Beyond Biden-Modi Summit
It is a measure of India’s rising profile that it is earning global respect as a nation that is committed to play its global role as it considers the whole world, thanks to its civilisational value, as its family. And while doing so, India has also made it clear that it considers each global issue on its merits and takes a stand on it, not under any country’s pressure but as the reflection of its “strategic autonomy” and national interests.
This theme has been conveyed to all the visiting dignitaries to India over the last few days – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Nepal’s Premier Sher Bahadur Deuba, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Chinese Foeign Minister Wang Yi, Greek Foreign Minister Nicos Dendias, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Casaubon, German National Security Adviser Jens Plotner, National Security Advisor of the Netherlands Geoffrey Van Leeuwen and US Deputy National Security Adviser for International economics Daleep Singh, among others.
Above all, the same theme of playing its global role on the basis of its own strategic autonomy and national interests has been strongly conveyed to the United States, the sole superpower of the world. And it seems the US has appreciated the Indian position. In fact, the virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden on April 11, ahead of the 2+2 dialogue among the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries (Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III from the US and Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar from India) at Washington has brought India and the US closer, notwithstanding their differences over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Of course, it is a known fact that the US would be happier if India takes a stand on Russia identical to that of America and stops economic and military interactions with Moscow. The US would love India going with the sanctions that it has imposed on Russia. But Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar have conveyed India’s difficulties on this to the US.
All told, as a vibrant democracy like the US, India has some reservations the way things have affected Russia and Ukraine. Many Indians understand Russia’s concern over its security, with its neighbours being allowed to join NATO, contrary to the understanding that Washington had with Moscow before the dissolution of the then Soviet Union in 1991.
Secondly, many Indians are increasingly worried if domestic laws of the countries, howsoever powerful they may be, should be enforced by asking other countries to follow. China has domestic laws claiming its total sovereignty over the South China Sea, something totally untenable under international law. Likewise, many thinking Indians will not like the US to force others to follow the economic sanctions it has imposed on Russia. The US wants India to stop importing oil from India. But then , as External Affairs Minister Jaishankar said at a news conference soon after the conclusion of the 2 plus 2 meeting , “ the focus should be on Europe, not India, whose total purchases (of crude) for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon”. It is really absurd that despite American sanctions, its NATO allies can buy crude from Russia, but not India!
Thirdly, India’s national interests do not allow any linkage between its policies towards the US and Russia. All told, it is Russia which gives sophisticated weapons and platforms to India even before their incorporation into its own military. It is Russia that gives nuclear-submarines on lease to India. One does not need to overemphasise the importance for India of frontline weapons systems such as S- 400 missile shields, Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter planes, T-90 tanks, the nuclear-powered Akula-II-class SSNs and assistance to sensitive indigenous projects like the nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing Arihant-class submarine.
All this is not to suggest that the relationship between New Delhi and Washington is less important than the Indo-US relationship. Far from it. The US now is a major arms supplier. It has concluded various deals worth nearly US $20 billion over the last one decade. Besides, India is now a country with which the United States conducts the largest number of peace-time military exercises bilaterally every year (nearly 70).
I have often argued that though Indo-US relations overall have seen more downs than ups, downs now will not descend to a level of horrific low that marked the ties in between 1960s and early 1990s. And that, in turn, is due to the ascendancy of the Indian- Americans both in number and profile in the United States. Indian- Americans have been continuously outpacing every ethnic group socioeconomically to reach the summit of the US Census charts. They have attained the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups in the US and now occupy very important positions in US politics and business. One Indian –American now is the US Vice President. The Biden Administration is full of Indian-American officials.
India and the United States have everything to gain as close partners, if not allies, given their shared ideals of democracy, pluralistic ways of life, equality and justice. If India is the largest democracy, then America is the most powerful and arguably the oldest. They need to see things in a more comprehensive manner as “global Partners” in general and particularly so in the most important geopolitical as well as geoeconomic Indo-Pacific region through QUAD and other arrangements that they have created in recent years along with partners like Japan and Australia.
It is heartening indeed that as “natural and trusted partners”, the two countries have just agreed to strengthen their ever expanding broader cooperation “with a shared commitment to democracy and pluralism, a multifaceted bilateral agenda, and growing convergence of strategic interests”. Both have agreed to “seek to continue to promote a resilient, rules-based international order that safeguards sovereignty and territorial integrity, upholds democratic values, and promotes peace and prosperity for all.”
It is in fitness of things that Modi-Biden summit, as the White House statement said, turned out as ‘a warm and candid conversation’ lasting an hour in which the two leaders talked of ‘shared values and commitments’ and went on to cover a wide range of subjects that included China’s expansionism, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, India’s energy and defence needs, and humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged Ukraine.
And at the two plus two meet among the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers (secretaries in the US parlance), discussions converged broadly on three points:
One, India and the US agreed to strategize on mitigating the volatility and unpredictability that the world is currently experiencing. That will be naturally reflected in their policies. In the days to come. Two, the talks “encouraged” the two countries to think together on long term challenges, especially in the Indo-Pacific. And three, the deliberations “energized” the two nations in their “collaborative endeavours to build, what is emerging as a key bilateral relationship of our times”.
These are not small achievements as both India and the US are celebrating their 75 years of diplomatic relations.