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Quad Quandary: Modi, Trump step up strategic connect in balancing Asia

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us-trumm-modi-manilaMANILA: Amid the mutating strategic landscape in Asia and the new geostrategic configuration of Quadrilateral as a backdrop, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi held wide-ranging talks with US President Donald Trump in Manila that focused on bolstering India’s military capability and enhancing strategic connect in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Modi-Trump meeting at a glitzy hotel in Manila on November 13 was watched closely in the region amid a collective effort by the leaders of ASEAN and East Asia Summit countries to shape an inclusive regional architecture and China’s declared ambition to be a global power.

With paparazzi frenziedly clicking away, a beaming Mr Modi, with Mr Trump seated by his side at Mindoro Room of the Sofitel Plaza hotel, struck an upbeat note on the future of India-US relationship, which has acquired a new bounce under the Trump presidency.

Modi-Trump bonding

The meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Trump lasted for 52 minutes, much beyond the allotted time, signalling that despite a slew of back-to-back meetings both leaders had serious business to discuss. “There was a broad review of strategic landscape in Asia,” India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told reporters at Manila Marriott hotel, where PM Modi with his entourage is staying.

The key strategic issues included the North Korea nuclear programme, the state of affairs in the Gulf and the Middle East region, proliferation and proliferation linkages and terrorism, said Mr Jaishankar. The enhanced India-US cooperation in Afghanistan and consequences of violence in the Rakhine state in Myanmar also figured prominently in discussions.

“It was an evolving conversation with the Trump administration. It was a cordial, constructive and comfortable conversation,” he said.

Mutual admiration club

us-trump-modi-manila1In his opening remarks before he began talks with Mr Trump, Mr Modi spoke about deepening and expanding India-US relations and underlined that the two countries can work together not just bilaterally, but on an entire spectrum of cross-cutting issues for the benefit of the region, the world and the mankind.

He lauded Mr Trump for speaking glowingly and hopefully about India-US relations at various fora and stressed that India will try to live up to high expectations placed on this strategic partnership.

Mr Trump was all praise for Mr Modi, suggesting a deepening personal chemistry between the two leaders. “He’s become a friend of ours and a great gentleman doing a fantastic job in bringing around lots of factions in India — bringing them all together,” he said. “It’s a lot of good reports coming out of India. So I want to congratulate you,” he added.

“The relations between India and the United States are growing very rapidly with a great deal of speed. And they’re getting deeper and very comprehensive,” said Mr Modi.

“And I also feel that and that these relations between India and the U.S., they are not just for our mutual interests, but they go much beyond that. And we are working together for the interest of the future of Asia and for humanity as a whole in the world,” he said.

Quad & Indo-Pacific Connect

Bonhomie and backslapping apart, the overarching thrust of the discussions was on spurring the rise of India as a major global power and enhanced coordination in the Asia-Pacific, with an eye on containing China.

us-trump-modi-manila2There was no explicit discussion on the Quad between Mr Modi and Mr Trump, but clearly it’s an idea whose time has come. The White House read-out on the Trump-Modi meeting underlined “shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” “The two leaders discussed the comprehensive strategic partnership between the United States and India and their shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” “They pledged to enhance their cooperation as Major Defense Partners, resolving that two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s greatest militaries,” said the White House.

The reference to bolstering military was a veiled signal to China, an emerging hegemon in the region. India was, however, circumspect and studiously denied that the Quad or the India-US partnership was directed at China. “If you look at diplomacy in the world, diplomacy is not just bilateral or multilateral, there is also a lot of space in between,” was all Jaishankar would say, indicating that quadrilateral and plurilateral groupings are the new normal in international relations and not much should be read into it.

From being a problematic and contested proposal a decade ago, the notion of Quadrilateral dialogue among leading maritime democracies of the region has gathered pace in the last few days, and translated into the first meeting of officials of the quad nations in Manila on November 12.

“They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large,” said a terse statement by India’s ministry of external affairs. All the quad countries have denied any China containment, but the Quad could emerge an influential pressure group in curbing China’s assertive postures in the region.

The days to come will reveal the scope of the Quad, but what is certain is that Trump is set to promote the rise of India as a balancing power in the Indo-Pacific region, thereby tightening strategic embrace between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

Despite initial anxieties in New Delhi about the course of India-US relations under the Trump presidency, largely due to the maverick American leader’s reputation for policy flip-flops, the partnership has acquired an added strategic dimension in the last few months. Mr Modi’s visit to the US in June proved to be quite successful as he not only forged personal chemistry with Mr Trump, but also succeeded in getting the US’ support for India’s concerns on One Belt, One Road and Pakistan-based terrorists.


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Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-magazine focused on international affairs, emerging powers and the India Story.

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