India, U.S. hold broad 2+2 discussions, with Ukraine looming over talks

India joins Bahrain-based multilateral partnership Combined Maritime Force as associate partner 

Updated - April 14, 2022 05:30 pm IST

Published - April 12, 2022 04:28 pm IST - WASHINGTON/New Delhi

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar speak during a news conference during the fourth U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue at the State Department, in Washington, DC.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar speak during a news conference during the fourth U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue at the State Department, in Washington, DC. | Photo Credit: PTI

India and the U.S. discussed a broad range of issues — from the COVID-19 response, supply chains and climate action to global and regional issues, but Russia’s war on Ukraine and its ramifications for the world, appeared to have been the major theme for the day.

On the defence side, the countries announced several measures at enhancing cooperation, including India joining the Bahrain-based multilateral partnership, Combined Maritime Force (CMF), as an associate partner.

“Obviously, a good part of my meeting with Secretary Blinken [U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken] in the morning went to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine that has many ramifications,” External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said at the joint press conference of Defence and Foreign Ministers at the State Department on Monday afternoon.

The Ministers “reviewed mutual efforts to respond to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Ukraine”, a joint statement that was issued after the meeting said. Without calling out Russia by name, the Ministers, in their statement, “urged an immediate cessation of hostilities”, “unequivocally condemned civilian deaths” and “underscored that the contemporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, respect for international law, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states”.

At the press conference, Mr. Blinken said it was important that all countries, “especially those with leverage, to press [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to end the war”. He called on democracies to “stand together” and speak “with one voice” to defend their shared values. Mr. Blinken said these values “need to apply everywhere “— a suggestion that they did not only apply to the Indo-Pacific, where India has faced an aggressive China on its borders, but to the Russia-Ukraine situation.

‘Will strengthen capabilities’

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told the press that he was happy India had joined “the maritime force in Bahrain” ( presumably a reference to the CMF) and that it would strengthen capabilities in the western region. The CMF is not bound by a fixed political or military mandate and exists to “uphold the rules-based international order” by countering illicit non-state actors on the high seas.

Both Foreign Ministers found themselves explaining the India-Russia relationship at various points during the interaction.

Mr. Jaishankar appeared irked at questions about India’s stance on Russia — twice thanking reporters sarcastically for “advice” they gave him as part of their questions.

On India’s purchases of Russian energy, Mr. Jaishankar said, “Looking at the figures, probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon. So you might want to think about that.”

He also said the U.S. and India discussed ways of mitigating the negative impact of the Ukraine situation on food and energy supplies — a topic that had also been discussed during the virtual meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday morning. Mr. Jaishankar said India had already started helping to supply quantities of wheat and sugar as well to help with global shortages.

“A long relationship”

Mr. Blinken repeatedly stressed that India and Russia have had “a long history” and “a long relationship” at a time when the U.S. was not able to partner with India, but that the U.S. “was both willing and able” now and this was an area of discussion today.

On Ukraine, the Secretary said India had made “very strong statements” condemning the killing of civilians in Ukraine, at the U.N., and Mr. Jaishankar, in Parliament, had done the same.

‘Human rights abuses’

Mr. Blinken also raised the issue of rising human rights abuses in India. The U.S. State Department is set to release its annual Human Rights Report on Tuesday.

India and the U.S. shared a commitment to democratic values, Mr. Blinken said, including the protection of human rights. However, the U.S. was concerned about rising human rights abuses in India.

“We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values. And to that end, we’re monitoring some recent concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials,” he said.

Cooperation in ‘war-fighting domains’

On Monday, India and the U.S. also signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Space Situational Awareness — to further cooperation in outer-space. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the two sides had discussed deepening cooperation not just in outer space but also cyberspace, in order to develop capabilities in both “war-fighting domains.”

In line with the government’s push to reduce defence imports and develop domestic defence manufacturing, Mr. Singh said he shared India’s desire to take the partnership towards co-development and co-production with U.S. companies.

The U.S. has been pushing India to reduce arms purchases from Russia and has offered U.S. arms to meet India’s defence needs. Acknowledging India’s focus on developing its domestic capabilities , the joint statement said the “Ministers committed to work closely across their respective governments on co-production, co-development, cooperative testing of advanced systems, investment promotion, and the development of Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities in India”.

In addition, to further enhance defence industrial cooperation in the naval sector, both sides agreed to explore possibilities of utilising the Indian shipyards for repair and maintenance of ships of the U.S. Maritime Sealift Command to support mid-voyage repair of U.S. Naval ships, the joint statement added.

CAATSA sanctions

At Monday’s press conference, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. continued to urge countries to avoid major weapons purchases from Russia but had “not yet made a determination regarding potential sanctions or potential waivers” under the U.S. CAATSA (Countering Americas Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) law for New Delhi’s purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile defence system from Moscow.

Regional issues

During the press conference, Mr. Jaishankar brought up Afghanistan multiple times, saying the two sides discussed what the ramifications of the situation in Afghanistan (where the Taliban has taken over after a chaotic U.S. departure in August last year) for the neighbourhood. Mr. Blinken, however, did not directly mention Afghanistan.

The two sides discussed other countries in India’s neighbourhood — presumably, Sri Lanka, which is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades, and Pakistan, which, after intense political drama, has a new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, who replaced former Prime Minister Imran Khan, following a no-confidence vote in Parliament.

While the Indian Ministers did not mention China at the press conference, the U.S. Defence Secretary made a reference to the country.

“The People’s Republic of China is seeking to refashion the region and the international system more broadly in ways that serve its interests. And so I’m pleased that we’ve identified new opportunities to extend the operational reach of our militaries and to coordinate more closely together across the expanse of the Indo-Pacific,” he said. At his meeting with Mr. Rajnath Singh on Monday morning, Mr. Austin had said that China was constructing “dual-use infrastructure” along the border with India and the U.S. would “continue to stand alongside” India to defend its sovereign interest.

A correction has been made in this story on April 14, 2022
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