External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visits to the US seem to be conforming to type — packed schedules that would have exhausted anyone else, and an emphasis on public interventions that most diplomats or even politicians would avoid like the plague. But he’s neither, which gives him an advantage. The biggest advantage has, however, nothing to do with him; it’s that the Joe Biden administration is already in a strategic embrace with India, which has less to do with New Delhi itself, and more with India’s geographical location astride the Indian Ocean and right next to China. That’s not how Delhi wants to be valued, but at a time of severe stress not limited to the Covid pandemic, Jaishankar is fighting for India’s image as more than just a counter. He needs support from his own government.
The vaccine scramble
The Indian media is understandably viewing Jaishankar’s visit through the lens of the emergency Covid vaccine availability. But a lot of that is already past, with a triumph in the US granting a temporary waiver of patents, the resumption of materials for manufacture of more than two crore doses of Covishield, and six flights over six days for emergency medical equipment. The vaccine delay in sending over the US’ unused stockpile of AstraZeneca doses is wise, since there seem to be significant problems at the production plant. Meanwhile, the private industry is weighing in, with 40 CEOs forming the first-ever global task force to help India with urgent supplies. The strident criticism in the Indian media of the US for not coming to our rescue is, therefore, largely unwarranted.
Jaishankar was right during his interaction with the Hoover Institution that the US itself had been in an equally bad situation earlier in terms of lack of preparation. But the US then went on with ‘Operation Warp Speed’ while we faltered after an excellent performance in the first wave. Here’s the thing now. As of today, we’ve vaccinated 212 million to 295 million in the US, and we are the third among the top ten. The trouble is that constitutes just a fraction of our population (only 12.3 per cent have gotten the first dose in India), while the US has crossed 50 per cent. It’s not just the effort; it’s the size of the effort. There’s another truth. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We remember in the earlier days of Covid, India was there for the United States, something we’ll never forget, and now we want to make sure that we’re there for and with India”. We’ve been there and done that. In practical terms, the task ahead is freeing up global supply chains through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Chamber of Commerce, standardising national regulatory practices, and pooling data to allow vaccine production in the ‘pharmacy of the world’. India’s own vaccine policy needs coherence. As of now it seems to be tied with bits of string. All this needs to happen quickly at a time of serious emergency. As Moscow speeds ahead with Sputnik V and local manufacture in India, the US needs to hustle.
The urgency of Quad
Indian priorities will have to be also juxtaposed with those of the Biden administration. Even in an unusually short press statement, Blinken referenced the ‘Quad’, the grouping that includes the US, India, Japan and Australia. The first-ever summit meeting of the Quad took place within 50 days of the Biden administration being sworn in, and another meeting is likely soon. That kickstarting is important for Delhi.
Just days ago, the Sri Lankan Parliament approved the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City (CPC) project with a bill rushed through at a time of pandemic. There is reportedly more to follow, including a Chinese-operated elevated highway project, and allotment of land currently being used by the Sri Lankan air force and navy. One can hardly condemn Colombo. One year on, the Hambantota International Port has more than doubled its business, and brought in more revenue. The question is for whom? Just as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s promise of 200,000 jobs for Sri Lankans in the CPC is likely to face the question of ‘at what level?’ Ask the Pakistanis, whose own Gwadar port is entirely under Chinese management.
For India, this is China sitting at its doorstep. For the Quad, this is an opportunity lost. The International Monetary Fund’s programme for Sri Lanka expired last year, and a fresh programme was delayed. Beijing quickly offered a $1.5 billion currency swap arrangement. India had earlier not responded to such a request, and it’s unclear if other Quad members even offered. A cautious Sri Lanka has since strengthened its naval position at Hambantota. Quad members could consider assistance in that area. Meanwhile, Jaishankar is, rather wisely, still unwilling to name China as an adversary in a delicate balancing act that’s getting more difficult by the day, even as the US is pressing India to go full steam ahead on the ‘China threat’.
Biden’s priority area – climate change
Climate change is certainly not a priority for the Narendra Modi government given its rampant destruction of forests and dilution of environmental laws in the name of development. New Delhi however needs to understand that this is a priority for President Biden, who is already receiving flak for promising to cut emissions drastically. India’s help and support have already been sought with an ambitious Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership in place. There seems to be enthusiasm in US business circles for cooperation in clean energy. The devil lies in the detail.
India’s solar power generation, for instance, has risen but relies heavily on expensive imports. An increase in safeguard duties to protect the small manufacturing base hasn’t helped. With a 5,000 trillion Kwh energy potential, there is scope to speed up US’ offer for cheaper replacements for silicon solar cells. The Quad Climate Working Group could also be configured for this. India, however, needs to resist the convenient (and profitable) ‘renewable energy’ option of destroying ecologically sensitive zones like Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley on the plea of hydropower. Besides, there is a need to strongly oppose China’s disastrous plan to build dams on the highest major river on earth, on what we call the Brahmaputra, and precariously close to our border. This mega project on the ‘Great Bend’ of the river, identified as the greatest untapped hydropower resource on the planet will be an ecological disaster. Yet it will meet China’s target to be carbon neutral by 2060.
Governments need to remember that ‘renewable’ is not always environment friendly; and in this case, it’s a major security threat. Use the next meeting on climate change to oppose this, and try and not tarnish India’s image by labelling dissenting environmentalists as ‘anti-national’.
Intelligence and meeting with the DNI
Jaishankar also met with Avril Haines, who technically oversees all 16 US intelligence agencies.
Haines is a personality in her own right, known to have taken a year out to learn judo in Japan, attempting to fly a 1961 Cessna across the Atlantic, and at the CIA, is credited with writing the ‘playbook’ on drone strikes. At the moment, it is intelligence on Afghanistan that is the priority for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and if she wants the best, Indians need to be given a reasonably free hand. That could include encouraging India to ramp up training for Afghan intelligence and Afghan army. Hopefully, Delhi can also ‘review’ the closing of two of our consulates at Herat and Jalalabad. But Indian priority is China, and given that a certain US official warned in 2019 of possible Chinese support for Pakistan in Ladakh, their ingress seems to be fairly high. India has the advantage of proximity, not just in Tibet, but now almost in the entire neighbourhood. That should be our sheet anchor. It’s also a very shared interest indeed. Then there’s the meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, where there is far more than ‘interest’ in a deal for 114 multirole fighter aircraft, which would provide the ballast for India as a Major Defence Partner. That requires a budget, but the next year’s is likely to be more focused on health security than defence. It’s a grim choice, which the external affairs minister is fully aware of.
In sum, the foundation for US-India ties was being built on that most practical of motives, which is shared interest. Whether India can now afford to pursue those shared interests at a time of severe stress is another matter, and will depend heavily on the speed of decision-making and implementation by both. In international relations, there is little generosity and more shrewd calculation. The sheer effort being deployed in bringing this billion-strong country back to an even keel should be proof enough that our fundamentals are strong. The challenge is to showcase it wisely. Not through raids on Twitter, however justified, or talk of ‘toolkits’, but by sheer grit.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)