In the shadow of war: On Modi-Biden virtual summit

Modi and Biden must work to ensure that there is no further erosion of the rules-based international order

Updated - April 13, 2022 10:05 am IST

Published - April 13, 2022 12:10 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden have held a virtual summit meeting before kicking off the India and the U.S. ‘2+2’ meetings, discussions covering foreign and defence policies, respectively, in the bilateral space. On the one hand these high-level discussions represent continuity in the upward trajectory of India-U.S. cooperation across a deep spectrum of bilateral cooperative engagement; yet on the other they underscore the importance of the world’s largest and oldest democracies re-engaging in consultations at a time when the war in Ukraine has cast a cloud of uncertainty across the world stage. Although there are marked differences between their strategic positions since Russia’s invasion, the summit meeting served as an opportunity to emphasise areas where they shared a similar view, most notably in their condemnation of violence against civilians in Ukrainian cities. However, there was a large policy agenda to catch up on following the intervening vicissitudes of the COVID-19 pandemic — including global challenges relating to public health, space and technology cooperation, territorial, maritime, and cyber security, and the climate crisis. Beyond these specific sectors, where India-U.S. cooperation has a potential to improve the lives of millions, one of the highest priorities was to ensure that there is no further erosion of the rules-based international order as it applies to the Indo-Pacific.

Yet, whether in relation to the Indo-Pacific or bilateral defence and energy cooperation, Mr. Modi and Mr. Biden must have found it hard, if not impossible, to avoid the subject of Russia. Moscow remains New Delhi’s largest supplier for defence imports, and the unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. for trade with Russian entities could impact India’s procurement plans unless there is an unambiguous waiver granted for the same. Nowhere does this apply more prominently than in the case of India’s $5.5 billion purchase of the S-400 anti-missile system from Russia, a move that falls under the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Also, the Modi government appeared prickly regarding its oil imports from Russia too, with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar implying at a post-meeting press event that Washington’s attention in this regard ought to focus on European imports of Russian energy first, which dwarfed India’s. As human rights violations and apparent war crimes mount in the Ukraine war, India, which seeks recognition as a principled voice and responsible power on the global stage, may have to tread a fine line regarding its strategic backing of Russia. However, the U.S. position on India is no less delicate, as it relies on close ties and a strong record of bilateral cooperation with New Delhi to balance China’s aspiration to be and act as a regional hegemon.

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