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AUKUS, the Quad, and India’s strategic pivot

As Joe Biden And Narendra Modi Meet In Washington, The Business Of Balancing China Enters A Serious Phase.

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U.S. President Joe Biden takes part in a virtual summit of the Quad group, made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, at the White House in Washington on March 12. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Friday is another Indo-Pacific day for U.S. President Joe Biden. After meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bilateral talks, he will host the first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—or Quad—with the leaders of Australia, India, and Japan. Taking place barely a week after the stunning announcement of the new AUKUS military and technology pact joining Australia, Britain, and the United States, the new set of meetings underlines the growing urgency with which Washington and its partners seek to reconfigure the Indo-Pacific balance of power.

Progress is likely in both meetings on Friday. Biden’s talks with Modi are expected to deepen cooperation as New Delhi aligns more closely with Washington, including in security, health, energy, and education. Biden and Modi also have an interest in harmonizing their positions on global issues such as climate change, reforming the trade system, and regulating digital technologies.

Friday’s Quad summit is expected to consolidate some of the group’s recent initiatives, such as vaccine diplomacy and resilient supply chains. One common theme of the bilateral meeting and Quad-level engagement is cooperation on technology, which is becoming increasingly entwined with geopolitics. The areas under discussion range from semiconductors and telecommunications to space security and technology governance.

All these pieces are held together by a shared urgency within the Quad of coping with China’s rising economic, technological, and military might. Australia, India, and Japan know they must share the region with China—and have no desire to seek a confrontation or pursue the impossible goal of containing a rising superpower. Biden, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, sought to reassure the world that Washington is not seeking a Cold War with Beijing.

Regardless of the specific decisions to be unveiled at the White House on Friday, the message will be clear: The Quad is not going to oblige China and simply dissipate like sea foam, as some in Beijing had hoped. Last week’s AUKUS bombshell and this week’s Quad summit also send some clear signals to the rest of Asia—and beyond—that the business of balancing China has now entered a serious phase.

If there is still hand-wringing in Asian capitals in response to AUKUS and the Quad, it involves three major concerns. First, that countries will need to choose between the United States and China; second, that the Quad will undermine the current regional architecture centered around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and third, that AUKUS will trigger a new arms race in the region.

Some prominent Asian voices, such as former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, are pointing in another direction. They recognize that the current geopolitical churn is bound to restructure the regional order, which was long predicated on harmonious relations between China and the United States. Unlike most of his colleagues in the region, Kausikan argues that the new great power contestation might actually generate much room for the Southeast Asian states to maneuver, as they are wooed simultaneously by China, AUKUS, and the Quad.

Future historians of Asian geopolitics might note how the region’s transformation—visualized under then-U.S. President George W. Bush and pursued by the Obama and Trump administrations—has accelerated during the first year of Biden’s presidency. Indeed, Biden began his term with a clear focus on Asia: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were the first foreign leaders to visit the White House during his presidency.

Biden also convened a virtual Quad summit in March, just weeks after taking charge at the White House. That he is convening a second Quad summit within six months of the first highlights an urgent emphasis on efforts to cope with the China challenge.

Last week’s launch of the controversial AUKUS—an enhanced security partnership among traditional allies that focuses on sharing high-end technologies including nuclear propulsion for submarines, cyber capabilities, long-range precision weapons, and artificial intelligence—saw France being nudged out of an earlier contract to supply conventional diesel submarines. France’s outrage (its foreign minister called the move a “stab in the back”) quickly calmed after Biden issued a mea culpa, acknowledging the critical roles France and Europe play in stabilizing the Indo-Pacific and promising to consult more closely in the future.

The kerfuffle over AUKUS, however, highlighted an important new reality: Balancing China is the United States’ overarching goal and the Europeans have no choice but to adapt. Tellingly, France had all but zero support from the other European capitals (save the mandarins in Brussels), where the consensus on China has shifted toward a less conciliatory approach and closer alignment with the United States.

The transatlantic fissure has also pointed to something inconceivable—that India could emerge as a potential bridge between different parts of the West. At a moment when the Anglosphere commentariat was bashing what it saw as an over-the-top reaction from Paris, Modi was on the phone with French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirming India’s strong commitment to the Indo-Pacific partnership with France.

Although some ascribed the call to diplomatic opportunism—and Macron’s need to demonstrate that he is still a geopolitical actor—India’s solidarity with France at a difficult moment is rooted in New Delhi’s conviction that preserving the West’s unity is critical in shaping the strategic future of the Indo-Pacific. Who would ever have thought India would be championing Western coherence in Asia? The Modi-Macron connection is part of India’s recent intensive strategic outreach to Europe in parallel with its pursuit of deeper ties with Australia, Japan, and the United States.

How will AUKUS impact the Quad? While some in India (and Japan) have worried about AUKUS diluting the relevance of the Quad, New Delhi has been clear-eyed in seeing AUKUS as a complement. New Delhi has no reason to complain if Australia, Britain, and the United States raise the military capabilities of their coalition by several notches with the introduction of nuclear-powered submarine, thereby complicating the Chinese maritime calculus.

The origins of the Quad go back to the 2004 Boxer Day Tsunami in the eastern Indian Ocean, when the Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. navies quickly came together in a major regional relief mission. The Quad faded out of view soon after but has taken center stage since it was resurrected a few years ago.

While the Quad and Washington’s Indo-Pacific pivot generate much interest and anxiety, it is easy to forget that the two ideas are, in essence, about India. Balancing China is the challenge confronting the United States, and Washington has recognized that India is an indispensable part of the answer. Reinventing an old strategic geography by adding “Indo” to “Pacific” and creating a new coalition, the Quad, were both meant to draw India into a massive enterprise that is likely to occupy the United States’ attention for years, if not decades, to come.

But India, unlike Japan and Australia, is not a U.S. treaty ally. That Washington is looking beyond its traditional allies to cope with the current strategic imperatives underlines the scope of the challenge presented by Beijing. It also highlights the need for strategic heft that only a large nation such as India can bring to the table. Chatter about non-aligned India slowing down the Quad misses an important point—that India at any speed is a welcome partner for the United States in shaping a new order in Asia. And it works in the other direction: As Beijing’s pressures on New Delhi mounted in recent years, India was more willing than ever to abandon its old hesitancies and work with the United States and its allies. That is the big reason for the Quad’s current momentum.

And as a leading voice of the global south, India brings a special political legitimacy to U.S. plans for a new Indo-Pacific balance of power. New Delhi’s engagement with the Quad, bilateral cooperation with Washington, London, and Paris, and collaboration with Europe prevent attempts by Beijing to paint the problem in the region as between Asia and the West. India’s presence in the Quad is the clearest affirmation that the problem in the East is about something else: the Chinese quest for hegemony driven by a massive power imbalance with its Asian neighbors.

Not since the 1950s, when India seemed well positioned to shape the post-colonial order, has New Delhi come to occupy such a critical position in international politics. Back then, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India lost the plot by underestimating the China challenge and overemphasizing threats from the West.

Today, New Delhi fully recognizes Beijing’s ambitions to dominate Asia and its waters. India is no longer defensive about partnering with the West to rebalance power in Asia, and it is also confident about negotiating mutually beneficial terms of engagement with Washington. These factors are at the root of the Quad’s advance of the last three years. Look to this week’s summit as another important landmark.