Any one who has any knowledge of US-India relations over the past decades knows how a new crisis can erupt & seriously damage positive progress made over prior years. For its part, Washington DC is used to its allies & partners subordinating their interests to fall in behind US imperatives. And India has always insisted on subordinating US requirements to its core strategic interests. As a result the US-India relationship has been subject to sudden & intense crisis eruption.
This is why we have used a paraphrase of the title of a book we reviewed in 2014 Forged in Crisis – India & the United States Since 1947, written by Rudra Chaudhuri, a lecturer in Strategic Studies at the Department of War Studies and the India Institute, King’s College, London.
In that book, Chaudhuri made a point that we described then as “the most important and most difficult especially for the NeoLib community in the US.”
- 4.3a – “India represents and advocates an alternative set of arguments in an international system where the pursuit of foreign policy is increasingly challenged by opposition from within nation-states themselves. … This is most apparent with regard to the issue of international intervention and utility of military force”.
- 4.3b – “The question of humanitarian intervention is one of the most potent matters of interstate argument. India’s active role and determination to temper the anger over the use of force may not satisfy or impress American and even British officials at the UN, but it promises to invite the need for balance in a world in which rebellion and revolt shake and at times displace the very notion of sovereignty”.[emphasis ours]
We wrote in our review article in 2014:
- “This is why, we think, India has become the principal adversary for the NeoLib community in American media, academics & in the Obama Administration.”
Guess what, the more things change the more they remain the same. Note that our review of Chaudhuri’s book was written in 2014. That, coincidentally, was the same year the pro-Putin elected leader of Ukraine was toppled by the Euro Maidan protests & Ukraine turned decisively from a pro-Russia stance to a pro-US stance. President Putin retaliated by taking over Crimea & making it a part of Russia.
Fast forward to March-April 2022. President Putin has sent his military into Ukraine and the United States with US allies have hit him with devastating financial sanctions & delivered effective military aid to the US-trained Ukrainian military. In addition, the US-EU alliance has sidelined “the very notion of sovereignty” and tried to coerce all nations to follow what US-EU demanded of them.
And once again, to use Mr. Chaudhuri’s words, India represented and advocated “an alternative set of arguments“. That inflamed not only the NeoLibs, the most organized & prominent US enemies of India, but even others who have not traditionally been anti-India.
1. American vs. Indian Positions
A summary of the US views was published by Geopolitical Futures on April 18 in their article “India’s Defiance of Washington’s Russia Strategy“:
- “The war in Ukraine has put U.S.-Indian relations back into the spotlight as Washington lobbies all of its major allies to join its economic assault on Moscow. So far, India has resisted. The U.S. wants to use the Ukraine conflict to bring India into alignment with the West on issues that don’t relate to China, but New Delhi is unwilling to impose its own sanctions on Russia and recently even agreed to purchase millions of barrels of Russian oil.”
- “For the U.S., the Russian threat didn’t end with the Cold War, and a Russian victory in Ukraine would mean a win over the West. But India sees Russia as much less of a threat than the U.S. does.”
- “The U.S. fears that India’s continued willingness to do business with Russia could undermine the U.S. strategy to force Moscow into concessions through economic isolation.”
- “Under the current terms, Indian imports of Russian oil don’t violate U.S. sanctions, but Washington fears New Delhi’s continued purchases of Russian exports could prove to be an economic lifeline for Moscow.” [emphasis ours]
None of the above made any sense to India and Indians. And this time India was represented publicly by an articulate & firm External Affairs Minister JaiShankar. He pooh-poohed the concern over Indian purchases of Russian oil by a sharp, concise & devastating riposte:
- “I suspect looking at the figures probably our total purchases for the month will be less than what Europe does in an afternoon“
And there was zero chance that India would let its military relationship with Russia get negatively affected simply to placate America. The reality was simple & both sides knew it. As an article in War on the Rocks pointed out:
- “20 of 34 fighter squadrons, 65 of 67 tank regiments, 28 of 55 aid defense regiments, and all 30 mechanized infantry regiments rely to a significant extent on Russian platforms or those with Russian parts.”
And the Indian public opinion was solidly behind PM Modi in refusing to kow-tow to America. Even Suhasini Haidar, hardly a Modi-supporter, titled her 18-minute WorldView presentation as Why won’t India budge on Russia?
This seemingly intractable chasm brings us back to Chaudhuri’s central point in his book Forged in Crisis – India & the United States Since 1947:
- “India and the US had long engaged each other in a series of crises that gradually forged a deeper sense for each other’s motivations and aspirations … both sides managed to remain sure-footed but resilient. This resilience was not assembled in a decade or two. It rested on the successes and failures of the past sixty years, programming a degree of trust and a sense for each other into a relationship that was in fact considerably more cooperative than otherwise believed. … This is truly a relationship forged in crisis” [emphasis ours]
That is exactly what happened again in April 2022. Both America & India managed to remain sure-footed & resilient. This has been due to the Biden-Modi meeting and the subsequent 2+2 meeting between foreign policy & defense policies heads of America and India.
It seems clear that, instead of being disrupted by the Ukraine crisis, the US-India relationship might have been been re-forged to a higher & more mutually beneficial level.
2. Congruence of Interests
What core interests does America see in the relationship with India? A decent summary comes from the article India’s Defiance of Washington’s Russia Strategy from Geopolitical Futures:
- “First, its Indo-Pacific strategy for containing China requires India’s participation. And given that the U.S.-China rivalry will likely remain for years to come, Washington needs New Delhi on its side in the long term.”
- “Second, it’s in the U.S.’ interest to maintain a relatively stable and functional India to counter China. Imposing economic punishments for India’s unwillingness to toe the line on Russia could be destabilizing for New Delhi, and that would only benefit Beijing.”
- “Last, India plays an important role in the foreign policies of the U.K. and Australia – the former of which is relying on commonwealth states to boost trade to offset the economic losses from leaving the EU. Australia, meanwhile, signed an interim free trade agreement with India earlier this month. The pact, which covers over 90 percent of goods traded between the two countries, is part of Australia’s strategy to reduce its dependence on China. The U.S. wouldn’t want to do anything to weaken these relationships with India, especially because the U.K. and Australia are both members of the Five Eyes, Washington’s most important security alliance.”
A simple consequence of this is the recognition that USA cannot allow differences in the Ukraine-Europe theatre to derail ties in another, more consequential China theatre.
On the other side, as Sreemoy Talukdar wrote in his article in Firstpost.com, India sent a clear signal that “the US remains unequivocally its preferred partner“. He added that “Prime minister Modi told Biden that as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our diplomatic ties, “I am confident that friendship with the US will remain an integral part of India’s development journey over the next 25 years.””
And Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh stated publicly that “India will be very careful to ensure that US core national interests are not affected adversely due to our relations with another country.”
Specifically Talukdar reported that,
- “Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, along with the 2+2, had a bilateral with US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin, where the “two defence ministers reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral defence cooperation and the regional security situation”, “reviewed military-to-military engagements, information sharing, enhanced logistics cooperation” and also “discussed ways for closer collaboration between defence industries.””
The bottom line according to Talukdar is:
- “The gamut, breadth, depth and intensity of the engagement indicates the effort both sides have put in to ostensibly arrest and overcome incongruencies and reinforce areas of convergence.”
Regardless of what might be said publicly, it is obvious that reducing its dependence on Russia will be a major focus for India’s Defense Establishment. India was already on this path but the Ukraine war has made it an urgent priority.
But India is unlikely to simply move to another foreign supplier from a current proven supplier. India’s drive will be to build its own defense industry with joint ventures. India had already begun discussions with France to structure a hub in India to maintain, support & repair the Rafale fighters France has supplied to India, Abu Dhabi & Indonesia.
That was emphasized after this 2+2 meeting, as Talukdar reported on April 15,
- “In that context, the defence minister also held a meeting with senior executives of US aerospace and defence majors Boeing and Raytheon and urged them to “take advantage of policy initiatives in India” to invest and ‘Make in India’ for the world.”
Within 5 days veteran journalist Manu Pubby reported the following in the Economic Times on April 20,
- “Major US arms manufacturer Raytheon is likely to invest $100 million in setting up production and research facilities in India, while Boeing is exploring the possibility of creating a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul hub for systems like the P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft that are used by both nations. Plans by Raytheon could result in the creation of over 2,000 jobs in India”.
The strongest relationship between the US & Indian defense forces has been between the two navies thanks to joint exercises over the past several years & progress in interoperability. In fact, India had already begun buying platforms the US Navy uses like the deal in 2020 to buy 24 of the Sikorsky-built MH-60R helicopters that the U.S. Navy uses for anti-submarine warfare.
Australian, Indian and U.S. ships sail past each other as fixed-wing aircraft from the India and U.S. navies conduct a flyover during Malabar 2020 on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo
Given this recent history, we were not surprised to see the article by Mallory Shelbourne of USNI News titled India Considering Repairing U.S. Military Sealift Ships Following 2+2 Dialogue :
- “To further enhance defense industrial cooperation in the naval sector, both sides agreed to explore possibilities of utilizing the Indian shipyards for repair and maintenance of ships of the U.S. Maritime Sealift Command (MSC) to support mid-voyage repair of U.S. Naval ships,” according to a State Department announcement.
The article also quotes Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University, saying:
- “MSC currently uses yards in the Middle East and Singapore so India would be an ideal supplement,” Mercogliano told USNI News. “Currently, MSC is dealing with lack of yard availability so the addition of India would be a great advantage for U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacom area.”
The clip below from Hindustan Times highlights the boost this would provide to US-India Naval relationship:
Perhaps motivated by the success of the US-India 2+2 meetings, Russia took the unusual step 6 days ago of delivering the 2nd regiment of the S-400 anti-aircraft system to India ahead of schedule. The message to India is clear that, despite its war in Ukraine, Russia is both willing & capable to delivering armaments to the Indian military. This is even more notable because this 2nd regiment of the S-400 system is going to be deployed to cover the airbases China has established in Tibet.
Despite such Indo-Russian military purchases, the United States realizes, according to Talukdar, that
- “… the natural trajectory of India-Russia ties is headed towards a zone that is more comfortable for Americans, and the war has created realities that may force India to make choices that are better aligned to American interests.”
Therefore America realizes, as Talukdar wrote,
- “That it is a far better strategy to aid India in modernizing its equipment and help diversifying its military hardware portfolio is an argument seemingly gaining ground in the US. At a briefing by the Pentagon press secretary post 2+2 talks, John Kirby said “we have an important defense partnership with India and we are committed to India’s modernization needs, their efforts to build, and to field a more modern military, we’re committed to helping them do that.””
If even half of the above gets realized, then “the Ukraine war” would clearly end up “further galvanizing bilateral ties” between USA & India.
Now look what happened at the end of this week. During the visit of British Prime Minister Johnson to India, he said that “Britain will issue an open general export license to India, reducing bureaucracy and shortening delivery times for defense procurement“. “This is our first OGEL in the Indo-Pacific region,” he added.
What type of defense procurement, you ask? A British High Commission statement said Britain is offering next-generation defense and security collaboration across five domains — land, sea, air, space and cyber — to face complex new threats.
- The two countries also agreed to collaborate on the manufacturing of defense equipment, systems, spare parts and components under the “Make in India” program through a transfer of technology and setting up of joint ventures.
- “They noted cooperation in key areas of strategic collaboration, including modern fighter aircraft and jet engine advanced core technology,” it said.
None of this would have been feasible without the understanding developed in the US-India 2+2 meetings & the decision to upgrade the US-India defense relationship. So the Johnson visit confirms our sense that the Ukraine crisis is actually galvanizing the USA-India relationship to a higher & more meaningful level.
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