Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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India, US know they need each other – after Russia war, China will be back front and centre

US Deputy NSA Daleep Singh warned India of ‘consequences’ because of its growing energy imports from Russia. But when the war is over, China will still need tackling.

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For the last eight months, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has been struggling to get himself confirmed in the US Congress so that he can wing his way as America’s new ambassador to India. The complicated US process means that Roosevelt House in Delhi has been headless not just when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken showed up six months ago, but also when US deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh last week made his unfortunate remarks about India’s growing relations with Russia—there will be “consequences,” he said—despite its invasion of Ukraine.

Now it seems as if Garcetti may never show up – the US Senate is charged up by the fact that sexual harassment allegations against a Garcetti staffer were made when he was mayor of LA. (Garcetti claims he had no clue.) And while this may mean that Joe Biden will now need to start looking for another envoy to India, the lack of an effective American in Delhi at an important time like this is certainly coming in the way of a less-crumpled relationship.

Perhaps if there was a serving US ambassador in Delhi, he would have warned Singh that Indians don’t take kindly to verbal coercion. Certainly, Singh would have talked to his Indian interlocutors privately about American unhappiness over the possibility of India and Russia recreating the rouble-rupee mechanism to settle dues, as an alternative to dollar payments.

They would have exchanged notes. India would have responded by asking why Europe was being given a free pass for continuing to buy oil and gas from Russia – and spending $1 billion every day – but it was being censured for buying discounted oil from Moscow.

That’s the stuff of diplomatese. India has an able ambassador in Washington DC whose job it is to smoothen the way, but because DC has been unable to repay the compliment, the gaffes escape.

Also read: Lesson for India in a divided world: How to not let old friendships come in the way of new ones

US vs Russia

Why else is America unable to understand that India is determined to pursue the middle path – an ‘atmanirbhar foreign policy’ or Non-Alignment 3.O, call it what you will – that does not lean right or left, but pursues its own national interest? That India will hold its nose at Vladimir Putin’s soldiers making a mess of the Ukraine war and cite the mantra of Russia violating the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty, but continue to abstain on all resolutions roundly condemning Putin’s actions, at the UN Security Council, the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council.

At last count, there have been nine resolutions against Russia at various international fora – India has abstained on all of them.

In contrast, China has voted alongside Russia on five out of nine resolutions.

So when External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh travel to Washington DC for the 2+2 foreign and defence ministers’ dialogue on 11 April, several notes will no doubt be exchanged.

The Americans will make proposals on how to reduce Indian dependence on Russian weaponry buy more from the US, no doubt; how not to buy Russian oil, although oil from Venezuela, which has been under US sanctions since 2019, is expected to flow as early as late April to US refineries.

Jaishankar is expected to smoothly deflect the criticism. As a former professional diplomat and now minister, he knows America well; he has served there, he understands the language of the American politician and diplomat.

Here’s an aside. When America stopped buying oil from Venezuela, India was also forced to cut off, as it did not want to be exposed to US sanctions – it had learnt well from the Iran example in 2012. The Venezuelans pleaded and begged, saying India could pay it back in the cryptocurrency, which would evade normal transactions, but Delhi refused to bite.

Back to the current crisis. The fact remains that India does not want its ties with the US affected simply because it is forced to align with the Russians on the back of the Ukraine war. Delhi knows that its trade with the US is at least 10 times more than with Russia (over $100 billion vs less than $10 billion) and growing.

Moreover, the alacrity with which Australia agreed to exempt 96.4 per cent of India’s exports by value from any duty – which has since become the underpinning of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) signed last week – could not have happened without a nod from Australia’s treaty ally, the US.

India is keenly aware that the India-Australia ECTA could become the model for an India-UK trade agreement; perhaps, even the Japanese may also follow suit. Japanese PM Fumio Kishida’s recent visit to India was a signal that its fellow Quad member, India, deserves special treatment.

Also read: The Hindu Right is turning against the US, but India needs to see reality over rhetoric

China front and centre

So, what gives? Can the US equally identify China and Russia as its principal adversaries, able to challenge both nations in different theatres?

For the moment, with Vladimir Putin looming large, the US is totally focused on subjugating the Russian bear by assisting Ukraine both with sophisticated weaponry and hard cash. Ukraine has become America’s front paw in the attempt to forever destroy the Russian challenge.

But the Ukraine war will come to an end. Compromises will be struck. The US will return to the Indo-Pacific, where according to its newly released Indo-Pacific Strategy, barely a fortnight after Russia went to war with Ukraine, China was named as the US’ principal challenger.

So what next? Can India ignore the Daleep Singhs of the world and juggle through this latest crisis between America and Russia? At the end of the day, both India and the US know they need each other.

India will certainly hope the US understands not just its dependence on Russian defence equipment, but the fact that Moscow gives it weaponry and technology no one else does — a nuclear submarine on lease, helping India with its own nuclear submarine project and most recently, equipping Indian troops facing off against China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.

One key reason why India wants to maintain warm and friendly ties with an increasingly isolated Putin is the hope that it might help Putin mitigate his own dependency on Beijing.

May you live in interesting times, goes the Chinese metaphor. For Eric Garcetti at least, the stars seem aligned elsewhere. Too bad he won’t be able to write his own footnote in the history books as an observer of an extremely interesting period in the India-US relationship.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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