Good morning! The Narendra Modi administration has been quite hard-nosed about India’s evolving doctrine of strategic autonomy. So far it has successfully, even combatively, pursued it. But new challenges are emerging that may nudge it towards a camp. How it balances its interests will be a test for its diplomatic acumen. Also in today's edition: We've handpicked some long reads for your reading pleasure.
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The Group of Seven or G7 countries have reiterated their commitment to keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open. The Leaders’ Communiqué at the end of the G7 summit in Hiroshima—the first and only one of two locations in the world to which the horrors of a nuclear bomb is not an imagined scenario—pledged to support an Indo-Pacific that is “inclusive, prosperous, secure, based on the rule of law, and that protects shared principles including sovereignty, territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes, and fundamental freedoms and human rights”.
Leaders of the Quad also met on the sidelines of the G7 meeting and vowed to work to keep the region “free from coercion”. Although it was only an abridged 50-minute version of the planned meeting of the grouping in Australia that got derailed due to the US debt ceiling crisis, the joint communique and vision statement barely concealed the target: China.
The US views the Quad as an alliance that can contain Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, but India may not feel the same way.
More than a year after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Australia meeting was to be the first, top-level opportunity to take stock of how cohesive the Quad is—a framework that is still evolving—as the previous leaders' summit only happened some three months after the start of the war.
The war has been a dramatic event that has compelled many countries to pick a side. In this way, it has been helpful to get a sense of the geopolitical worldview and priorities of each country.
While the Quad was born as a non-traditional security minilateral framework—a more informal initiative than its multilateral counterpart—the rise of China has transformed the group into an alliance that can contain Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, at least from the point of view of the US.
Australia, the US, and Japan have stood in strategic lockstep over Russia, condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin and slapping heavy trade sanctions on his country.
However India has remained a wildcard, and its ambiguous messaging could present the US with its biggest challenge when it comes to the grouping.
In this regard, India is a weak link in the Quad, and its participation in the group was recently described by many observers as precarious.
During the last year, India has stood out for its strategic autonomy regarding relations with Russia, especially about issues such as gas imports from Moscow. That is about to be tested now but more about it later.
Although India worries about friction with China along a contested border, and an ever more powerful Chinese navy, New Delhi sees Beijing as a partner from an emerging economy viewpoint—as could be seen at COP26—while it does not desire to escalate tensions with a stronger military and economic power.
As an India-based pundit recently noted: "It is relatively easy to establish coalitions to work on non-traditional security issues but nurturing a group to focus on security issues as the core is not easy, especially for countries like India."
Yet, they also argued, at the recent ministerial-level meeting of the Quad India's stance appeared more critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Political cohesion is fundamental to the Quad—especially about China—because this has an impact on the underlying rationale of this framework.
The Quad is one of several US-led minilateral and multilateral initiatives—others include Build Back Better World, AUKUS, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the enlargement of NATO towards Asia — that the Biden administration has pursued with the aim of "updating" alliances in an evolving environment.
Biden's national security strategy and approach to the Indo-Pacific contrast with previous administrations in explicitly acknowledging that successful competition with China "cannot be accomplished alone" and "require[s] unprecedented cooperation with those who share in this vision".
All this is part of a US effort at creating a liberal international order (LIO) 2.0. That is a "more exclusive club than the LIO" with a "stricter layer of rules" to prevent China from eroding US power and influence.
This is why ensuring a commitment from all members of the alliance on traditional security issues such as defence, as opposed to only non-traditional security issues—for example, supply chains and climate change—is critical.
In the late 2000s, the Quad had a setback because of Australia's strong economic relationship with China. But commercial tensions in recent years between Canberra and Beijing have pushed the former closer to Washington.
Similarly, the war in Ukraine has increased Japan's already existing concerns about China's assertiveness in East Asia.
Towards the end of the last decade India's stance about US-China competition was more ambiguous, but since the conflict with China in 2020 New Delhi has taken steps to consolidate its partnership with the US.
There's also been the recent revival of BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—and proposals for expanding the grouping. Coupled with the emergence, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of middle powers that position themselves in a sort of non-aligned camp, offer India more options if it wants to maintain its strategic autonomy.
That pursuit will, however, be put to the test now. Moscow has begun pressuring friendly countries, particularly India, to help it fight off possible grey or blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). FATF, an intergovernmental body which fights dirty money, already suspended Russia in February but Ukraine is now pushing to get it blacklisted, bracketing it with Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar.
It is not known, but it is possible that when he gatecrashed the Hiroshima G7 meet in a well-choreographed “surprise” move, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy lobbied Prime Minister Narendra Modi for support in the matter.
Russia has threatened to cut off military, energy, and logistical cooperation with India if it doesn’t help ward off an FATF action. The threat risks, among others, the Rosneft-Nayara deal, military hardware and technology, support for the Kudankulam nuclear plant, and projects in aviation and the railways. India withstood western pressure to stop buying cheap Russian oil, which helped it save $5 billion in 2022. Ignoring the threat of sanctions, it also bought the S-400 missile defence system.
While in the past year, India has proven it can stand up to the White House to preserve its interests, playing hardball with the Kremlin is a different diplomatic game altogether.
Dr Zeno Leoni is a lecturer in 'Challenges to the International Order' at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London, based within the Joint Services and Staff College of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He is also an affiliate of the Lau China Institute of King's College London. Dr Leoni is the author of the book Grand Strategy and the Rise of China: Made in America, published in April 2023.
A single grain of rice can tip the scale: So goes the dialogue from the Disney classic Mulan. A seemingly simple decision—giving malnutritioned children fortified rice—has become the epicentre of alleged government corruption and undue influence of multinational firms.
Last year, India began distributing mineral-fortified rice via the public distribution system (PDS) that feeds over 800 million people here. But a three-part investigation by The Reporters’ Collective found damning policy gaps. First, many of the planned pilots to study the impact of iron-fortified rice on children’s health were never conducted. Second, NITI Aayog wrote a report mapping out significant problems in these pilots, including missing quality checks and poor scientific evaluation of the fortified rice itself. This report was never made public. Finally, the investigation found that six NGOs influenced the government’s decision to distribute iron-fortified rice; all of them are linked to a Dutch firm Royal DSM, a leading fortified rice premix supplier. These NGOs were part of a body within India’s food regulator FSSAI, whose manual on fortification plagiarised entire sections of a policy document written by Royal DSM-linked lobbyists. Doctors have warned that iron-fortified rice does not solve malnutrition in the long term and may be linked to higher diabetes risk. Yet, this rice is doled out daily in midday meal schemes and at PDS ration shops across the country.
Getting into a pickle: You’ve heard of pickleball, right? In August last year, we had written about the new game, which is a mix of tennis, table tennis, and badminton, and its state of affairs in India. In the United States, there has been a mad dash over the last year or so by billionaires and celebrities to buy a pro pickleball team. From entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban and Gary Vaynerchuk, athletes like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, and entertainers like Eva Longoria and Kate Upton, everyone’s buying a Major League Pickleball team. Why? Because doing so requires a much lower capital investment compared with other sports. And America is likely to have 40 million people playing pickleball by 2030, which is almost 2x what tennis is expected to have. Read all about why US entrepreneurs are getting into a pickle in this story by The Information.
A bite of history: Former FBI agent Dave Benscoter is a man on a mission— albeit it’s different from the usual investigation. This time, Benscoter is on the lookout for forgotten apple varieties in the US for the Lost Apple Project. The ‘apple detective’ visits abandoned farms and orchards in Eastern Washington, Idaho, and beyond to find varieties that were assumed extinct until about a century ago. Since 2014, Benscoter has rediscovered 29 apple varieties. Today, he also relies on DNA testing to confirm their origins. This delightful story in The Outside profiles the devoted apple hunter, who is well-versed in the business of identifying not-so-rotten fruit that slipped through the cracks.
The Booming opportunity: Boomers are a booming cohort indeed. Except, the suits in the entertainment industry are yet to take notice of the opportunity on offer. Consider this: as this interesting Esquire story details, people aged 50+ comprise nearly 36% of the US population, have more disposable income ($8.3 billion annual spend now), and are therefore best placed to subscribe to streaming services. Yet, this demographic has continued to be a blindspot for Hollywood and streaming executives. As this story puts it, this underlines “systemic ageism that continues to prevail in entertainment culture, particularly for women, who also face sexism.” But that might be slowly changing, courtesy titles such as Grace & Frankie, the hit Netflix show starring Jane Fonda, and other projects that touch on topics those aged 50+ would identify with.
The second coming of Windows: Why would new businesses and new people ever sign up for Microsoft products? For years, this question had no clear answer, even as CEO Satya Nadella moved the company away from its “Windows-centricity” and towards enterprise offerings such as Azure and Teams. But then came AI. And the answer has never been clearer. In his latest post, Stratechery’s Ben Thompson explains why AI is the lynchpin in Microsoft’s vision of integrating business software, and why Google is the only real competitor in this context. As he puts it, Windows has become interesting again despite it being “now a canvas for AI, [and] not the director of the show”. Side note: Apple should be very afraid.
Golden glow: All that is shining now is gold. Other assets have been sufficiently dulled by multiple factors, including politics, war, disease, fraud and plain old inflation. Prices of gold have risen more than 20% in the past six months. It's not only ordinary investors but also institutions, including central banks, that are stocking up the metal. The rush to gold shows that throughout the tumultuous history of the world, no asset has maintained the kind of abiding faith as gold and it is not going to change anytime soon. When banks collapse around you and new-fangled cryptocurrencies are undermined by their own champions, it's the yellow glow of gold that lends comfort as a store of value across geographies and cultures. This story in the Financial Times explains what gold investors are thinking. It also says climate change could begin hurting gold production.