The visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to New Delhi this week was an eye-opener in many ways. It highlighted how much India has changed through the searing pain of the past year and how that tumultuous period led to a reset in the government’s calculus.
A rethink in foreign policies became inevitable. The body language of the joint press conference by Blinken and his Indian host External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday testifies to it.
The US-Indian relationship remains fundamentally strong insofar as it enjoys bipartisan support in both countries. But fault lines have appeared.
First and foremost, the Joe Biden administration’s neoconservative ideology obliges it to adopt intrusive policies on issues of democracy, human rights and rule of law, which grates on the Narendra Modi government’s sensitivities.
Paradoxically, some of the most pro-American sections of Indian opinion also happen to be the harshest critics of Prime Minister Modi’s government. Their alienation is so deep that they won’t even mind joining hands with the Indian left in berating the government.
Blinken’s move to hold a “civil society roundtable” discussion with a group of Indians conveyed a powerful message to the Modi government that things may not be as bad as in Belarus or Myanmar, but India is being perceived by the Biden administration more or less the same way as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey – an ally that is straying toward postmodern authoritarianism.
An AFP dispatch from Delhi reported that at the discussion, Blinken “issued a veiled warning … about Indian democracy backsliding.”
No amount of wordplay by Blinken could cover up the reality that he had no word of praise for the Modi government. Nor did Jaishankar appear particularly perturbed by that.
Estimating correctly that the Biden administration is unlikely to abandon easily the goals it has been pursuing, Jaishankar was in no mood to apologize, either.
And at one point, he interjected at the press conference to point out defiantly that “the quest for a more perfect union applies as much to the Indian democracy as it does to the American one.”
Jaishankar asserted that “it is the moral obligation of all polities to right wrongs when they have been done, including historically. And many of the decisions and policies you’ve seen in the last few years fall in that category.”
He held the ground that “freedoms are important, we value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance. They are two completely different things.” It is difficult to recall an Indian minister in modern times pushing back at the US publicly.
The press conference also highlighted the deep disillusionment in Delhi over the irresponsible manner in which the US cut loose and exited Afghanistan, leaving that country in shambles and jeopardizing regional security – and stability and billions of dollars’ worth of Indian investment in that country, both in financial support and technical assistance and engineering projects.
Jaishankar noted bitterly that outcomes are being decided on the battlefield in Afghanistan and alluded to continuing Pakistani interference. He didn’t take Blinken’s easy route to put the blame on the Taliban and instead underscored the “broad consensus, deep consensus” among most of the neighbors of Afghanistan that there should be a political settlement.
Certainly, Washington’s clumsy rearguard action to create another Quad (Quadrilateral Diplomatic Platform) comprising the US, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan with a view to remaining embedded in the region even after the humiliating defeat in the 20-year war would have come as a nasty surprise to Delhi and prompted it to slam the door shut on any form of bandwagoning with America in the Hindu Kush.
The dryness in Jaishankar’s tone had a tinge of contempt.
As regards the all-important Covid-19 vaccines, Blinken didn’t say a word about a TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) waiver, which was an Indian initiative.
Quite obviously, President Biden, who initially supported the initiative, has since quietly backtracked under pressure from the powerful pharmaceutical companies and their political lobby.
He is now accepting their argument that the real solution lies in quickly relieving the global Covid-19 vaccine imbalance by pushing a package of interventions, including limiting export restrictions, improving vaccine manufacturing in the Global South, and issuing voluntary licenses that would allow specific manufacturers to avoid intellectual property restrictions, but without instituting a universal waiver.
So, at the end of the day, Blinken made a grand announcement that the US will supply 25 million doses of vaccine to India. From past experience, India is unsure whether even this paltry donation isn’t another empty promise. Jaishankar didn’t react.
Blinken also avoided making any assurances to give India full access to the raw materials for vaccine production. Did he make any trade concessions to ease India’s post-pandemic economic recovery? Will the US help India avoid another apocalyptic scenario when the third wave of the epidemic arrives? Did he promise to invest in India to create jobs? Did he have any advice for how the Indian Army can resume patrolling on the Depsang Plains? No, none of that.
Blinken’s real mission was without doubt to stop India from drifting away from the US-led anti-China coalition. The Biden administration is worried that without India, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with the US, Japan and Australia would unravel and the containment strategy against China wouldn’t gain traction in Asia.
Thus, in the typical American way to hustle difficult partners, Blinken began with a bang by meeting with Tibetan representatives – the first meeting of its kind in India or in a third country by US officials – which was a calculated move to create misleading optics that would further complicate India-China tensions.
This is no way to treat a hospitable friend – undercutting his standing while enjoying his hospitality at his home. It only shows how testy the Biden administration is nowadays when it comes to China.
But Blinken underestimated the fault lines in the US-Indian relationship and the widening chasm between the two countries over the range of issues concerning Afghanistan, vaccine distribution and human rights issues. This was a rare India-US high-level exchange where there was hardly any rhetoric directed against China.
Having said that, the strong likelihood is that India may take part in the face-to-face meet to discuss the Quad, which President Biden plans to convene. That will be a defining moment, as the US intention is to create a regional mechanism strategically to contain and exert pressure on China – simply put, to institutionalize the Quad, where all four countries have their own reasons to address the perceived pressures and challenges posed by China’s rise.
The Quad’s record so far is dismal, be it on Covid vaccines, supply chains on rare earths or as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet the way forward in US-China relations is expected to be rocky, and the Biden administration hopes to suppress China.
Indeed, the strategic contradictions are self-evident insofar as all the Quad countries, including the US, also have need for bilateral economic cooperation and even regional cooperation with China. When the top dog in the Quad slyly keeps the door open for such cooperation, the choice for the three subalterns couldn’t be clearer.
India needs to continue to walk the fine line both to avoid collateral damage from the Biden administration’s zigzagging policies on China and to keep its own autonomy to negotiate with China bilaterally. Biden is a highly experienced politician and if he gets to realize the futility of trying to suppress China, a pattern of co-existence may well emerge.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.