Modi's US visit: It will be more substance, less optics

The pomp and pageantry that characterized some of Modi's previous visits will be absent this time because of Covid and the more reserved style of the Biden administration, writes Frank F Islam for South Asia Monitor 

Frank F. Islam Sep 22, 2021
Modi's US visit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Washington, DC, on September 22 to attend a summit of the four Quad nations — India, the United States, Japan and Australia. As is usually the case, there will be several components to Modi’s weeklong trip to the US, including a number of bilateral and multilateral engagements.

While in the country, Modi is expected to hold his first in-person bilateral meeting with US President Joe Biden in Wasington and will attend the annual UN General Assembly session in New York. 

However, initially, all eyes will be on the four-nation summit, which will give an indication of the evolving post-Covid and post-Trump world order. The Quad, a fledgling group, is one of the many formal and informal alliances being set up apparently to respond to China’s continuing rise as a superpower.

The first summit of the four leaders, held in March, was a virtual affair. At this point, the Quad is not a formal alliance and has no military element. There are early indications that among other things the group will cooperate in areas such as Covid vaccination and combating climate change.

A more muscular Quad?

After the initial enthusiasm, some of the more hawkish in the Indian community have been rather disappointed at the direction the Quad is taking. This is due to a variety of factors.

In recent years, India has been one of the countries worst affected by China’s transgressions. Since a 2017 border standoff in Doklam in India’s northeast, China has entered Indian territory in that disputed border area multiple times. In May 2020, armed forces of the two countries clashed after Chinese troops entered the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control.  This was the first time the two countries engaged in a physical battle in nearly half a century.

China has been the elephant in the room in India-U.S. relations over the past three decades. It is a recognized fact that the U.S. desire to counter China was what prompted Washington to propose and enter the landmark India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Deal, which was signed in 2008.

So, it is understandable why many in India envision a more muscular role for the Quad, which   includes two other democracies in the larger Indo-Pacific region that also have uneasy relationships with China.

However, to date, the Biden administration has shown little interest in having a military component to the Quad.  This can be explained in part by the fact that, after ending a two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, this White House is not about to make more military commitments overseas.

AUKUS impact on Quad

Further muddying the water, as far as India is concerned, is America’s formation of a similar alliance with Quad-member Australia. The founding of the trilateral AUKUS alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States was announced just last week. The fact that the new group, unlike the Quad, is a security pact has not been well received by some in India who fear that AUKUS might significantly dilute the Quad’s potential importance from a security standpoint

The White House has signaled, however, that the Quad has a major role to play in a new emerging world order. “The Biden-Harris Administration has made elevating the Quad a priority, as seen through the first-ever Quad Leaders-level engagement in March, which was virtual, and now this Summit, which will be in-person,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement announcing the summit. “Hosting the leaders of the Quad demonstrates the Biden-Harris Administration’s priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific, including through new multilateral configurations to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

A clearer picture of the precise nature of the Quad’s role is likely to emerge after the September 24 summit.

Biden is no Trump

The second aspect of Modi’s Washington visit that will be keenly watched is the Prime Minister’s bilateral engagements with his U.S. counterpart. Because it will be the first meeting between the two leaders since Biden assumed the presidency, many in Washington and New Delhi will be carefully watching their personal chemistry and symmetry.

One of the hallmarks of Modi foreign policy in the past seven years has been the personal touch he brings to it. Nearly every one of his foreign visits has been as much about optics and his interactions with counterparts as about issues.

Modi has had positive relations with two of Biden’s predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In fact, Modi made two joint public rallies with Trump—the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston in September 2019 and the “Namaste Trump” rally in Ahmedabad in February 2020.

Biden, unlike Trump, is someone who is more concerned about substance and policy than optics. Consequently, it is unlikely that this President will appear in a public rally with the Prime Minister, or for that matter, with any other foreign leader.

While in Washington, besides Biden, Modi will also be having dialogue and meetings with others.  According to news reports, he will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris. Among other issues to be talked about, there are likely to be discussions on Afghanistan, economic and defense cooperation, and climate change.

US climate czar John Kerry visited New Delhi earlier this month, prompting speculation that there might be an announcement on emission reduction targets ahead of a major UN climate conference in November.

As in his earlier trips, Modi will also interact with US business leaders, as well as Indian American community leaders. However, the pomp and pageantry that characterized some of Modi's previous visits will be absent this time because of Covid and the more reserved style of the Biden administration.

What will happen because of the Quad Summit and Modi’s other meetings is purely a matter of conjecture.  Also be assured that conjecturing will not matter.  What will matter is what actually happens on the playing field because of these evolving alliances and relationships.

(The writer is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal.)

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