Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States lacks the theatrical flavour it has had in the past. Perhaps, it is all for the better. The focus would then have been on practical issues relating to the India-US relations, Afghanistan, the Quad and the United Nations and so on. The coverage of the visit, though, remains over-the-top on TV.
Actually, a visit to the US during the UN General Assembly session is almost routine for the PM, except for the circumstances of 2020. The bonus as it were was the Washington leg of the tour which enabled personal meetings with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as the first in-person Quad summit.
Reading the Body Language and More in Modi-Biden Meet
Seated next to President Biden while making the opening remarks before their official meeting, Modi’s posture and delivery appeared restrained and there was no effort at any kind of informality. There was a bit of gushing praise for Biden, but the latter, for his part, avoided any effusive touch to his remarks.
What was interesting was that the American leader read off his statement from cue cards, while Modi spoke extempore. This wasn’t just about Biden’s age, but probably his lack of familiarity with issues relating to India indicative of the lower priority he assigns to New Delhi notwithstanding the public postures.
Biden’s remarks before the bilateral meeting made it clear that for the Americans the focus issues of the meeting were the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the Indo-Pacific. Both Biden and, earlier, Harris spoke of the democratic values of the two countries and “our shared responsibility” to uphold them.
From the Indian side, as indicated by Modi’s remarks, the big focus was on India’s desire to become a technology and trade partner, playing as the PM noted, a complementary role. He expected this to be a major factor in the relationship in the coming decade.
What was Agreed or Construed on Pakistan
Going by the briefings that have been made by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, one would almost imagine Pakistan was the focus of the visit. Clearly, New Delhi is seeking to block Islamabad as it runs with the Kabul ball, to use an American football analogy.
Speaking to the media after the Harris-Modi meeting on 24 September, Shringla used the interesting term suo motu for Harris raising the issue of Pakistan’s role in terrorism and the need for Islamabad to check itself. But a closer look at the sentence reveals a different nuance: “She agreed with the prime minister’s briefing on the fact of cross border terrorism, and the fact that India has been a victim of terrorism….”
So, as the PM spoke and Harris nodded, and this was construed to be an agreement that Islamabad was doing all those bad things.
The US is, of course, concerned over developments in Afghanistan, and it is putting Islamabad through the cold Turkey treatment as Biden has even refused a phone call to Imran Khan. The Indian decision to go tough on Pakistan may have been triggered by a remark of Secretary of State Antony Blinken on September 14 that the US planned to review “Pakistan’s role in the last 20 years.”
But Islamabad is busy trying to get control of the situation in Kabul and if it manages, you can be sure that Washington will come knocking again. At this juncture, both the US and India have been kept out of the grouping of Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran in dealing with stabilising Afghanistan. The US is probably staying out willingly but the situation certainly rankles New Delhi because of our regional context.
US Interests in the Indo-Pacific; Quad Becomes Crucial
Licking its wounds in Afghanistan, the US is now focusing on the Indo-Pacific. After the coup of the AUKUS agreement, Washington is seeking to shore up the Quad. In his remarks at the first in-person Quad summit that he hosted, Biden reiterated the common vision of the “democratic partners” to the “key challenges of our age, from COVID to climate to emerging technologies.”
He reported that the vaccine vision was back on track to produce an additional 1 billion doses in India after having been disrupted by the devastating second wave of the pandemic. Modi provided no additional information about the vaccine situation, but expressed the hope that it would help the Indo-Pacific community.
Modi was the only leader who did not mention the “free and open Indo Pacific” in his public remarks.
Clearly, however, the remarks of the four leaders signal a clear line between the challenges of the Quad – COVID-19, climate change, emerging technologies, infrastructure, clean energy, people to people exchanges in science and technology—and the hard military issues which will be the remit of the AUKUS. That should not detract from the importance of the Quad since the military aspect is only part of the China challenge. The other areas are equally, if not more significant.
Democracy in India and US
Many have seen in the remarks made by Harris on 24 September about “democracies around the world [that] are under threat” and the need to “defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries” as a veiled nudge to Modi.
On the other hand, Modi and Indian officials have sought to use the “democratic” connection to emphasise India’s US connect and underscore it with effusive references to Mahatma Gandhi, who is deeply respected in the US.
All said, the issue of democratic values should not be overstated. After all, the US did not see any special virtue in them when it pushed aside France, its oldest democratic ally, because it perceived that its national interests demanded it in the Indo-Pacific.
In the same measure, just last week, Washington told visiting Prime Minister Boris Johnson that a trade deal would not be possible, despite their new found proximity in the Indo-Pacific. All he got by way of concession was a US lifting of decades old ban on British beef and lamb. New Delhi has also been looking for a trade deal but has been realistic enough to accept that it is not available as of now.
India Aware of New Era of American Policy
All these are manifestations of a new era of American policy where national interests, or the American perception of them, are the top priority. Washington’s altruistic style has been set aside as it confronts what it sees is the most significant challenge to its global hegemony since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
All this comes at a time when, according to a Reuters poll in May, a majority of the opposition Republican Party believe that Trump is the real winner of the 2020 election. Democracy is not just threatened in India, Brazil or Turkey, but the US as well.
From US point of view India is on a good wicket. With the Americans seeking to nuance their relationship with China to one of “extreme competition”, India with its large population and talent pool offers alternatives to US companies that are too sensitive to be permitted to set up shop in China, or are barred by Beijing.
Modi and Jaishankar are probably well aware of the situation. India like all countries in the world, including China, knows that as of now, Uncle Sam remains the key player in the world in terms of its military, technological and soft power. Getting his blessings are worth their while, while crossing him can prove to be dangerous.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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