September: The month for geopolitical summitry
After the enormity of September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came crashing down to a terrorist attack, the global strategic framework moved from the post-Cold War period to what became the post-9/11 phase.
Two decades later, after the poorly executed United States (US) exit from Kabul on August 31, and a barrage of commentary that this event marks the end of US-led Western primacy and the beginning of fractured multi-polarity, it is moot if the nascent geopolitical frame of reference — that is still evolving — would be termed the sullen “post 8/31” phase.
The discordant tenor was palpable at the United Nations (UN) Security Council, where in its end-August resolution on Afghanistan, two of the five permanent members — Russia and China — chose to abstain, pointing to the deep political and security-driven fissures among the major powers. This discord emerged in a starker manner in the September 9 conversation between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
On September 10, the Chinese daily, Global Times, noted that this “phone conversation between Chinese and US leaders was initiated by the US as relations spiral downward” and cautioned that “China-US relations are embedded in various crises.” Predictably, it also cast Beijing as the victim of US perfidy and added with characteristic chutzpah that “China stands with its core national interests and morality.” (emphasis added)
The White House read-out of the teleconference was brief, and noted that “President Biden underscored the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and the world and the two leaders discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”
The Chinese foreign ministry statement was non-committal about the outcome of the Biden-Xi call, but placed the onus on the US to “getting the relationship right”, and refused to engage with Washington, even on critical global challenges such as the climate crisis.
The lead nations in the management of the Indo-Pacific are the US, Japan, India, and Australia — Quad. The first in-person summit of the four leaders is scheduled for September 24. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi will address the UN General Assembly the next day, and it is instructive that India had flagged the maritime domain as an emerging global issue at the UN Security Council in August.
It may be recalled that the first summit of Quad was held in March this year — albeit virtually. This was President Biden’s first major multilateral summit after assuming office and was indicative of the priority accorded by his administration to the Indo-Pacific as a domain. The agenda for the forthcoming Quad summit has no reference to China, but the emphasis on a “free and open Indo-Pacific” has a subtext that will be read carefully by Beijing.
As summits go, India is in an anomalous position wherein PM Modi attended a virtual summit of China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on September 17 — a week before the US-led Quad summit in Washington.
September is clearly the month for summitry, for PM Modi chaired the 13th Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) summit held virtually on September 9 that brought together the leaders of the BRICS nations.
Stabilising Afghanistan post the US’s withdrawal and the need to evolve a coordinated and effective counterterrorism policy remains a recurring concern for all the major powers and the regional stakeholders. The emergence of two quadrilateral groupings with different objectives and yet, yoked by a geopolitical adversarial orientation is slowly gaining traction. Biden’s caution is relevant — that “competition should not veer into conflict”.
Specific to Afghanistan, a Eurasian Quad is forming with China and Russia at the core, along with Pakistan and Iran. Among them, Pakistan is in a pole position given its deep bilateral ties with the US, China, and the Taliban. Many contradictions abound that include the US having supported the Afghan mujahideen during the Cold War that soon morphed into the Taliban. Paradoxically, China was in the American camp in the latter phase of the Cold War, while Delhi had a close relationship with Moscow.
Whether the current geopolitical churning and its final contour can be characterised as multi-polarity or promiscuous polarity is a matter of semantic choice. But the overlapping permutations pose complex diplomatic challenges that are further exacerbated by the compulsions of globalisation and its geo-economic imperatives.
China has now co-opted Russia into its corner and seeks to limit the US-led Western influence across Asia — both terrestrial and maritime. Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific region (the South China Sea and Taiwan) have become areas of latent contestation where the two Quads could bump each other with unanticipated consequences.
While security-related tensions simmer and can be regulated by astute political choice, the more serious global challenges are the yet-to-be-contained Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. The severity of the latter and its irreversible nature was highlighted in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in early August.
China’s refusal to engage in any meaningful dialogue with the global community on both these critical issues is an unhappy augury. It is also a grim reminder of the intractable challenges that India will have to address in the near future with an economic outlook weakened by the very challenges it must contain — the two Cs — Covid-19 and the climate crisis, as it grapples with the third C — China.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal