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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Friends, allies and enemies: A triangle of diplomacy between US, China and India

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on March 22, 2021 and can be accessed here.

In a rare face-off on live television, the US and the Chinese delegations exchanged barbs during the first meeting between the two sides, under the Biden administration. At Alaska, director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi said that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.” This was in response to the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who had brought up issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

At home, American President Joe Biden expressed pride in his Secretary of State while Yang Jiechi is applauded on Chinese social media for standing up to US intimidation. The messages from the Alaska meeting are signals for domestic audiences that want to see their respective governments take strong stances to protect their interests. However, both countries are going to continue with confrontational rhetoric for the time being.

An interesting point for India is the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs's statement about the Alaska meeting. The Chinese side noted that “It [Multilateralism] should not be used as a cover to form cliques, turn back the wheel of history, incite division along ideological lines, or instigate confrontation between different groups.” While no names were mentioned, this is predictably directed towards the Quad (or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which held its first leaders’ summit in early March. Composed of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, much is being made of an informal alliance between these four countries, mainly aimed at countering China.

The Quad is not a new arrangement, of course. After the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the four countries first mooted security cooperation between 2005 and 2008 and organized meetings at various levels. But these efforts failed to materialize as each government was also reluctant to proceed with the initiative.

China vociferously criticizes this arrangement as part of a Cold War mentality that tries to contain it. One Chinese academic even called it a ‘coalition of losers.’ Outside of China, the criticisms against the Quad remain the same. A Brookings Report points out that skeptics “ tend to fall into two categories: those who argue that the Quad is doing too much, and those who contend that the group is not doing enough.”

This Quad session is unique because the four heads of State met and released a joint statement and opinion piece. These are significant steps considering the amount of behind-the-scenes coordination it would require for such an output. As Pranay Kotasthane points out, “Think of these joint statements as the diplomatic equivalents of conducting joint military exercises. Extrinsically, it is an exercise in signalling to the adversary. Intrinsically, it helps develop some comfort working in unison. By substantive significance, I mean the creation of three working groups on vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, and climate change. While China is a glue that can hold these countries together, it can’t be a fuel that propels the Quad forward. That requires a positive agenda of action items, which these three working groups do.”

Even as the Alaska meeting got off to a rocky start, the US Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin III visited India to discuss military cooperation and a larger Indo-Pacific strategy. While there are sticking points within the US-India military relationship (like India’s purchase of Russian equipment), the visit is primarily seen as a signal to China.

As Biden finally brings some much-needed stability to American foreign policy, it is interesting to see how this shapes up. For now, relations between India and the US have picked up momentum. How this continues is something we will all closely watch.

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