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Through the Covid crisis, Quad finds a home

The Quad is at the core of the new global geopolitics, and the US, an early sceptic, has taken ownership and has put itself in the driving seat. Beyond the vaccine conversations, this shift was the unwritten headline during foreign minister, S. Jaishankar’s visit to Washington, the first cabinet-level broad-spectrum engagement with the Joe Biden administration.

There does not seem to be any of that oh-it-was-a-Donald-Trump-initiative sort of thing at the top levels of the Biden administration — obviously, they weren’t paying attention to the number of commentators who spent many ‘text search’ moments to conclude that Indo-Pacific and the Quad were not priorities for the Biden guys. From the leaders’ summit on March 12 to a full-throated embrace of all the facets of the new grouping and the Indo-Pacific, this will evince keen interest among major global players.

The official readouts after Jaishankar’s meetings with US NSA Jake Sullivan, defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had a strong thread of the Indo-Pacific and Quad running through them. Conversations with officials confirmed the renewed focus by the US.

In his own remarks at the end of his visit, Jaishankar, in fact, called for a rewiring of the collective strategic mindset. India, he said, had full clarity on the Quad. “The Quad is an expression of convergence of interests of many countries. It’s in many ways, a reflection of the contemporary nature of the world order. We have to put the Cold War behind us, only those who are stuck in Cold War can’t understand Quad.”

That was aimed as much at China as Russia and a clutch of countries and strategic influencers who draw comparisons with the 45 years of the 20th Century that comprised the Cold War, situating the Quad within the US-China rivalry. Since 2018, when India signed up to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, the vision was bigger than a military/security pushback against China’s aggressiveness. “The Quad discussed maritime security, connectivity, in recent years, it has started to discuss technology issues, supply chain issues, vaccine production.”

“Quad today fills a very important gap that has emerged in contemporary times, where there are global or regional requirements, which cannot be filled by a single country. It cannot even be filled by one bilateral relationship, and it is not being addressed at the multilateral level,” Jaishankar said. It points to the fact that while there is a convergence of interests among some countries today, its not a total alignment.

For all this to get on the road, sources said, the US urged India to get a handle on its Covid surge. From seafarers to the service sector, hospitality, healthcare, India has quietly become an integral part of the global manpower talent supply chain — all hit by the tsunami surge. This should put some much-needed governance pressure on the Modi government. Especially since business leaders who met Jaishankar urged greater opening up of the economy and extension of the popular PLI schemes for various sectors.

Obviously, that means more Indians need to be vaccinated to allow the opening up of the economy and the country. Much of the vaccine discussions between Jaishankar and the Biden administration were quiet, but sources aver that the US would make it easier to access vaccine components for manufacturers here. The results of some quiet executive action on the US’ part will only be evident in the coming weeks and months. The first signs came with the White House announcement that the US would lift the Defense Production Act priority ratings for Astra Zeneca and Novavax vaccines. That will help Serum Institute ramp up production of Covishield and Covavax shots in India.

Vaccines are an important part of the Indo-Pacific push by the Quad, and India is squarely in the centre of it. The Modi government, therefore, will have to pull itself up by the bootstraps on a couple of fronts — first, the management of the Covid surge and preparation for the next one; second, do what it takes to roll out vaccines; and third, open up vaccine exports again. That is India’s part of the Quad bargain.

The last is now a politically fraught debate, which will only dissipate when there are enough doses to go around. Indians did not oppose the government’s “vaccine maitri” program, neither is there any appreciable vaccine hesitancy in this country. The heart of the issue of the availability of vaccines.

On the diplomatic front though, the Washington visit and the reaffirmation of the Quad shows the complex web of foreign policy moves that India has to make. The Quad will inevitably lead to other Quad-like groupings — India-France-Australia; India-Indonesia-Australia; slightly larger Quad-Plus groupings. In fact, South Korea has reportedly asked for a ‘Quad-lite’ as Seoul also manoeuvres between US and China. More such groupings may come about, but all of them reinforce the fact that in contemporary geopolitics, pluryilateral/minilaterals may be more flexible and resilient.

Doubling down on the Quad on the one hand came quickly with the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting on the other, which was held on Tuesday. India as the chair of this China-Russia dominated grouping this year is pushing reform of multilateral institutions — interestingly, the BRICS foreign ministers signed off on reform of the UN Security Council — one has to only remember China’s “principled” opposition to it to see the effort by both Beijing and Moscow.

Interestingly, India held deep conversations on Afghanistan with the US last week, and featured it in the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting this week. With the

US, India has converging interests in Afghanistan — as the US withdraws its troops, the two sides have promised to cooperate in the security sphere in Afghanistan, because even the US does not want to leave the country to its devices, which might see a Taliban takeover if not helped through this transition.

Surprisingly, the BRICS joint statement issued Tuesday night specifically called for the preservation of “gains” made over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, with special reference to women, children and minorities. The importance of this lies in the fact that both China and Russia have thrown in their lot with the Pakistani view of the future of Afghanistan. That gives primacy to the Taliban and Haqqani Network, both malevolent actors where India is concerned. So for China and Russia to agree to “preserve the gains” is important. It opens up the possibility of being able to work out a reasonable future for Afghanistan, with the big players slowly aligning their positions.

On the other hand, Indian officials had to work very hard to keep trenchant criticism of Israel out of the BRICS statement — Russia is positioning itself in the Islamic world, while China is positioning itself in a deeper alliance with Iran. For China and Russia Israel is currently a bad word, despite having pretty deep relations with Tel Aviv. India, despite its improved relations with the Arab world, preferred to lean towards Israel. Some of that diplomatic tussle has played out over the past few days.

Win some, lose some — part of the game. At this point, for the future of India’s foreign policy, India has to win the vaccine game.

 



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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