The leading members of the new Joe Biden Administration — US Secretary of State Anthony J Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will, for the first time, touch base with Yang Jiechi, director of China’s Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18.

This meeting will be in the wake of the virtual summit last Friday (March 12) of the head honchos of the Quadrilateral — Narendra Modi, Joe Biden, Yoshihide Suga and Scott Morrison, and of Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Tokyo and Seoul scheduled for March 16-17.

That China agreed to this first meeting being held on “American turf” is considered an aspect of the U.S. approaching China, per the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, from a “position of strength” and “in lockstep with our allies and partners.”This suggests that the issues the Quad partners are supposedly in “lockstep” on were at least notionally discussed at the Quad virtual summit.

The main achievement of the virtual summit, however, was elsewhere, in the agreement on the division of labour to get the Quad’s Covid-19 ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to outmatch China’s global efforts, underway. According to this schemata India will use its production facilities to produce the vaccine at a fast clip at low cost, the US will facilitate the transactions with due regard to intellectual property rights, etc for Indian pharmaceutical companies to mass produce the latest remedy in the field — the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine and otherwise prepare it for speedy world-wide distribution, Japan will financially underwrite such commercial deals as are involved in joint manufacture, and Australia will pitch in with assistance in vaccine delivery systems.

Other than on the vaccine, the four leaders also decided to cooperate on what was referred to as “critical and emerging technology” areas, chiefly 5G telecommunications technology sector.

China has taken the lead in terms of commercializing 5th-generation equipment but now finds itself stymied by a whole bunch of previous customer countries rejecting Huawei (and other Chinese company-produced) gear out of the reasonable security fear about deeply embedded electronic bugs prospectively activated by the their PLA masters that could hold hostage the communications networks of various countries.

While there was a reference to strengthening India’s defence industrial base, there was no specificity about the US sharing any sensitive military technology with India, or any such thing. In the event, this issue is likely to go the way the DTTI (Defence Technology and Trade Initiative) has gone over the last 20 years, which is no where!

Blinken and Austin’s discussion with the Suga government will, logically, be around two issues: the increased presence of Chinese warships and fishing trawlers in the contested waters off the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu for the Chinese) Island chain The numbers of Chinese vessels of all kinds in this East Sea area tripled in the period 2012-2020.

The other issue concerns the protection provided by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) to the US Navy’s 7th Fleet staging out of Yokohama, and US Air Force combat aircraft operating out of Japanese bases. This more proactive use of the Japanese military muscle was made possible by the “reinterpretation” ordered by the previous Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2014 that led a year later to the famous ‘Article 9’ of the country’s ‘peace Constitution’ being stretched to legalize this more offensive use of Japanese forces.

What the Suga regime will want to be reassured about is the extent to which Tokyo can depend on US naval and airforce assets attached to the 7th Fleet to buttress Japanese MSDF activity in defence of its Senkaku interests against the Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN).

The Japanese government will want to work out a very clear understanding with Blinken and Austin about what exactly to expect by way of American military support and help should the simmering crisis with China begin to boil. The tension will be between what Tokyo would ideally like with respect to maximal deployment of US forces and what the Biden Administration is actually willing to commit to in the context of Washington’s less combative attitude to Beijing now than when Donald Trump was in the White House.

The Blinken-Austin duo’s conferring, across the Sea of Japan, with the South Korean regime of Moon Jae-in would be of a completely different character. Unlike the Suga cohort seeking more intensive US engagement on the Senkaku dispute, the high American officials will be wanting an iron-clad promise from the Moon Jae-in government to not be tempted, or get lured, by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s play for rapprochement at the expense of the US thinning out its military forces from South Korea. It is a deal that a large section of the South Korean population pining for, if not reunification than, normal relations, support.

What transpires in the Blinken-Austin rounds with Suga’s and Moon Jae-in’s representatives is the baggage Blinken and Sullivan will carry to Anchorage in their meeting with Yang Jiechi, the top Communist Party man and overseer of China’s foreign policy who, incidentally, outranks foreign minister Wang Yi. But what is the Biden template for the US’ China policy?

President Biden in his address to American diplomats at the State Department on 4 February had this to say regarding China: “We’ll …take on directly the challenges posed by (sic) our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China. We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.”

This would have been encouraging had it not been for the wishy-washy stuff that followed. “But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so”, he explained. “We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost. That’s why we’ve moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.”

A month after Biden’s speech, Blinken in his first address (March 3) as boss to an audience at the State Department, embroidered the President’s statement. “Our relationship with China”, he declared, “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be….The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.”

This could well be the mantra that the other Quad foreign ministers S Jaishankar, the Australian Marise Ann Payne, and the Japanese Toshimitsu Motegi and their governments will readily subscribe to as well.

In the main, because it allows each individual Quad state an awful lot of slack in defining when their country needs to be competitive, collaborative or adversarial! It also reflects and reveals the greatest weakness of the Quad. It relates to Washington’s opting out on any issue dear to the other three individually or collectively. Thus, without the military resources of the kind that the US can muster being available, the remaining Quad states could find themselves left high and dry in a contingency or crisis involving China.

In any case, the Biden Admin is moving cautiously. Referring to the proposed meeting with Yang Blinken clarified that “This is not a strategic dialogue. There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements. Those engagements, if they are to follow, really have to be based on …tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China.” These “issues of concern” over which the two sides have, according to the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, “deep disagreements” are, specifically, China’s “coercive and unfair economic practices,” the “crackdown in Hong Kong”, and “human rights abuses in Xinjiang”; and more generally America’s “concerns about challenges [China] pose[s] to the security and values of the United States and our allies and partners”.

Psaki talked “about areas where we can cooperate, of mutual interest” without spelling out these areas but hinted that these may have to do with upholding “the rules-based international system and a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

And in this regard, Blinken stated that “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system — all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to.”

He then referenced the Pentagon “task force” constituted by Biden to “work quickly, drawing on civilian and military experts across the department to provide within the next few months the recommendations to Secretary Austin on key priorities and decision points so that we can chart a strong path forward on China-related matters”.

This task force is to be chaired by Ely Ratner, a longtime Biden aide installed as Defence Secretary Austin’s adviser, who prefers the competitive (rather than the collaborative or adversarial) approach to China. This may or may not be reassuring to India.

What the Modi government will definitely be more wary of is the Biden Administration’s strident tone on two other sets of issues — trade & economic policies, and democracy and human rights.

As regards the first set, Blinken reiterated the Trump line on domestic investment, in-sourcing and employment generation. “Our approach” will involve, Blinken said, fighting “for every American job and for the rights, protections, and interests of all American workers.” So, say Good Bye to the prospects of Washington encouraging US companies to invest in India or to move their manufacturing facilities to this country!

And stressing on Biden’s favourite theme, Blinken talked about “Shoring up …democracy [as] a foreign policy imperative“. “Otherwise”, he added, “we play right into the hands of adversaries and competitors like Russia and China, who seize every opportunity to sow doubts about the strength of …democracy. We shouldn’t be making their jobs easier.“

But, he repeated Trump’s line against foreign interventions by the US but in a slightly different guise. “We will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force” he added. “We’ve tried these tactics in the past. However well-intentioned, they haven’t worked. They’ve given ‘democracy promotion’ a bad name, and they’ve lost the confidence of the American people.”

As far as as India is concerned it leaves a great many foreign policy balls up in the air not least that matter about whether and under what conditions the four Quad countries will join in pursuing competitive, collaborative or adversarial strategies vis a vis China.

This will be the great sticking point on which the Quad could render itself immobile. And then there’s the question of how long it will be before the Biden Government, prompted by the progressive element in the Democratic party led by the likes of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, will make Kashmir and the eroding respect of the Modi regime for human and democratic rights the rock on which the ship of Indo-US relations will crash.

There are enough signs already that that point will not be long in coming and, in any case, a clash is inevitable in the context of the Modi government’s reaction to the negative Western assessment of Indian democracy.

The US-based Freedom House last week downgraded India from “free” to “partially free” status. And the V-Dem Institute in Sweden deemed India less an “electoral democracy” than an “electoral autocracy”. Apparently, Modi has been hurt to the quick because in his travels to America and elsewhere in the West in the past few years, he has basked in the glow of massive electoral victories at home.

This is reflected in Jaishankar’s waspish reaction over the weekend. Per news reports this is what he said: “You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy. You want the truthful answer — it is hypocrisy. Because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want it to be played. So they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgments and then make out as though this is some kind of global exercise.”

These are fighting words and the BJP government better be prepared for even closer scrutiny and criticism of its record on the human rights front by Washington involving US Congressional Hearings on the subject of a democratically sliding India.

Jayapal and others will be in the forefront of pressuring Modi regime onto the right and narrow path they deem democratic and that could mean, you guessed it, sanctions in some form or the other even if Biden himself would be loath to go this far considering how alienating India could lose America strategic traction in the Indo-Pacific. Still the Western democratic purists may decide that this price is worth paying.

Then what do you reckon the Indian government will do? Because such things as attempts by Washington to win brownie points with Delhi, like including India in the US-hosted talks for peace in Afghanistan as rival to the Russian-led negotiating effort from which India is excluded, won’t help.

Bharat Karnad is a defence and strategic analyst.