While the US National Security Adviser has been quick to clarify that such was not the case, this is obviously a fall out of the clumsy US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the swift and triumphant takeover of that country by the Taliban.
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, Indian Navy (Retd)
As the USA gears up for the forthcoming Quad Summit with the physical presence of all four heads of government meeting in Washington DC on 24 September, the Chinese President Xi Jinping has fired the first shot across the bows by refusing a meeting with President Biden. While the US National Security Adviser has been quick to clarify that such was not the case, this is obviously a fall out of the clumsy US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the swift and triumphant takeover of that country by the Taliban.
President Biden has been facing a lot of international flak for the ensuing chaos in Afghanistan and the assumption of power by a government with no experience of legitimate governance. Infact, President Biden is being spoken of as the weakest ever US President and the USA having forfeited its claim to global leadership but it must not be forgotten that the genesis of the USA’s ignominious exit from Afghanistan actually lay in the commitment made by President Biden’s predecessor, President Trump to the Taliban in at Doha in February 2020 to effect a complete US withdrawal by 31 May 2021 in exchange for cessation of attacks on America or Americans. Infact, he legitimised the Taliban by engaging with them and undermining the legitimately elected government in Kabul. With this action, President Trump, for all his bluff and bluster, is the one responsible for tarnishing the USA’s reputation.
In one of his first actions after taking over, President Biden extended the withdrawal date to September 2021. However, the Taliban who had patiently waited for the moment when their writ would run in the country were in no mood to relent and threatened to resume hostilities beyond 31 August. Infact, extending their stay further would have led to more bloodshed and loss of American lives without any bearing on the outcome.
President Xi Jinping, ever eager to exploit a perceived weakness, was hardly going to let an opportunity to belittle the USA and its President go by without extracting the maximum mileage and engineered this outcome of not committing to a meeting with President Biden after a 90 minute telephonic conversation between the two leaders.
There is no doubt that President Biden will be hoping to resurrect some of his country’s as well as his own lost prestige by hosting the Quad Summit which would reiterate his commitment of America’s willingness and commitment to be the global leader. This has been the underlying theme of his presidential campaign and he has to be given credit for making every attempt to re-engage with the world since assuming office.
The Quad Summit will be the second such interaction arranged by President Biden between the leaders of the four countries, the first ( infact, the first ever) having been a virtual event on 12 March this year within two months of taking office. This was preceded by two meetings of the Quad’s foreign ministers , one held in person in Tokyo in October 2020 during the previous US administration and the second on 18 February 2021 where the Quad countries reiterated their commitment to maintain a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order., besides issues related to cooperation in various other aras including the response to the Covid-19.
China is openly resentful of the Quad and considers it a China containment construct and often refers to it as an Asian NATO. This analogy with the original NATO would lead one to believe that China perhaps will lead a parallel power construct in a bipolar Cold War 2.0.
China’s perception that the Quad intends to check Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific may not be totally off the mark but the reason for that is also largely of its own making. Its belligerence in the western Pacific, its territorial claim on the South China Sea and its utter disregard for internationally recognised conventions despite being a signatory,poses a serious threat to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and its questioning of the existing rules-based international order with the intent of changing it to one with ‘Chinese characteristics’ has elicited global concern. This has led to these becoming the underlying concerns for the region. The shift in the global economic and geopolitical centre of gravity to the Indo-Pacific and the importance of ensuring the safe passage of global trade in an interconnected world with trade dependencies and supply chains transcending geographies has led even Euro-centric countries like Germany and the Netherlands to articulate their own Indo-Pacific strategies also centred ona Free and Open Indo-Pacific mainly to safeguard their economic interests. France, which has a considerable stake in the Indian Ocean has a permanent naval presence and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of a post Brexit `Global Britain’ includes a’tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific. The seven month deployment of the Royal Navy’s Carrier Task Force 21 to these waters is a manifestation of that vision.
China more often than not behaves like the neighbourhood bully which is reflected in its actions and its aggressive diplomacy led by its top political leadership. That this may be proving counter-productive has led Xi Jinping to direct his diplomats to shift tack from the wolf warrior approach of confrontational and arrogant diplomacy to a more open, friendly and ‘lovable ‘ one in a tacit acknowledgement of its earlier state directed boorishness. The pushback from many countries in the wake of the Wuhan pandemic has definitely dented Xi Jinping’s carefully constructed veneer of invincibility and has induced this change of heart.
Within the Quad itself, divergences amongst the four in naming China have dissipated with Japan, Australia and to a lesser extent India, not hesitating to call out China’s behaviour. The participation of all four Quad members in successive Malabar naval exercises after years of hesitation also sends a strong signal of the consolidation of this informal construct.
During the Summit the leaders are expected to review the Quad vaccine initiative for Covid-19 which was announced in March this year and will also confer on issues related to security in all its dimensions, climate change, education and the ubiquitous free and open Indo-Pacific.
The Quad is finding ever increasing global traction and while its formal expansion may not yet be on the cards, support for its agenda which goes beyond just traditional security concerns is on the rise. The forthcoming Quad Summit is an opportunity for the USA to reinforce its commitment to multilateral engagement and mitigate the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal while at the same time sending a clear message to China of its intention to remain at the top of its game in the Indo-Pacific.
(The author is Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation, and a former submariner. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)