There’s plenty in the media these days to keep Indians puffed up with pride, even if sometimes misplaced. But Foreign Minister(FM) Jaishankar’s conduct on the international stage is at the forefront in contributing to this sense of India having ‘arrived’, and deserving of a place in the world. Much of this is due to the virtuosity of the Foreign minister himself. The rest is, due to a mix of circumstances and shrewd politics. That is mostly evident in the recent visit of the FM to the United States and his reception there.
Enough has already been said on his remarks at the United Nations General Assembly(UNGA), where he made the serious point of a global shortage of fuel, food and fertilisers due to the Ukraine war, stood firmly equidistant in that conflict, and called out China for its politicisation of terrorism when it refused to sanction and acknowledge terrorists in Pakistan.
Most of all he warned of disruption, due to a variety of factors including climate change. In fact, rarely has the world, and India with it, been hit by waves of disruptive events. The roller coaster that is the stock market in the last year is one clear indicator of that. And ours is far stabler than most.
Things are getting serious. And that’s what played into the visits to Washington not only to meet just his counter part there but also the Pentagon-- the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense.
India-US Military Ties at an All Time Peak
Both sides agree on one thing, that the two sides have never been closer. It's not the ‘most consequential in the world” as Blinken put it. That’s diplomatic nicety. But here are key characteristics. It has climbed remarkably fast from mutual suspicions till less than ten years ago. It enjoys bipartisan support, an important issue as Republicans and Democrats create an unprecedented divide in the country.
It is hugely broad-based with Joint Working Groups on almost every issue, and only likely to grow. And then there’s the double win of not just the Quad with Foreign Minister meeting on the sidelines in New York and the India-Israel-UAE-USA(I2U2) which brings together also Israel and the United Arab Emirates, all indicating that India is becoming central to US policy.
But there are admittedly, differences. That includes Afghanistan and the resultant downplaying of the ‘terror’ angle; Iran, which is central to India’s ambitions in getting connectivity into Central Asia and Europe, and in recent times, Russia’s defence supplies, and the Ukraine issue.
During the Joint presser, the FM indicated that India had stepped in to mediate a grain shipment and was talking to the Ukrainians (also an important trading partner) and the UN. But with typical directness, he also noted that the price of oil was “break (ing) our backs”.
India Insists on End of Ukraine War To Save Economy
That’s the bottom line for India . Everything else comes second, with dropping foreign exchange reserves, an unhealthy current account deficit, and a falling rupee. The Reserve Bank of India has managed so far, but it can only do so much. The war has to end.
For a truly ‘consequential relationship’, Delhi needs to position itself to get Washington to negotiate with Russia, rather than just letting it bleed to death together with every one else. That includes Pakistan, to whom Washington chose to provide a sustainment package for its F-16’s.
That’s truly, a contractual necessity. But the timing raises suspicions that the US is again upto mischief. Indeed, it seemed as such with Secretary Blinken choosing to ostentatiously display an even hand during the presser. This is international relations. Don’t expect morality. It simply doesn’t exist. After all, as Jaishankar says, its all about national interest.
US Invests in India To Strengthen Bilateral Defence
The guard of honor for the visiting FM was nicely calculated for social media excitability even while denoting a certain (unspecified) status at the high table. Behind all this pomp and ceremony, is the bottom line for the Pentagon which is that India is set to undertake one of the largest procurement cycles in the world worth about USD 130 billion in the next five to six years.
Recently, the Defence Ministry is reported to have cleared ‘AON’s’ ( Acceptance Of Necessity) for weapons worth Rs 1.83 trillion in 2020-21, which is essentially the first step in an extremely tedious process where everyone works at cross purposes to get vital equipment for the defence services.
Unsurprisingly, nothing much has come through yet. But things are happening. Contrary to popular opinion, Aatmanirbhar’( Make in India) has opened up the defence sector hugely, allowing upto 74 per cent Foreign Direct investment(FDI) under automatic route , and 100 per cent for those units only immersed in R&D, design and technology.
US investment is being looked at for future acquisition like the Navy’s carrier fighters ( Yes, we celebrated a carrier loudly, but no aircraft yet) , and future Infantry Combat vehicles, a major portion of which is to be made in India.
India Needs To Amp Up Its Security Measure
There’s more. Consider the huge obsolescence in equipment from Artillery to guns, and there are exciting times ahead for US defence industry, parts of which have suffered a huge downslide according to expert studies .
Now, look at the Joint Statement. It flags among other things, logistics --always a logical choice, considering how the Indian peninsula juts out into the Indian Ocean and “bilateral defense industrial cooperation in support of India’s contributions as a regional security provider.” That role is something India is yet to structure.
For instance, while we hastened to provide $3.8 BN in credit to Sri Lanka, all we had when a Chinese spy ship came calling, was one Dornier-228. That’s simply not good enough. The ‘regional security provider’ role is a great platform to not just cooperate with the US but also with Quad partner.
That grouping flagged not just what the media regards as inconsequential such as ‘humanitarian’ issues, but also an Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. That’s a broad umbrella under which a lot could happen.
Will the Indo-Us Defence Ties Serve Global Interests?
The biggest problem the relationship faces is not bilateral, it’s the global context in which it has to operate. Extremely troubled times are pushing both into an unchartered territory.
While the US is bent on keeping itself at the top of the heap--an exercise in which it will push against trade barriers of already economically unstable states, India is struggling to keep its growth story going, even as war threatens on the borders.
Ukraine is only the most publicised conflict. The International Monetary Fund notes three channels of disruption. One, higher prices for commodities like food and energy pushing up inflation further, thereby, eroding incomes. Two, disrupted trade, supply chains, and remittances as well as a historic surge in refugee flows. And three, reduced business confidence and higher investor uncertainty weighing on asset prices, tightening financial conditions and potentially spurring capital outflows from emerging markets.
Historically, when economies are disrupted, the chances of war breaking out is far more likely. That applies particularly to those leaders who are apt to poach on others sovereign territory. It is this jostling for space, and resources that is likely to cause both countries an enormous challenge in terms of response.
At a time of stress, both internal and external, the two have to navigate a route that works quickly in assuaging this huge global instability, without in turn harming the others self interest. The beginning has to be to stabilise the Indo-Pacific rather than cause another Asian Ukraine. For that China has to come on board. Challenge? Even Atlas would shrug.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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