As Biden hosts first Quad summit at the White House, India brings enthusiasm and questions

President Biden gathered the leaders of Japan, Australia and India at the White House on Friday to cement an emerging partnership of four Indo-Pacific countries, known as the Quad, united in their misgivings about China.

Neither Biden nor his guests mentioned the words “China” or “Beijing” in opening remarks heard by reporters as the leaders extolled cooperation on climate change, critical infrastructure and the coronavirus pandemic. However, the agenda was dominated by Chinese ambitions.

Biden referred to the shared goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” code for open navigation and an end to Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea.

He said the group’s first major joint initiative — to produce and distribute 1 billion doses of an Indian-made coronavirus vaccine — is “on track,” although doubts remain among international observers.

“We stand here together in the Indo-Pacific region, a region that we wish to be always free from coercion, where the sovereign rights of all nations are respected and where disputes are settled peacefully in accordance with international law,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

His meaning was unmistakable, given China’s disputes with neighbors over island chains and the boundaries of international water.

“The Quad is an extremely significant initiative by four countries who share fundamental values, cooperating for the cause of realizing a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific,” offered Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Suga, who is stepping down, met separately with Biden and first lady Jill Biden to say goodbye.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the grouping would “play the role of a force for global good,” as he mentioned cooperation on supply chain issues, among other things. The group’s goal is to promote alternatives to Chinese manufacturing.

It was effort to put China on notice without direct confrontation. The Quad grouping was formed in response to a U.S. proposal to sell submarines with nuclear engines to Australia.

Rather, U.S. officials call it “informal” and nonmilitary. Biden also did not mention China by name during his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, though he told the gathering that he does not seek “a new Cold War.”

Before the main event, Biden sought to reassure India, which also has lingering concerns about the United States. Biden greeted Modi in the Oval Office.

“Mr. Biden thanked Modi for “this very warm welcome full of friendship.” Modi thanked Biden for “this very warm welcome full of friendship.”

But the meeting comes a month after U.S. forces departed Afghanistan and the Taliban swept into power, putting the United States’ commitment to allies into question from London to Brussels to Beijing. India has been a silent critic. It argues against the U.S.’ hasty withdrawal and sees the rise in a Taliban-backed government as a disaster.

Now, as the Biden administration shifts U.S. attention and resources to countering Beijing, it needs to assuage concerns in India, which is juggling a tense rivalry with China to its east, but also threats from its west in the form of Islamist militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan that see India as a mortal enemy.

Questions over how Biden is conducting his pivot to Asia also resurfaced last week when he announced a new deal with Australia, known as AUKUS, that infuriated U.S. allies in Europe. According to analysts and Indian officials, Modi arrived at the White House enthusiastically supporting Biden’s Pacific initiative, but with a host of concerns, as well.

For years, the United States has courted India to become a more proactive player in the Quad, which China has condemned as an “Asian NATO” encircling it. India has offered to reciprocate, especially Modi, who is a strong leader and sees India playing a larger role in the international arena.

After a bloody border skirmish with Chinese troops last year, India invited navies from the Quad countries for exercises in the Indian Ocean. When Biden convened the Quad’s inaugural summit in March over videoconference, the group unveiled a plan that would see American vaccines manufactured in India, financed by Japan and distributed by Australia across South and Southeast Asia — a vast region where China and the U.S.-led bloc are competing for hearts and minds.

That plan was derailed by a devastating coronavirus wave that crippled India and brought a halt to vaccine exports. This week, the Quad members sought to reignite the effort, as Indian officials promised to resume exports next month and Biden announced a target of a billion Indian-made doses distributed globally by late 2022. According to the Quad countries, they also plan on competing with China in semiconductor manufacturing and next generation telecommunications technology. This field is led by Huawei.

“India would welcome anything that counters China in its backyard,” said Lisa Curtis, who headed South and Central Asia policy in the National Security Council during the Trump administration. She said that Biden must address Indian fears about terrorist attacks on the western flank of its country and manage allies as he moves to the Pacific.

“A lot of goodwill has already evaporated in Europe,” Curtis said.

Indian and Western officials say India, which was informed of the AUKUS announcement in advance by Australia, has not expressed objections to the nuclear deal, which strengthens a navy that could help challenge China’s rapidly modernizing fleet. New Delhi observers raised doubts about America’s reliability.

In a widely read op-ed this week, Arun Prakash, formerly the highest-ranking Indian military officer, wondered whether “Anglosphere nations … inspire more confidence in each other,” and why India had been denied sensitive American technology for years despite making similar requests to obtain nuclear propulsion and stealth fighters.

“American offers of help ‘to make India a great power,’ ” Prakash concluded, “must be taken with a generous pinch of salt.”

Indian officials say they are sticking broadly to their decades-old policy of not sliding too far into the orbit of any one major power. Indian diplomats recently increased their dialogue with Washington’s critics and rivals like Iran, Russia and Myanmar. In spite of protests by the U.S., India will receive Russian surface-to air missiles worth $5.4 billion in the next months. This could lead to U.S. sanctions.

“We cannot put all our eggs in one basket,” said Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary.

Tanvi Madan, head of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, said the formation of AUKUS and the Quad summit this week showed the outlines of two anti-China blocs emerging in parallel. AUKUS may appear to be a more rigid military pact. However, the Quad emphasizes soft-power projects such as vaccine distribution in Southeast Asia. Many governments are resistant to the notion of having to choose between Washington or Beijing.

In Asia, Madan said, “the era of coalitions is here to stay.”

Shih reported from New Delhi.

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