Virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) meeting in March 2021. (Source: Reuters)
Summits are supposed to exhilarate their flagbearers. But there is more excitement about the first in-person Quad summit this week among journalists and think-tankers than among its participants — the four heads of State or government from the United States, Australia, Japan and India.
Among these four, India has done the most to rescue the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) from the shock it received just before the Washington summit as the result of the creation of the Australia-United Kingdom-US (AUKUS) partnership on September 15. The AUKUS is a bold security move, not seen in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War, a generation ago.
In the practice of diplomacy, there are times when silence is golden. Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson for Indian diplomacy, did not oblige with any comment when he was badgered with questions on the new partnership one day after the AUKUS was created. “I don't have anything to share on this for the moment on the AUKUS or related stuff,” Bagchi responded. “And as I said, I don't have much to say on this AUKUS initiative for the moment,” the spokesperson repeated when journalists did not give up.
It took five more days before the Ministry of External Affairs came out with an unequivocal view on the irrelevance of the AUKUS to the Quad. During those five days, telephone wires were burnt, as it were, between New Delhi and Paris. First, there was a long conversation between French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron, gave the go-ahead to what these two ministers worked out when Modi and Macron talked on the phone five days after the AUKUS was announced. Jaishankar and Le Drian will follow up on Franco-Indian consultations on the Indo-Pacific in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) when both ministers are at the UN.
Within hours of the Modi-Macron telephone talk, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said: “Let me make it clear that the Quad and the AUKUS are not groupings of a similar nature. The Quad is a plurilateral grouping that has a shared vision of their attributes and values. On the other hand, the AUKUS is a security alliance between three countries. We are not party to this alliance. From our perspective, this is neither relevant to the Quad, nor will it have any impact on its functioning.”
In practice, this is easily said, but infinitely harder to put into practice. That is why the four Quad leaders will have to window-dress their in-person summit to give it a semblance of success. That, again, is the reason why there is greater excitement among journalists and think-tankers about the Quad now than among its protagonist heads of State and government. Journalists recognise a rupture in the western alliance on Indo-Pacific issues and sense a crisis.
The strategic community in North America and Europe are convinced that the Indo-Pacific cannot be the same after France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. It feels let down as an ally over the secretive announcement of the AUKUS and cancellation of Australia's submarine deal with France.
Within governments and outside, everyone is aware that this rupture is to China’s advantage. The Indo-Pacific sidelines of the UNGA are already littered with the adverse fallout of the creation of the AUKUS. For instance, France has already cancelled a trilateral meeting with Le Drian’s counterparts from India and Australia during the UNGA’s duration. When its ambassador has been recalled from Canberra, it is inconceivable for France that such a meeting can take place. India’s ongoing efforts are to avoid collateral damage to itself from all this. At the time of writing, Jaishankar and Le Drian appear to have succeeded in doing this.
Of all the world leaders, Modi’s identity of views are closest to Macron’s. This was equally true when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister and Jacques Chirac was France’s President. France was the only big power to support India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Such support from Paris was a major factor in the Manmohan Singh government’s decision to conclusively favour Rafale in the original Indian Air Force proposal for acquiring 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), a preference which Modi did not jettison although he amended the terms of the Rafale purchase.
France has always insisted on deciding what is best for itself even while it has remained integral to a trans-Atlantic, all-encompassing partnership with the US. That is precisely what India has been trying to work out with the US while retaining New Delhi’s strategic autonomy. In this approach, Modi and Macron completely see eye to eye. Therefore, it is to be expected that after all of Modi’s bilateral meetings in Washington this week, New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific policy in the coming months will evolve in co-ordination with Paris.
If Modi and Jaishankar succeed in keeping the Quad’s focus on the issues which its leaders took up at their virtual summit in March, and include more such subjects for the common good, they would have succeeded in insulating the four-nation partnership from the storm unleashed in the Indo-Pacific by the AUKUS. If, on the other hand, the US and Australia nudge their other two Quad partners to bring security issues into their discussions in future conclaves, if not now, the future of the Quad is bound to be bleak. India may be alone in this effort for now to salvage the Quad because Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has resigned and Japan’s attitude to Indo-Pacific issues will be influenced by his successor adding another element of unpredictability to the Quad.