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In the Kabuki of the Original Quad, All Eyes Are on Putin-Biden Geneva Summit

Then US Vice President Joe Biden with Russia PM Vladimir Putin in Moscow. (AP/File)

Then US Vice President Joe Biden with Russia PM Vladimir Putin in Moscow. (AP/File)

Everything will hinge on whether or not the American President manages to spot his counterpart’s soul this time around.

The new kid on the block—the quadrilateral grouping or Quad—comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India has caught the fancy of the world. Nonetheless, it is as important not to take the eyes off the riveting and enduring drama featuring the US, China, Russia and India—the original Quad—that has been playing out for decades. The next episode, a crucial one, will be scripted by Presidents Biden and Putin in Geneva on June 16, which could have far-reaching implications.

But rewinding a bit, this is what a bewildered time traveller from 1979 was heard muttering—“Surreal, that impoverished China wants to be the new hegemon and has become a global challenge! What happened to the bonhomie and promise between Beijing and Washington? When on earth did Moscow and Beijing become pals again, leave alone hinting at a possible alliance? And, did Nixon not order the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal in 1971 to intimidate India?”

“Non-aligned India a ‘Major Defence Partner’ and a ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic’ partner of the US? And the Teflon-coated Soviet empire has withered away? A cloud over India-Russia relations? Can’t handle it!” With this, the ‘gentle’ time traveller promptly retreated into the comfort of 1979. However, those of us who are still breathing despite the havoc caused by the Wuhan virus do not have such a luxury or option.

The Changing Equations

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The clock has turned full circle. India and the US enjoyed good ties in “the 1950s and 1960s, when both countries saw China as a threat” (Brookings Institute). The US provided economic and military assistance especially during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. And then, Nixon happened in January 1969. He had a visceral dislike for Indians. His meeting with Mrs Gandhi in 1971 was disastrous. Nixon’s comments afterwards ‘were not always printable’ as per Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State.

However, India had already consolidated her partnership with the Soviet Union concluding a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation in 1971, which stood her in good stead against the US muscle-flexing. Eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union, thus, was a strategic setback for India, all the more so as her equation with the US was tepid.

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In the early 1970s, the US had secretly reached out to the enemy’s (USSR) enemy—China—with the promise to help spur its economic development. Corporate America was euphoric at the prospects of once-in-a-lifetime windfall. ‘Insignificant’ matters like human rights violation, absence of freedoms, ideology or values were conveniently put on the backburner.

Taiwan was booted out of the UN Security Council and generally hung out to dry. The strain between USSR and China deepened. Bilateral USSR-USA ties nosedived especially after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the former.

For some four decades thereafter, China could not do anything wrong as it launched a charm offensive on vital institutions of power and influence in the US. The drumbeat for a robust engagement was led by America Inc. with Henry Kissinger & Co. playing the ‘Pied Piper’. It was the US which paved the way for China to join the WTO, despite being an opaque command economy, albeit after extracting onerous commitments which Beijing never meant to honour.

Fortunately, surface tensions with China had eased with the visit of PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 to Beijing, though it continued with its machinations. In the late eighties and early nineties, India was arguably at its most vulnerable, both economically and geo-strategically. In 1982, China’s paramount leader approved the transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan. A Pakistani nuclear device was tested in China on May 26, 1990. Nonetheless, needing Islamabad’s support, both the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Presidencies kept certifying that Pakistan had not gone nuclear despite knowing otherwise.

The Rise of Chinese Belligerence

The newly minted Russian Federation, led by President Boris Yeltsin, betrayed a tilt towards the West. India had slipped in the Russian priorities. Eighty per cent of our defence imports including most of the weapon systems were from Russia. We began facing shortages of critical spares and components. Our economy too was in doldrums.

That is when the winds began shifting, manifested in the simultaneous rise of two large Asian neighbours over the next 20 years (China had a 15 year head start). The size of the aspirational youthful population and well-endowed middle class began to expand in India, attracting international attention. In a bold move, India shrugged off incessant pressure of the disarmament hawks by going nuclear in May 1998 and swiftly outlining its ‘no-first-use’ doctrine. The global reaction ranged from furious to critical to muted comprehension.

“Frankly, India is a very good friend of ours and we have very good relations,” said President Yeltsin, refusing to endorse sanctions on India. Russia helped us ward off the near-universal global pressure, especially at the UN Security Council. Strategic dialogues with the US and France lowered the temperatures. In March 2000, President Bill Clinton came on a five-day visit to India to reset the ties.

All four sides of the original quadrilateral were in motion once again. Chinese belligerence and ambition grew in direct proportion to its economic might. Gradually, the Americans realised that instead of opening up, China was clamping down under President Xi but taking full advantage of open societies, by means fair and foul. It was left to mercurial President Trump to finally blow the whistle on Beijing.

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Sino-Indian relations steadily went south, coming to a head with the Galwan clash last year. New Delhi and Washington, finding a broad convergence of interests and outlook, began crafting a long-term partnership. Yet it is hard to miss that the Biden administration has never described China as an adversary, terming it instead as the “most serious competitor” and keeping the door open for a possible breakthrough.

President Xi Jinping recently tasked the Communist Party to cultivate the image of a “lovable” nation. If Beijing senses a continuous coalescence of positions on China among the US, India, other partners and allies, it is possible though not easy for it, to tactically extend an olive branch to the US. It is moot if Washington would be able to resist.

High-stakes Biden-Putin Meet

A lot is riding on the forthcoming in-person meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin in Geneva. Both sides are keen to bury the hatchet and restore a modicum of normalcy, even if for disparate reasons.

Russia still remains a major Eurasian power, and is chafing under western ostracization. Not that it is blemish-free, yet the contention that Washington in particular may have overreacted also has merit. There is a case for revisiting sanctions against Moscow triggered by its takeover of Crimea in 2014, as the move cannot be seen in isolation. The fact remains that the western powers sought to both engage and constrain Russia, by bringing NATO to its doorstep. The accusation that Russia interfered in American elections is not totally baseless. Yet, Washington’s own track record too is not completely above-board. In this age-old power play, protestations notwithstanding, every nation is culpable.

The two leaders are seasoned politicians and astute practitioners of realpolitik. President Biden should know that Moscow’s embrace of Beijing is not out of choice. Posturing apart, President Putin would be happy to correct his overdependence on Beijing. Even a limited thaw in Russia-American relations would be conducive to global peace and strengthen the political leverage of all countries except China.

Looking Putin “in the eye” in 2001, President Bush had “found him … trustworthy … (and) was able to get a sense of his soul.” A decade later, then Vice President Biden told Putin that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Everything will hinge on whether or not the American President manages to spot his counterpart’s soul this time around.

Disclaimer:The author is Former Envoy to South Korea and Canada and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.

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first published:June 14, 2021, 13:29 IST