The Russian invasion of Ukraine has complicated the growing warmth in India-US relations, but not enough to torpedo the partnership. Both India and US have more to gain by working together rather than being on opposite sides as in the Cold War era.
So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden sat down for a bilateral meeting after the Quad Summit in Tokyo, both leaders were aware of the red lines. The talks focussed on the positives that both sides bring to the table.
Harsh Pant of the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation says, “India and the US are entering a new mature phase in the relationship. There are areas of disagreements and these are out in the open. But this will not be the central focus in ties. Instead the emphasis will be on broad strategic aims of both countries that converge.”
America’s usual style of diplomacy for friends and allies is often black and white – the George Bush style of “you are with us or against us”. But with China now regarded as a major challenger to American power, combined with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s China flexing its muscles across Asian waterways and land borders, the strategic interests of India and the US coincide as Pant has mentioned.
Keeping larger interests of keeping China in check and providing an alternative financial and development narrative to countries in the Indo-Pacific region is more important than echoing each other on Ukraine.
This is why the Biden administration has been somewhat “soft” on India’s stand on Russia. It had tried its best to put pressure on India directly and through its allies to get New Delhi to call out Russia as the aggressor in Ukraine. India has cleverly played both sides – opting to stay neutral at the United Nations Security Council every time a resolution condemning Russia is tabled and at the same time sending out humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine.
The US is also pleased to have India sign on to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which is the Biden administration’s counter to Chinese economic clout in the Asia-Pacific.
“Prime Minister welcomed the launch of Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and stated that India is ready to work closely with all partner countries to shape a flexible, and inclusive IPEF taking into consideration the respective national circumstances,” said India in a statement after talks between Modi and Biden.
Having failed to brow-beat India on either condemning Moscow or buying oil at lower rates from Russia, Washington has continued to do business with India. The US wants to help India grow and be a counter-weight to China in Asia, much as it once helped China to counter the Soviet Union.
Biden would much rather have India on its side so long as China continues to pose a threat to the US. The US Congress has not yet placed sanctions on New Delhi for buying the Russian S-400 missile shield. Turkey was slapped with sanction for its purchase. Sanctions continue to hang like the Damocles’ Sword over India, but as of now neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are keen to use sanctions against the Modi government.
The White House readout of Biden’s meeting with Modi said, “President Biden condemned Russia’s unjustifiable war against Ukraine. The leaders’ committed to continue providing humanitarian assistance, and discussed how to co-operate to manage disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine, in particular the rise in energy and food prices, to protect their respective citizens and the world.’’
Ukraine also features in the readout issued after the Quad meeting between the four leaders of India, Japan, Australia, and the United States.
The Ukraine war and the steep rise in food prices that takes on India’s recent ban on wheat exports was part of the conversation between Modi and Biden but India’s statement after the talks with Biden made no mention of this.
The two leaders also discussed defence and security cooperation and how to further cooperate in that sector. Modi invited US defence companies to partner India in the Prime Minister’s Aatma Nirbhar Bharat initiative. Washington is hoping to wean India away from reliance on Russian arms and buy more from American and Western suppliers.
Both sides launched an India-US Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) to facilitate outcome-oriented cooperation in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 5G/6G, biotech, and semiconductors. India will benefit from this kind of cooperation with a technologically advanced country like the United States.