The US and India are in an uneasy embrace. Image: Screengrab / NDTV

Indian Foreign Secretary Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra’s special briefing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Asia-Pacific tour (May 19-24) dovetailed skillfully into three summit meetings, and brings to mind an institution of the Middle Ages known as the “wandering minstrels.” 

Wealthy people used to employ minstrels to entertain them in their homes. These wandering minstrels told stories, recited poems, sang ballads and played musical instruments. Employing simple rhymes, their ballads told stories that were of interest and at times even dealt with the problems of the poor.

Modi’s first stop was Hiroshima, Japan, where he was a special invitee to a  gathering of the club of rich nations, the Group of Seven, which was born as a result of mounting economic problems, in particular the oil shock and the collapse of the Bretton Woods in the mid-1970s.

According to Kwatra, the G7’s outreach with India was to be “structured around three formal sessions,” relating to food,  health, development, gender equality, climate, energy, environment and a “peaceful, stable and prosperous world.”

Japan, as holder of the G7 presidency, also hosted Australia, Brazil, Comoros, the Cook Islands, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea and Vietnam as “special invitees.” It was a motley crowd that made little sense as movers and shakers of the world order. 

But the Western media were awash with reports that the West’s preoccupations with China and Russia would be the leitmotif of the G7 Summit. Therefore, the last-minute decision by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to attend the summit in person electrified the air in Hiroshima, giving the goings-on there on the weekend the look of a foreplay leading to the making of an endgame in the Ukraine war, if and when that happens.

In such a scenario, of course, there are vital roles that could be assigned by the US to Brazil and India – both BRICS members – and to South Korea, which has actually lived through a “frozen conflict.”

But all that is in the realms of speculations for the present, as it will be a far-fetched assumption that a frozen conflict “somewhere in between an active war and a chilled standoff” will suit Russia, although that “could be a politically palatable long-term result for the United States and other countries backing Ukraine” gingerly to exit the war in Eurasia – to borrow from an important article in Politico on May 18 titled “Ukraine could join ranks of ‘frozen’ conflicts, US officials say,” even as Biden was emplaning for Hiroshima.

Be that as it may, India’s enthusiasm was on two counts – first, the opportunity for Modi to have extended interactions with US President Joe Biden in different locales spread over an entire week, at Hiroshima, Papua New Guinea and Sydney. Second, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was to hold a summit in Sydney, Australia, where India saw the  opportunity to showcase itself as a “counterweight” to China. 

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend an event during the summit of Quad leaders in Tokyo, Japan, on May 24, 2022. Photo: Pool

However, fate intervened. The slow-motion implosion of the US economy bothers Biden, and he cut short his Asia tour to a weekend affair so as to hurry back to Washington by Sunday and resume work in the Oval Office to shore up the “steady progress” so far achieved in the grueling debt ceiling talks between the administration and the lawmakers. 

However, scuppering the planned Quad Summit in Sydney next week would convey a wrong signal, too. Therefore, diplomats found a way to squeeze in a substitute Quad photo-op in Hiroshima itself.

After all, as Foreign Secretary Kwatra pointed out, the Quad is a movable feast – “Look, the structure and nature of [the] Quad is such that … [although] the Quad Leaders’ Meeting not taking placing in Sydney and now taking place in Hiroshima is a change in venue, there has not been any change in the specific aspects of cooperation in [the] Quad.” 

But Chinese commentators are already mocking that the cancellation of the Sydney summit is “an omen of the Quad’s fate.” And The Guardian newspaper wrote that the cancellation of the Quad Summit in Sydney would spawn narratives that “the US is racked by increasingly severe domestic upheaval and is an unreliable partner, quick to leave allies high and dry.”

The Guardian lamented that the US should worry about its crumbling credibility. Besides, the cancellation of the event in Sydney is a blow to the Australian hosts, in particular. It seems Australian officials had spent months extensively planning the huge logistical and security operation of a Biden visit to Sydney, and last October’s budget actually set aside A$23 million (US$15.25 million) for the costs of hosting the Quad summit. 

The bottom line is: Aren’t these one too many summits? To what purpose, really? To contain China? The G7 itself has become a relic of the past. In fact, what we are witnessing could be the last rites of the old order, as Donald Trump’s theater looms across the Pacific. Also, putting on a show of common endeavor at the G7 is becoming increasingly difficult. There was an end-of-epoch feel to the G7 Summit this year.

Again, take the third meeting of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC Summit), which Modi is co-chairing on Monday in Papua New Guinea. Modi launched this forum during his “historic visit” to Fiji in November 2014 when he hosted the first FIPIC Summit. The second FIPIC Summit followed within 10 months in Jaipur, India, in August 2015. Now, almost a decade later, FIPIC is coming back to life after a deep slumber. 

Yet statistics show that India’s trade with all those 14 PIC countries combined – the Cook Islands, Fiji, the Republic of Kiribati, the Republic of Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Niue, the Republic of Nauru, the Republic of Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu – is hovering around US$250 million.

Simply put, while Chinese diplomacy is proactive in the strategically important Western Pacific, the US seems to be encouraging India to mark the lamp-posts there. But from an Indian perspective, this is classic imperial overstretch, and is highly avoidable. This is what Pakistan used to do, copying Indian diplomacy anywhere and everywhere to “catch up” – until it got exhausted and gave up. 

Biden’s original intention was to hop over to Papua New Guinea with a specific agenda – the signing of a maritime security pact and a defense pact with Papua New Guinea that would give American troops access to the Pacific nation’s ports and airports.

Biden’s trip to the Pacific Islands was expected to be a power play in Washington’s face-off with China. For Biden personally, it would also have been a sentimental journey, as his uncle died in Papua New Guinea in the Second World War.

Papua New Guinea’s Lombrum Naval Base is of strategic interest to the US. Image: Facebook

But India carries no remains of the day in the Western Pacific. Isn’t its hands full as it is, with the complex issues of Indian Ocean maritime security, which it is barely able to cope with?

Look at Biden. He coolly decided that with a challenging re-election bid ahead in 2024, the domestic debt ceiling crisis talks in DC ought to be his top priority, and instructed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to stand in for him at the summit with Pacific leaders in Port Moresby on Monday.

Indian diplomacy has something to learn here about the art of prioritizing objectives instead of indulging in shadow boxing and exhausting itself.  

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @BhadraPunchline.