India and US receive a reality check as they intensify talks in Washington: agree to disagree on Ukraine, announce agreements on other fronts.
This week saw high-level, intense meetings between India and the United States- as PM Modi and US President Biden announced a surprise virtual summit to take place just before talks between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and their American counterparts US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Gen (Retd) Lloyd Austin. While Austin and Blinken have visited Delhi in the past year, this is the first 2+2 Ministerial held since the Biden administration took over, and the fourth such meeting ever. At present India holds a 2+2 with only 4 countries: the US, Australia, Japan, and Russia, which are seen as a productive way to discuss Diplomatic, Military and Strategic issues altogether. And the 4 meetings they held yielded some agreements, although the talks focused for a considerable part, according to both sides, on the situation in Ukraine.
Let’s just take the issues one by one and see what happened-
I. On Ukraine
1. India’s refusal to criticise Russia, or vote on UN resolutions criticising Russia
2. India’s decision to increase its import of Russian oil
3. India’s refusal to join US and EU sanctions, and to negotiate a payment mechanism to work around the sanctions through Rupee-Rouble payments
So if U.S. President Biden called India “somewhat shaky” amongst Quad members on Russia, US State Department Official Wendy Sherman said the US would like India to “move away from its partnership with Russia, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she was “deeply disappointed” by the decision on buying oil, Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh came to India and suggested there would “consequences” to India’s sanctions subversion, Director of the White House National Economic Council, Brian Deese said that Singh told India that the consequences of a “more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow would be “significant and long-term”.
Compared to that barrage- the conversations this week were tame, and it seemed clear from some of the comments made, that while Russia remains a major point of divergence between India and the US, the two sides agreed to disagree, and not vent their differences in public.
India was also able to ensure, as it did in joint statements with Japan and Australia recently, that no criticism of Russia was recorded in the India-U.S. joint statement.
Where they did agree, was:
1. That India would make its own decision on the issue, although the US would prefer a different position
2. That the situation in Ukraine is “deeply concerning”, urged an immediate cessation of hostilities, condemned civilian deaths and underscored the need to respect the UN Charter, international law, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.
3. Both discussed cooperating on mitigating the impact of the Ukraine situation like boosting world food stocks- wheat and sugar, and working to reduce energy prices, although they did not announce any agreement on that
II. Indo-Pacific, Quad and China
1. The big meeting on the Indo-Pacific – where PM Modi will meet with President Biden in person along with PMs of Australia and Japan – has been set for May 24
2. PM Modi and President Biden discussed a new India Pacific Economic Framework Initiative- collaboration would include digital trade, supply chain resilience and
3. Like with Russia, the Joint Statement did not refer directly to China either, but there was a very strong statement from Gen Austin
4. They also announced that India would join the Bahrain-based multilateral partnership, Combined Maritime Force (CMF), as an associate partner
III. Military cooperation
1. In addition to an MoU on Space Situational Awareness Agreement, the two sides have also launched a Cyberspace dialogue this year
2. The Ministers spoke about doing more military exercises- including bilateral the tri-service TIGER TRIUMPH exercise, YUDH ABHYAS and VAJRA PRAHAR Army exercises, bilateral COPE India air exercise, and multilateral exercises like MALABAR and MILAN, RED FLAG.
3. The 2+2 also committed to cooperation on co-production, co-development, cooperative testing of advanced systems, investment promotion, and the development of Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities in India. This is important as India has often linked its defence dependency on Russia to the transfer of technology and co-production opportunities
4. Finally, they agreed to explore possibilities of utilizing Indian shipyards to support mid-voyage repair of U.S. Naval ships- this would be a new step forward.
5. If there was some disappointment- it was over the lack of movement on a $3 billion deal for Predator Armed Drones, for which the US has approved a sale, but the Ministry of Defence is still considering the purchase. At present India imports about $20 billion worth of military hardware from the US, and Mr. Singh said he hoped US companies would indigenise production here, under the Make in India programme.
6. In addition, the US has not yet announced a waiver for India on CAATSA sanctions over India’s purchase of the S-400 weapons systems from Russia but said there was no determination on this yet.
IV. Bilateral people to people ties
1. Both Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Blinken addressed students at Howard University, spoke of shared values and bonds strengthened by about 200,000 Indian students in the U.S.
2. They set up a Working Group on Education and Skill Training, which will bring academic institutions in the United States and India together to develop new joint research programs.
3. With post-Covid travel restarted, a massive backlog of visa applications remains a big issue, and this was discussed Significantly not much was said about trade, which is ranged at $150 billion, as these are being discussed between Commerce Minister Goyal, and Trade Representative Katherine Tai
V. Human Rights
1. This perhaps was an area the meeting went off-script, as US Secretary of State Blinken said at the joint press conference that there were concerns about India’s record.
2. Later, Mr. Blinken released a State Department 2021 Human Rights reports, that included a chapter on India listing a number of allegations against the government and police forces
3. The next day, Mr. Jaishankar said that Human Rights had not been discussed at the 2+2, and that India too had concerns about Human Rights in the US, like the attacks on 2 Sikhs in New York over the weekend. What was clear is that despite the talk of “shared values”, this is another area of dissonance between India and the US.
The 2+2 meetings were not big on announcements, but sent a reassuring message on strength of the India-US partnership, and its ability to focus on bilateral ties, even amidst a major geopolitical challenge where the two countries are not on the same page.
- America and the Indo-Pacific: Trump and Beyond, by Harsh Pant and Kashish Parpiani is one of the new books focussing on India and the Quad
- The Future of US India Security Cooperation – a collection of essays by by Šumit Ganguly and M. Chris Mason that came out last year
- Towards a Mature Defense Partnership: brought out at the Stimson Center by Sameer Lalwani, Elizabeth Threlkeld, Chris Clary and Zoe Jordan
- Open Embrace: India US ties in a divided world by colleague Varghese K. George is the updated version from the Trump era
- An Open World – How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty–First–Century by Rebecca Lissner and Mira-Rapp-Hooper, speaks of how the US needs to reach out, be more present in the post-Covid world
- The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World by William Burns- this is a favourite memoir, given all the anecdotes, written by a former diplomat who is now CIA chief
- The Great Tech Game: shaping Geopolitics and the Destiny of Nations by Anirudh Suri
- Move: How Mass Migration will reshape the world- And what it means for you by Parag Khanna