If pressure from media, think tanks and activists is what led the Biden administration to relent now, what happens in even more urgent scenarios?

by Rahul Bedi

Chandigarh: The labour pains Washington endured – before eventually delivering badly-needed medical supplies and related equipment to tackle India’s second calamitous coronavirus pandemic wave – has degraded the timely operational framework of the untested Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, in an emergency.

It’s perhaps uncharitable to carp at the US at present, considering its subsequent outpouring of assistance in dealing with India’s enduring and grossly mismanaged pandemic. But Washington’s extended hesitation for several weeks in assisting India in its grave adversity, despite grand assurances of support during the first Quad summit on March 12, is significant and could have discouraging ramifications for the much-touted alliance that also includes Australia and Japan.

In contrast, Russia, which the US is seeking to sanction for providing India military equipment, and smaller countries like Bahrain, Britain, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in addition to European Union (EU) states like France, Germany, Ireland and Italy were, unbidden, expeditiously off the mark in proactively aiding India directly. Even India’s nuclear rivals Pakistan and China offered ambulances, vaccines and medical gear, which the Modi government, understandably, declined.

“Protracted delays by the US in stepping up and helping India immediately have seriously compromised the Quad’s potential effectiveness and its much publicised sense of immediacy” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (Retd) of the New Delhi-based Security Risks consultancy group. Deferring instant assistance, not only to a fellow Quad member, but also to a major strategic partner and defence ally like India was a test case, and the US has seemingly failed it, he lamented.

Other senior retired and serving Indian military planners echoed similar sentiments.

They said that eventually pressure from the influential Indian diaspora in the US, prominent think tanks and social media had ‘embarrassed’ Washington into belated pro-activity in responding to India’s virus predicament. Thereafter, Washington had ‘over compensated’ in supplying Delhi badly-needed and overly welcome life-saving materials.

“In retrospect the shibboleths of swift mutual co-operation, understanding and joint-ness expressed in the Quad summit in early March have little meaning or substance,” said a two-star Indian Navy (IN) officer. When it came to the crunch, there was no immediate vindication of these ambitious sentiments, till Washington was ‘compelled’ into action he added declining to be named.

On March 12, all four Quad leaders, including newly elected US President Joe Biden, alongside Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia, Yoshihide Suga of Japan and Narendra Modi had, in a virtual summit committed, amongst other issues, to collaborate in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in Asia, in an unstated bid to put China down.

Ironically, the summit was eagerly supported by Biden, whose administration – paradoxically – emerged as the slowpoke in stepping up to the mark in providing India timely succour. “We are launching a new ambitious joint partnership that is going to boost vaccine manufacturing for the global benefit and will boost vaccination programmes in the Indo-Pacific region.” Biden had loftily stated; but his subsequent delayed actions appeared somewhat at variance with these sentiments.

Furthermore, the US and Japan, too, had agreed on funding to expand India’s established COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing capacity, whilst Australia was to provide logistical support to firm up access and ‘last-mile’ vaccine delivery across south-east Asia and the Pacific region. And though these arrangements, no doubt endure, their application has somewhat dimmed over the past few weeks at a time when the virus continues to mercilessly engulf India and its countrywide inoculation programme has suffered a serious setback due to the shortage of vaccines.

And correspondingly, in an understandable manoeuvre at self-preservation, Australia recently announced a five-year jail term and a $50,000 fine, or both, for anyone, including its own citizens, returning from India. Japan, on the other hand, the fourth Quad member remains a relatively mute observer to India’s unfolding tragedy.

Meanwhile, official sources in Delhi told The Wire that a spate of stark situational news reports, acerbic tweets and bellicose social media posts censuring the US for its gratuitous indifference to India’s plight, were collectively responsible for its subsequent bountiful response. “Initially, the US exhibited little or no generosity or humaneness to India’s plight that it always demands of others” said a senior foreign diplomat in Delhi, declining to be identified. It was goaded into action thereafter by being called out over its unconcern, he said.

Embarrassingly for Washington, the US State Department spokesman also expressed no sympathy for Indian’s predicament on April 22 when questioned on its virus surge. During a routine press briefing, he provided a longwinded, albeit awkward explanation regarding Washington’s apathy that was centred principally around the ‘US First’ policy with regard to exporting virus vaccines to India. This only served to evoke disturbing memories of the previous Trump administration, further shaming the newly elected incumbents.

Writing in The Economic Times as recently as April 25, at a juncture when India’s daily caseload of new coronavirus infections topped 330,0000, Seema Sirohi declared that all India had so far heard from the Biden administration were, “Words, sometimes vapid and sometimes callous, or a robotic recounting of past generosity, some of which actually came from Donald Trump.”

Sirohi, who is the newspaper’s Washington correspondent, quoted an American professor specialising in South Asia as saying that the US apathy to India’s dire virus situation was ‘another USS Enterprise moment’ for Delhi. The academic was referring to the US aggressively dispatching its Seventh Fleet Task Force, led by this nuclear-powered carrier to the Bay of Bengal in December 1971, to intimidate India during its war with Washington’s ally, Pakistan, that led to the emergence of Bangladesh. “If sending the Seventh Fleet was an intervention to scare India, the lack of one to salve and save lives (during the pandemic) is more appalling,” the analyst told Sirohi.

The link is unlikely ever to be revealed, but Sirohi’s dispatch alongside other equally damaging newspaper and television coverage, resulted soon after in Washington dispatching assorted medical gear to India. Over the past fortnight, this has included oxygen cylinders and concentrators, rapid virus diagnostic test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), and associated critical apparatuses.

Alongside, the US has relented on lifting the export ban on essential raw materials required by the Serum Institute of India to manufacture the ‘Covishield’ or Oxford-AstraZenaca vaccine at its Pune facility. It has also agreed to redirect some 20 of 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine which it had stockpiled, but opted not to administer domestically, citing unproven safety concerns.

Earlier, on April 16, SII head Adar Poonawalla had appealed to Biden on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the US to unite in beating the virus. He had tweeted that it was essential to lift the embargo on raw material exports, so that vaccine production could be accelerated. Poonawalla received no reaction till recently when the pall of Washington’s heedlessness towards India lifted.

However, to its credit, Washington has now gone even a step further in backing a waiver for the intellectual property (IP) rights to licence produce assorted virus vaccines the world over in a move that can only be described as ‘Der Aaye, Durust Aaye’ or better late than never.

But despite these recent initiatives it remains undeniable that the Quad’s grandiose pledges failed in materialising speedily, when they were needed straightaway to counter a humanitarian emergency in which tens of thousands had perished. Paradoxically, the concept of the Quad emerged after the 2004 devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked massive devastation. Unfortunately, its response to the virus tsunami sweeping unheeded across India, was tardy.

Which leads on to the next obvious question regarding the opportune effectiveness of the Quad in a military situation where urgency of response would be even more critical and instant. Would that, too, necessitate media and other pressures before the Quad’s collective might is mobilised? Perhaps. But, regrettably, it would be too late.