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The U.S.-India Relationship Is the Quad’s Litmus Test

Washington and New Delhi must overcome some key differences for the group to succeed.

By , the vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and , a joint doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore and King’s College London.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi participate in a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington on Sept. 24. Sarahbeth Maney-Pool/Getty Images

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the leaders of Australia, India, and Japan at the White House for the first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. The four leaders issued an ambitious joint statement—rather than separate ones, as in the past. The agenda focused largely on solving global challenges such as climate change and access to vaccines, signaling that the Quad is not merely a geopolitical clique, as China has asserted.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the leaders of Australia, India, and Japan at the White House for the first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. The four leaders issued an ambitious joint statement—rather than separate ones, as in the past. The agenda focused largely on solving global challenges such as climate change and access to vaccines, signaling that the Quad is not merely a geopolitical clique, as China has asserted.

Even so, geopolitics remains important as the United States makes a foreign-policy shift in Asia. In less than six months, the Quad has become more than just a “flexible group of like-minded partners,” as the four leaders wrote in March, to boldly include issues such as peace and security in the Taiwan Strait in its remit. Last week’s summit also occurred under the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has dampened Europe’s optimism toward Washington.

Biden met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the Quad summit last week. India is uniquely positioned between the western flank from which the United States appears to be retreating and the southeastern flank where it is making newer promises. Unlike with allies in Europe, these mixed signals from Washington have not yet strained New Delhi’s credulity.

The U.S.-India relationship could be the Quad’s litmus test. The group has recently invoked democratic ideals as a binding glue to resolve three key challenges, as reflected by its working groups: COVID-19 vaccine distribution, climate change, and emerging technologies. India has a vital role to play in each area, but it also has many unresolved differences with the United States, such as their vaccine supply chain issues, approaches to climate policy, and conflicting priorities regarding Taiwan and Pakistan.

Long known as the world’s pharmacy, India’s signature global vaccine delivery program halted abruptly during its devastating COVID-19 wave in May, and its manufacturing was impaired by U.S. restrictions on raw materials needed to make vaccines. The Biden administration was also initially hesitant to endorse patent waivers for the COVID-19 vaccines, which India backed, although the White House eventually caved. If the World Trade Organization ministerial conference approves the proposal in November, it would boost the Quad’s goal of donating 1.2 billion vaccines and supporting the World Health Organization-led COVAX vaccination initiative.

Now that it has administered more than 800 million shots at home, India plans to resume vaccine exports in October, supplying them through COVAX. As India gears up for its global supply drive, the United States should ensure uninterrupted supply of the needed raw materials to Indian manufacturers.

Meanwhile, India’s record on climate change is better than all three of its Quad partners combined: India is the only G-20 economy on track to meet its Paris Agreement emissions reduction goals. However, U.S. policymakers have pushed India—the world’s third-largest carbon dioxide emitter—to also make a net-zero pledge, a long-term plan that Indian politicians have called “pie in the sky” without immediate measures. Tactical cooperation nearly stagnated during the Trump administration in the United States.

If the Biden administration wishes to revive the enthusiasm for climate change mitigation between the United States and India seen under his predecessor Barack Obama, it must chalk out strategies for renewable and civil nuclear energy, clean energy finance, energy-efficient technology, capacity building, and climate resilience initiatives.

Last week, the Quad members unveiled guiding principles for technological development, and they are keen to reduce semiconductor chip reliance on China. India does not possess indigenous foundries, but it is desperate to plug itself into the global supply chain of chips, with possible help from Taiwan. Now the second-largest player in smartphone manufacturing, India has shown appetite to benefit from recent supply chain disruptions. It is willing to incentivize manufacturers by handing out more than $1 billion in rewards to each company setting up shop there.

As the United States aims to regain supremacy in chip manufacturing and India tries to enter the market, both countries’ commercial players will inevitably vie for shares of the same pie. The U.S. government should avoid policies that could negatively affect its partner down the road. Exercising some restraint to bolster India’s efforts and even benefit from its scalable human talent in electronics would be a win-win strategy.

In the long term, the Quad’s unstated motive is to address China’s rise, both economically and militarily. Although the group’s leaders have resisted the “Asian NATO” label, mentions of Taiwan in Quad meeting notes accentuate this underlying motive. In this context, the United States and India also have key differences. Some observers see New Delhi as a weak link for both its military capabilities and unexpressed commitment to take on Beijing in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.

Countering China’s rise is undoubtedly a shared goal, but India currently considers peace in Taiwan far-fetched.

Countering China’s rise is undoubtedly a shared goal, but India currently considers peace in Taiwan far-fetched. New Delhi’s priorities are accelerating its economic rise while securing its frontiers. Some analysts have argued that India’s supposed ambivalence should abridge U.S. support for India, replacing it with cooperation with Indonesia or Vietnam. But those countries haven’t indicated they would side with Washington against Beijing. Even as India expands its political and economic ties with Taiwan, its explicit military support will not be automatic. India’s further strategic tilt depends on Chinese belligerence—and U.S. forbearance toward New Delhi.

Another thorny issue for U.S. lawmakers is India’s continued reliance on Russia for arms. The Russian inventory could inhibit the Quad countries’ abilities to operate conjointly. The specter of sanctions hangs over New Delhi’s purchase of Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system, which is primarily intended to deter Chinese salvos on land. But as U.S. Sen. Todd Young has argued, sanctions could derail the Quad agenda, particularly in the wake of India’s expanding arms purchases from the United States and its allies. As the Quad seeks to strengthen its maritime alliance, the United States would be wise to overlook the import of the Russian platform instead of making it a friction point.

India similarly remains concerned over the U.S. accommodation of Pakistan. Despite consensus in Washington on the Pakistani military’s role in the Afghanistan defeat and even calls for sanctions, Pakistan’s location could still make it valuable for the United States, particularly for counterterrorism. But India sees the United States as continuing to overlook Pakistan’s support for anti-India terrorist groups, while rewarding it with aid. The withdrawal from Afghanistan only exacerbates India’s fears of Pakistan’s support for anti-India jihad—the way it supported the Taliban with impunity.

Pakistan continues to pose threats to India, and New Delhi expects to deal with it militarily on its own. However, the more it remains occupied on its western front, the less India can concentrate on its eastern and maritime fronts, where the Quad sees a shared threat. But such an assessment of New Delhi’s capabilities rarely features in Washington’s policy thinking, which is constricted by basing requirements on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.

All of this raises a question for New Delhi within the Quad: If U.S. policy toward Pakistan continues to be dictated by its narrow logistical needs without considering India’s concerns, how much should India stretch itself for Taiwan without any expected gains? The U.S.-India joint statement last week was bolder than any previous one in indirectly addressing the cross-border terrorism issues, but time will tell whether U.S. efforts are enough to address its image as unremittingly forgiving toward Pakistan.

The political differences between the United States and India require sensitive handling and patient, pragmatic solutions that address mutual concerns while keeping in mind the Quad’s broader goals. Creative and accommodative diplomacy between the two countries will underpin any future Quad success—a test neither can afford to fail.

Harsh V. Pant is the vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and a professor of international relations at King’s College London’s India Institute.

Chirayu Thakkar is a joint doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore and King’s College London. Twitter: @thakkarchirayu

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