Although there were no major announcements made during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States last week, the stage has been set for transforming India’s partnership with America, advancing Delhi’s Quadrilateral partnership with Canberra, Tokyo, and Washington, and boosting India’s global impact. The three levels of Indian engagement with the US —bilateral, regional, and multilateral — are no longer in separate compartments, reinforce each other. Having transcended some of their traditional differences on bilateral, regional, and global issues during the last two decades, Delhi and Washington are now free to frame their bilateral relations in more ambitious terms — as a partnership for regional stability and global good. Bilateral defence cooperation, Indo-Pacific regional balance, vaccine development, and mitigating climate change now cut across bilateral, regional, and global domains.
This does not mean Modi and the US President Joe Biden are neglecting urgent bilateral agenda on conventional issues such as trade— in the end the sinews of any partnership. Although the politics of trade have become a lot more complex in both countries, the two leaders have agreed to resume their trade dialogue. Beyond trade, Modi and Biden addressed several other areas ripe for deeper cooperation — homeland security, energy, higher education, and technological cooperation. The bilateral discussion on terrorism inevitably brings in the enduring challenges of cross-border terrorism promoted by the Pakistan army. Modi and Biden have also to come to terms with the consequences of Pakistan’s success in bringing the medieval Taliban back to power in Afghanistan. The interests of India and the US appear to be in convergence on both the issues, but Delhi should not underestimate the continuing leverage of the Pakistan army, backed by China, as a “regional spoiler” if nothing else.
Although Afghanistan remains a key area of continuing concern for both India and the US, both sides are now looking at the bigger challenges emerging in the Indo-Pacific, driven by the rise and assertion of China. That is where the first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral forum comes in. Delhi and Washington have found a new comfort level in the shared understanding that the Quad will not be a military coalition. That has allowed them to focus on a very expansive and consequential non-military agenda of providing public goods across the Indo-Pacific. This allows the Quad to offer a credible alternative to China on a range of issues — from health to telecommunications and infrastructure development. It also undercuts Beijing’s propaganda branding the Quad as “Asian Nato” and enhances the forum’s acceptability and sustainability in the region. The issues to be taken up in the Quad — pandemic management and climate change are not merely regional issues, but global and inevitably figured prominently in Modi’s address to the United Nations General Assembly along with the question of terrorism. To be sure, there is much distance to be covered in building a global consensus on these issues. But India’s own emergence as a major economic power makes it a critical player in shaping the outcomes on these issues. Delhi’s closer partnership with Washington will in turn boost India’s global strategic salience.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 25, 2021 under the title ‘In step with US’.