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Even as anticipation was rising in New Delhi around the first in-person meeting this Friday of Quad leaders after the covid outbreak, with the US, Australia, Japan and India expected to turn the contours of this four-nation grouping into the foreshadow of an alliance for mutual security in the face of China’s rise, it has been upstaged in Indo-Pacific geopolitics by Aukus. This acronym of Australia, UK and US that also sounds as if it’s short for an ‘Aussie caucus’ is a trilateral defence pact that now looks set to serve as the military lynchpin of Washington’s strategy—such as it is—to secure the region from Beijing’s dominance and shield the post-1945 global order. If this has spelt some disappointment in India’s capital, our diplomats have not shown it, pointing out that the Quad has an agenda of its own which suits our common interests. But it is hard to deny that Tokyo and New Delhi suddenly seem relatively peripheral to US President Joe Biden’s plan of a power-projection pivot from West to East Asia. We need to decode these signals with due care and adjust our approach accordingly.

While the Quad does count a “free and open Indo-Pacific" as part of its shared vision, and has conducted joint naval exercises, its thunder was stolen this week by the prospect of a transfer by the US to Australia of closely-guarded technologies for artificial intelligence and the manufacture of nuclear-powered submarines under Aukus. Nuclear-sub know-how plays a key role in modern-day deterrence of adversaries. Since these need not resurface to refuel over prolonged periods, their ability to escape detection is enviable, and the very fact that they could be armed with nuclear weapons too can deter hostility. This ‘arming’ of Canberra, combined with America’s readiness to court the ire of its EU allies, points to the significance of this three-way deal. France was so furious about losing a multi-billion dollar Australian order for French diesel-subs that it called it a back-stab and recalled its envoys from Canberra and Washington. Observers in other European capitals bristled at what they saw as an Anglophone assumption of authority over this century’s geo-strategic trajectory. A few even wondered if the West, as they knew it, was coming apart.

The Quad’s role may or may not get diminished in the US scheme of things, but the diversification of its agenda to non-military issues such as climate change, trade facilitation and the pandemic could be taken as a signpost. The exertion of soft-power, no doubt, holds value in its own right. Last week, we showed an ability to inject almost 25 million doses in a single day, which exceeded our production rate, but if we ramp up volumes and anchor Quad efforts, we could forge useful ties and strengthen an outreach that began to weaken after we opted out of an Asia-wide trade agreement. We could also benefit from closer cooperation on matters of climate and trade, which pose challenges that require consensus-creation. In the past, Indian diplomacy sought to position India as a reconciler of divergent pulls in a bipolar world. The Cold War has long ended and our embrace of Washington has consigned ‘non-alignment’ to history. Yet, that function retains relevance in North-versus-South divisions. After Aukus, however, we must ask ourselves a hard-nosed question: To what extent can Indian membership of the Quad deter Chinese aggression? All considered, we must maximize its gains, but not count on it for too much. Not any longer. Ultimately, we must watch out for ourselves

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