September and October are multilateralism’s festive season. For those who like decoding lengthy speeches, there’s the United Nations General Assembly
(UNGA) meeting; for those who want to determine where the world is actually going, there’s the G20 meeting; and for those who would prefer to understand if those ambitions are at all achievable, there’s the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And around many of these are the summits and smaller groupings that determine national positions, policies, and partnerships.
The first of these, the UNGA
has passed off without incident as far as India is concerned. That is how Prime Minister Narendra Modi prefers it. Unlike many other current world leaders, he avoids aggressive or confrontational messaging at the UNGA; last year, he spoke about India thinking of the world as one family, and this year he focused on India’s reforms, and how to keep the UN itself relevant. This is not the obvious political choice. Misleading coverage of his speech in the Indian media — “PM takes swipe at Pakistan”, “PM sends tough message to Pakistan”, etc. — show that belligerence at the UNGA
might be far more to the Indian public’s taste. Yet, unlike Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Mr Modi is careful not to indulge this sentiment on the world stage.
Part of this may be the prime minister’s own conception of appropriate conduct from an Indian leader abroad. But partly it may also be a realist recognition that India’s appeal to partners globally rests on being a “softer” power than others; one that, although it may have a growing economy and an increasing military footprint, does not intend to rock the multilateral boat excessively. It is likely that this recognition will only have been reinforced by the prime minister’s bilateral meetings with the US leadership — which included a somewhat startling press conference with the US vice-president, in which she invoked her Indian ethnic background to remind the Indian prime minister that Indians love democracy. But more than the UNGA
and the bilateral meetings, it is the Quad summit with the Japanese, Australian and American leaders that will have taken up the Indian establishment’s attention.
Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
It is worth noting that, at this point in time, boosters of the Quad are split down the middle. There are some who insist that it is primarily focused on building a new security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. The Times of India’s coverage insisted that “leaders of the four countries laid to rest any notion that the Quad was not security-based”, misusing as substantiation a boilerplate passage from the summit’s Joint Statement about the “free, open, rules-based order”. Others have pointed to increasingly advanced joint exercises and to the fact that national security advisors from all four Quad nations were also at the summit.
On the other hand, a plain reading of the joint statement — and placing it in the context of the last joint statement, after a virtual meeting earlier this year — suggests that the Quad has in fact decided that it is best placed at this time to address non-military issues. The joint statement specifically highlighted a joint response to “the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and critical and emerging technologies”. Nor is there any dearth of statements, on and off the record, from various Quad officials that this is a considered decision. India’s foreign secretary, in responding to the AUKUS agreement between the three Anglosphere nations of Australia, Britain and the US, specifically pointed out that these were “not groupings of a similar nature…. [the] Quad is a plurilateral grouping, a group of countries that have a shared vision of their attributes and values, [with a] positive, proactive agenda”. On the other hand, he said, AUKUS was a “security alliance between three countries”. This echoes an unnamed US official who told Reuters: “This is an informal grouping. It does not address security issues.” The Hindustan Times quoted one senior Indian official as saying the AUKUS agreement had “de-securitised the Quad” and that “is what we have wanted”. It is hard to argue that there is more evidence for this perspective of the Quad’s current orientation than for the notion that it is primarily focused on military collaboration.
There might be multiple reasons for this. One is that in the pandemic era — which itself followed a period in which trade relations had become increasingly securitised — most countries’ notions of what impacts their national security has been sensibly expanded. Health supply chains matter, for one, and the joint statement trumpeted Quad support for the production of a billion vaccines by India’s Biological E Limited. The past years have seen a semiconductor drought, indicating that the availability of technologically advanced goods and their raw materials also matters. Who owns your technological infrastructure matters for national security as well, and the joint statement emphasised cooperation on 5G. It also announced 100 new STEM graduate fellowships, no doubt setting off a million Google searches across India’s engineering colleges. The meeting also produced shared “principles on technology design, development, governance and use”, which should ideally preface the production of more shared principles for domains such as infrastructure finance and quality. Finally, the third issue highlighted by the joint statement, climate change, is also increasingly a matter of national security as it kills more and more people across the world, exacerbates water conflicts, and forces pressure on borders.
Perhaps the right way to think about the Quad going forward is that it may not be about military affairs, but it is certainly about this broader notion of security.
India’s preferred self-image as a constructive and not confrontational rising power gels nicely with this more inclusive conception of security and the Quad’s new emphases. It also allows for India’s weaknesses to be papered over for now. These weaknesses include an inability to invest more in defence; an economy that is not quite growing at the rate it should; an unwillingness to transform the military away from the manpower-heavy and silo-ed World War-II era force it is currently; and continued doubts within the Indian establishment itself about the degree to which it can commit to one bloc over another or enter into formal alliances. If the Quad was a military-first enterprise, India would forever be the weak link. If it succeeds in becoming a broader idea, then India might instead become its engine.
The writer is head of the Economy and Growth Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
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