Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be travelling abroad from September 23-25, his second such trip since the Covid-19 crisis hit India. He will visit Washington for the first in-person summit of the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, called the Quad. Following that, he will proceed to New York to address the high-level segment of the UN General Assembly, which always opens its new annual session in September.
The Quad carries the shadow of the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s resignation after barely a year in office. The Japanese wanted a postponement but with other leaders being in New York for UNGA, the majority opinion prevailed. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said besides the Indian-Pacific, the focus of the Quad would be on climate change, Covid-19 and the vaccination initiative of the group and cooperation in developing emerging technologies as well as cyberspace issues.
Indian security issues
This spells out the US priorities in which India has an equal interest. However, the mess the Biden administration has left behind in Afghanistan, which directly impinges on Indian security, will only be a side issue. Thus, in the east, we are being drawn into closer engagement with the US and its allies Japan and Australia. On the western side, the unstable Afghan scenario, with Pakistan in the driver’s seat at the moment, leaves India to fend for its interests by engaging with Iran and Russia, both of whom have a testy equation with the US. It is a complex diplomatic dance that India will be called upon to undertake, to safeguard its interests against the Pakistan-China axis.
Interestingly, on September 13, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced the House Foreign Affairs Committee. From both sides of the political divide, the criticism of Pakistan and its duplicity in combating US antagonists was loud and clear. He defended with the arguments President Joe Biden had paraded before - that the current administration had inherited a bad deal and had merely acted to save further casualties and deeper re-engagement. He committed that the US would examine the “role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years”. The question of whether India could become a possible staging area for an over-the-horizon response was asked. India has, in the past, avoided letting foreign powers use its soil for military action against third parties. Such action will put India more directly in the Taliban's line of fire.
This year, the theme of the UNGA session is: “Building resilience through hope to recover from Covid19, rebuilding sustainably, respond to needs of the planet, respect the rights of people and revitalise the United Nations”. The pandemic has left the UN on the sidelines, as the response to help the less developed world has lagged.
India being a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Prime Minister Modi will be able to participate in its meetings and perhaps bring global focus back on the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan, as indeed the shocking assumption of important ministries by UN-designated terrorists. China and Russia may attempt to downplay these factors and seek the lifting of UNSC sanctions on such individuals.
The UNGA sessions also allow leaders to meet their counterparts, contact amongst whom has been on hold due to the pandemic. But overall, the visit should enable India to gauge international opinion on how the world has to gradually return to normal travel and interaction. Vaccine equity will be a big issue and delay in India becoming a leader in exporting Covid vaccines will have to be explained.
Finally, there will be the usual Pakistan attempt at the UN to raise the Kashmir issue. Whether the world has time for fractious bilateral disputes remains to be seen. But Pakistan will certainly have been emboldened by the success of its Kabul gambit.
The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs