Modi at Quad summit: The China factor in Delhi's Indo-Pacific strategy

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US President Joe Biden (L), with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L), meets virtually with members of the "Quad" alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the US, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 12, 2021.Image source, Getty Images
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Members of the 'Quad' forum, including US President Joe Biden and Indian PM Narendra Modi, met virtually in March to discuss Covid vaccine distribution

Like a lot of meetings this past year and a half, the first summit of the 'Quad' was virtual.

The leaders from the group, which comprises the US, India, Australia and Japan, connected online from their various nations back in March and agreed to cooperate on delivering one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Asian countries by the end of 2022.

Now the Quad will hold its first in-person meeting, in Washington DC on Friday, amid the fallout from a controversial new global joint security pact announced last week.

That pact, known as Aukus, was signed by the US, UK and Australia, and will give Australia access to US nuclear-powered submarine technology for the first time.

So how does Aukus affect the Quad? Leaders from both these forums avoided mentioning China directly, but it's widely believed that their cooperation efforts are designed to counter China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will likely be mindful of China when he meets his fellow Quad leaders. India is the only country in the group which shares a border with China, and the border is bitterly disputed at several points. Troops from the two nations were involved in a deadly clash at one such point last year.

Image source, Getty Images
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Mr Modi with Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2017. Quad and Aukus leaders have avoided referencing China directly, but analysts see their cooperation as part of an effort to counter Chinese infuence

India has been a keen participant in multilateral forums in recent years - including some in which China is also a member. Analysts say it stands to gain from the existence of both Aukus and the Quad.

The Quad meeting could allow Delhi to develop a joint worldview with the three partners on areas of shared concern, like countering China's influence in the region, said Pratyush Rao, director for South Asia at the Control Risks consultancy.

"The meeting can lay the foundation for longer-term cooperation on the development of shared standards on critical technologies, military cooperation and pooling of resources to finance infrastructure projects in the region," Mr Rao said.

The two forums, Aukus and the Quad, would also complement one another by demonstrating the countries' commitment to regional security in the Indo-Pacific, he said.

The Quad is expected to announce deeper cooperation on fighting climate change, cyber security, infrastructure development and sharing of emerging technologies like 5G infrastructure. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington, said the group had already shown it could provide tangible outcomes, like coming together to make and distribute Covid vaccines.

"India will be comfortable with such outcomes as such decisions are not very provocative for China," Mr Kugelman said.

Image source, Getty Images
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The Quad aims to supply one billion doses by the end of 2022

But analysts say that a few deeper issues remain unresolved for India within the Quad framework. The main ones are India's own challenges in the Indian Ocean and its border disputes with China. India has long been uncomfortable with China's investments in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, driven by China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and now Beijing's growing influence in Afghanistan has also been causing concerns in Delhi.

So how much can the Quad help India in its security challenges? India's chief concern should be safeguarding its maritime interests, said former Indian diplomat Jitendra Nath Misra.

"India needs to ask some hard questions about how the group can help in safeguarding its interests in its broader maritime neighbourhood where China has been establishing its presence for years," Mr Misra said.

Beyond the Quad summit, Mr Modi will also hold his first face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden on Friday. The meeting will be an opportunity for the two leaders to get to know each other better.

Mr Modi and Mr Biden may not talk publicly about China, but experts say the leaders are likely to discuss Beijing's assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, and also in Afghanistan.

Image source, Getty Images
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The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has changed geopolitics in the region

India will likely seek reassurance from the US about preventing the Taliban from allowing militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba to use Afghanistan to plan attacks against India. Most countries are still struggling to define the terms of engagement with the Taliban, and India will be keen to exchange on the issue as it formulates its own policy.

Some of the other sticking points include trade disputes and the unresolved matter of India's purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. The US is yet to clarify whether it will give India any relief from sanctions for the purchase.

This bilateral meeting may not yield any tangible solutions to those issues. But it should allow Mr Modi and Mr Biden to move beyond existing quarrels and plan a new roadmap.

And the two countries will likely look to cooperate in other areas, Mr Rao said, like leveraging US vaccine stocks and Indian production capabilities to support the Gavi and Covax vaccine initiatives.

"They will also discuss tackling climate change through joint investments in clean technologies and sustaining the already robust cooperation on defence and security issues," he added.

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BBC Correspondent Anbarasan Ethirajan reports from the India-China border.