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

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Vice President Harris on the balcony of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Thursday. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Stefani Reynolds.

NEW DELHI – When President Joe Biden and the leaders of Japan, Australia and India convene at the White House on Friday, they’ll be meeting in person for the first time to cement an emerging partnership of four Indo-Pacific countries, known as the Quad, united in their misgivings about China.

But one crucial leg of the bloc – India – also has lingering concerns about the United States.

A month after U.S. forces departed from Afghanistan and the Taliban swept into power, the United States’ commitment to allies has been questioned from London to Brussels to Beijing. One quiet critic has been India, which argued against a hasty U.S. withdrawal and considers the rise of a hard-line Taliban government, backed by its archrival Pakistan, to be a disastrous outcome.

Now, as the Biden administration shifts U.S. attention and resources to countering Beijing, it needs to assuage concerns in India, a geopolitically isolated partner that 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.

As he heads to the White House on Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will bring enthusiastic support for Biden’s Pacific project, but also convey a set of apprehensions, according to Indian and Western officials and analysts.

“It’s important to focus on both” the Pacific and Central Asia, said a senior Indian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss India’s thinking. “What we’re saying is: While you have withdrawn, you need to continue to focus on Afghanistan, especially the way the situation is evolving on the ground.”

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. And India, particularly under Modi, a muscular leader who envisions India assuming a greater role on the world stage, has been happy to reciprocate.

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. The Quad nations say they are also exploring ways to compete with China on semiconductor manufacturing and next-generation telecommunications technology, a field led by Huawei.

In addition to vaccines and diversified supply chains for semiconductors and other products, Friday’s session will include discussions on climate change, a senior U.S. official said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House, cast the gathering as “informal” and nonmilitary, but the challenge to China was obvious.

“The Biden administration understands that the challenges of the 21st Century will largely play out in the Indo-Pacific,” the official said. The official would not provide details of the Indian-produced vaccine plan to be announced Friday.

“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. But after the events of the last month, Biden needs to assuage Indian concerns about terrorism on its western flank and carefully manage alliances as he pivots to the Pacific, she added.

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

Last week, the Biden administration announced a new three-way military alliance with Australia and Britain that would transfer nuclear submarine propulsion technology to Australia. The deal effectively cut out France, a NATO ally that had been contracted to build conventional diesel submarines for Australia, and sparked a furious response from France and China.

France accused the United States of betrayal and angrily recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra; China condemned Washington for leading a Pacific “arms race” and warned U.S. partners that they could be tossed aside like Afghanistan and France.

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. But some observers in New Delhi saw another question mark over whether America could be trusted.

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.”

Even as Modi heads to the White House with U.S.-India relations tighter than ever, 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 have recently ramped up discussions with Washington’s rivals and critics, including Russia, Iran and the military junta in Myanmar. And despite U.S. protests, India is expected to receive $5.4 billion worth of Russian surface-to-air missiles in the coming months, which could trigger U.S. sanctions.

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

Harsh V. Pant, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said the Friday summit was not only important for Modi’s agenda but also Biden’s.

“This visit will be very important for the U.S., after the Afghan withdrawal raised questions about credibility and commitment, to send the clear message the U.S. does intend to be here and remain in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “But it should be very positive. If you were sitting in New Delhi two years back, you were looking with desperation as China ran amok. Today, you’re looking with a certain degree of assurance.”

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 U.S.-led, anti-China blocs emerging in parallel. While AUKUS has the appearance of a more hard-edge military pact, the Quad is emphasizing soft-power projects like vaccine distribution in Southeast Asia, where many governments resist the idea of choosing between Washington and Beijing.

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

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