaccines India has also reportedly approached the Quad nations to invest in its vaccine production capacity. The Modi administration intends to ramp up its global distribution for Covid-19 vaccines, partly to counter similar Chinese intentions.
Austin’s upcoming visit to New Delhi clearly indicates that Washington is willing to study, be guided, informed and engage with the policies taken by like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region and, to a large part, this justifies India’s prominence not just within the activities of the Quad but outside of it as well.