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AUKUS and Afghanistan – Now is the time for Modi govt to deploy every diplomatic instinct

India’s diplomatic advance in the US could be pivotal with long-lasting effects in both South Asia as well as the future of the Indo-Pacific.

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It’s a busy week for diplomacy. On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with US President Joe Biden, for their first in-person summit. The Prime Minister will also attend the first in-person Quad leaders’ meeting. On 25 September, he will address the United Nations General Assembly, or UNGA. On the margins, PM Modi is expected to meet separately with his counterparts Scott Morrison of Australia and Yoshihide Suga of Japan. No doubt, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who arrived in New York this week, will engage with a number of his counterparts and others.

There is plenty to discuss. The continuing effects of the pandemic and a sustainable, equitable, and greener economic recovery – the central issues of debate at the UNGA. Taking stock of US-India relations and working through a long list of operational and strategic issues – in Washington. Identifying key deliverables for the Quad. The leaders will also assess the progress of American-financed vaccines being manufactured in Hyderabad. No doubt, the imperatives of dealing with China will continue to shape many of these conversations.

The current impasse over the AUKUS agreement, and French and even broader European dissatisfaction with the United States, is bound to occupy diplomatic oxygen both in New York and in Washington DC.

Further, Afghanistan is central to the debates at the UN, and it will likely be so in the meetings scheduled in Washington DC. The Taliban have nominated an envoy to the United Nations. This will be considered, in time, by the UN’s nine-member Credentials Committee. It adds a degree of urgency to the question of balancing recognition with the need to work with the movement for the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

In at least two ways, India’s diplomatic advance in the United States could be pivotal with long-lasting effects in both South Asia as well as the future of the Indo-Pacific. If there was a time to deploy every diplomatic instinct and muscle internationally, it is now.

Also read: Taliban ‘conundrum’ is forcing geopolitical rivals to align interests in Afghanistan

Help craft a global response to Afghanistan

First, India is well placed to moot and support a truly global humanitarian response to the tragic takeover of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. More than 18 million people in Afghanistan need immediate humanitarian assistance. According to the UN, only 39% of the current plea for $1.3 billion of aid has been funded. The UN, and potentially the European Union, is best placed to organise and distribute aid within the country. They both played a critical role in the 1990s – when only three countries recognised the Taliban.

Understandably, it will be a while before various nations and the UN itself develop a strategy of engagement with the brutal regime that won the war in Afghanistan. It is likely that most European nations will follow a collective EU lead, whilst developing bespoke approaches to diplomatic accreditation with Afghanistan.

For many reasons, India is the least likely actor to take a lead to shape a global response. The Taliban government is filled with individuals who have ordered attacks against Indian personnel and interests in Afghanistan. They remain closely tied to Pakistan. Yet, India’s commitment in Afghanistan is to its people. It needs to find a way to reach them, while keeping its strategic disinclinations squarely in mind.

On 17 September, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, Prime Minister Modi made a case for humanitarian aid. He spoke of the need to craft a global response to reach the Afghan people. He also outlined India’s concerns, the need to monitor Taliban commitments – including making sure that Afghan soil is not used by international terrorists.

The high-level policy architecture for promoting and shaping a global response exists – as spelt out in the PM’s speech. It is essential now to act on this with a sense of tearing urgency. Few countries have equitable relations with the United States, Russia, Iran, the Central Asian Republics and EU-member states. It’s time to leverage these associations in and for the Afghan people. In doing so, it is essential that India pushes back against any formal move to recognise the Taliban at the UN and elsewhere. Global engagement for the distribution of humanitarian aid does not require recognition. It requires the full weight of international collective action.

Also read: China brought the AUKUS upon itself. Australia couldn’t bear the contempt and abuse forever

Play a role in bridging the transatlantic divide

Second, India can play a role in the diplomatic fiasco with regards to AUKUS – the newly announced arrangement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This will, in time, develop into something more than a mere security partnership. French leaders are clearly more than miffed. There are moot questions with regards to France’s own protectionist policies. Others point to the US’ all-consuming “fixation” with China – that drove the need for AUKUS – that the EU is yet to grasp in full measure.

Either way, the transatlantic rupture is clear. The Indo-Pacific is being re-organised. Trilateral security-plus arrangements are growing. India, Australia and France invested in a plurilateral dialogue in 2018. In the summer of 2021, the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean Yves Le Drian stated that such an arrangement works because the countries “get along well.” They “share the same willingness,” he said. This week, he recalled French ambassadors from the US and Australia.

India is a link for all these countries. Its own approach to the Indo-Pacific is partially premised on the success of the Quad, and to a certain extent, the future achievements of trilateral groupings such as with France and Australia. At the UN, in Washington, and in Paris, India can play a role to bridge the transatlantic divide. It has the goodwill. It also has a national security interest in making sure that France – Europe more broadly – the United States, and Australia work constructively together in the Indo-Pacific.

Indian leaders will need to do everything they can to make sure that France continues to actively support the trilateral with Australia and India. Bridge-building is well within India’s diplomatic wheelhouse. Even if nations don’t get along, Pm Modi and EAM Jaishankar are well placed to remind them of the need to “share the same willingness” as before. Defence agreements may have changed hands. The strategic rationale underlining that shift remains the same – for all these countries.

The author is the director of Carnegie India. He tweets @Rudra_81. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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