India-US relations is an Atlantic style relationship with strong Asian tones to it. Interestingly, China is shaping both U.S and Indian foreign policy.
The phenomenal economic growth of China and its muscular assertion has created security dilemmas for both. The strategic convergence between the two has grown steadily in the last two decades, however India and the U.S perceive each other differently in different geographies, largely in Afghanistan. India’s stance on Russia is like India giving America a taste of its own medicine. It is India asserting both its non-alignment and independence of foreign policy after a long time. The Indian refusal to toe the American line on Russian aggression towards Ukraine has not generated the kind of rebuttals seen usually in such instances or with some other countries. A deeper dive is indicative of the fact that the accommodation of Indian sensitivities whether its China, Russia or Kashmir has been an American norm. However, the Indian independence of view on Russia-Ukraine crisis is seen by some as the beginning of US-India cracks, others are of the opinion that the China-phobia will continue to cement, strengthen, and determine the direction of the relationship.
The India-US 2+2 dialogue is an annual affair launched in September 2018 where the foreign and defence counterparts meet. It was launched with the aim to deepen co-operation between the two countries. The 4th India-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue happened on April 11, 2022, in Washington. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar were there to attend the meeting. The Dialogue was preceded by a virtual meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joseph Biden. It built upon the September 2021 meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi, and their respective participation in summits related to COVID-19, climate, infrastructure and supply chain resilience, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership to international peace and security.
The fourth iteration of the 2+2 dialogue was the first meeting of the Ministerial Dialogue under the Biden administration. In the inaugural session of the 2+2 discussions, President Biden tried to dissuade Modi from continuing to purchase oil from Russia, but failed to get a commitment from him. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “What the President did … was to make clear what the impact of course of our sanctions would be. We expect everybody to abide by those”.
“India only imports about 1-2 percent of its energy from Russia. The President made clear that we would be happy to help them in diversifying this as well.” She, however, clarified that the relationship with India was “vitally important to the United States”, adding that she did not see the meeting “as an adversarial call”.
Unlike fellow members of the Quad group Australia, Japan, and the United States, India continues to purchase Russian oil and has refused to join votes condemning Moscow at the United Nations. Indian oil refiners have reportedly continued to purchase discounted Russian oil, even as the West seeks to isolate Moscow. Historically, New Delhi and Moscow have had close ties; India has called for an end to the violence in Ukraine, but has stopped short of condemning Russia’s invasion and has also abstained in three votes at the UN.
Addressing a meeting of U.S business leaders in Washington, Biden had said that “The Quad is with the possible exception of India being somewhat shaky in terms of dealing with Russia’s aggression.” One U.S official had also warned India that there would be consequences of a “more explicit strategic alignment” with Moscow and these would be “significant and long-term”.
India has stood its ground despite what appeared to be growing pressure from the U.S. Delhi continued to promote dialogue to end the war. It did not criticize Russia directly, but soft paddled the issue by emphasizing the need to respect the sovereignty of each nation; in some ways not condemning Russia but supporting its stance of NATO’s eastward expansion as provocation.
Pratyush Rao, Director for South Asia at Control Risks consultancy, said the visit came at a sensitive time for the relationship. “This was a visible reaffirmation at the highest levels by both sides to the bilateral relationship, amidst all the media speculation about deepening strains over the Ukraine conflict. The message was, yes, we do differ on Russia and will unlikely bridge the gap but won’t allow it to derail wider co-operation in the Indo-Pacific either,” he added.
It’s evident from the statements that came after the annual 2+2 dialogue that the U.S is willing to accommodate India’s position on Ukraine and carry on as usual. PM Modi and his ministers reaffirmed their stated policy of non-alignment on Ukraine, Biden and his ministers appeared more understanding of Delhi’s position, a marked shift from some earlier strong statements of Washington officials. Blinken said India “has to make its own decisions about how it approaches this challenge”.
This is not a first. Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is a hard-hitting U.S law that authorizes the administration to impose sanctions on countries that purchase major defence hardware from Russia in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S presidential elections. Under CAATSA, the U.S had already imposed sanctions on Turkey for the purchase of a batch of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. Following the U.S sanctions on Turkey over the procurement of S-400 missile systems, there were concerns that Washington may impose similar punitive measures on India. However, the U.S has not yet made any decision on potential sanctions or waivers to India under CATSAA law for its purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia.
The display of the U.S accommodation of the Indian stance is clearly indicative of the fact that the relationship is critically important to the United Sates, and it’s not just defined by China. The U.S regards India as a net security provider in the entire Asia Pacific.
No discussion on inter-state relations in today’s world can be given a closure without bringing in the economic dimension. Economic relations between India and the U.S have improved despite some initial irritants. In May 2021, India’s total trade with the United States was $9.18 billion; India ranked no. 10 among U.S. trade partners in 2021. Even as the pandemic has taken its toll on trade, the United States remains India’s biggest trading partner and largest export market.
India was also given the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status in 2018. The STA-1 status had previously been specifically reserved for signatories of the export control regimes and had not even been extended to close U.S ally Israel. This status makes India the only nuclear nation to possess it and signals New Delhi’s entry into the inner circle of America’s closest partners.
As a footnote, I can’t restrain myself from adding that the double standards are not just limited to accommodations on Russia and other trade concessions, United States’ convergence with India is also a huge compromise on what the U.S stands for in terms of human rights, be it Kashmir or minority rights. The U.S cannot point fingers at China and close its eyes at what is happening in India.
Interestingly, the cherry on the top in a sarcastic vein, is the joint statement issued by U.S and India at the end of the Fourth Annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue which has called upon Pakistan to take “immediate, sustained, and irreversible action” to ensure that no territory under its control was used for terrorist attacks.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, IBA Karachi