The 2+2 dialogue between India and the US concluded recently. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met their US counterparts, Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to enhance and carry forward the defence and political ties between the two countries as well as exchange views on the Ukraine war and the Indo-Pacific.
Not only was this the first dialogue in the 2+2 format between India and the US since President Joe Biden took over, but it was also the first such dialogue with any country that was preceded by a summit-level interaction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Biden. This raised the stature and level of this particular 2+2 dialogue, and with good reason. This is the first such high-level meeting between the two countries in the backdrop of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, and both countries do not hold similar positions the issue.
India's Balancing Act
India is rightly taking a pragmatic view and an independent position on the Russia-Ukraine war. It has good relations with both countries. That is how India was able to successfully evacuate over 22,000 Indian nationals from the war zone in Ukraine. India has called for a cessation of violence and killings and urged recourse to diplomacy and dialogue to resolve the problem. It has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine. However, it has not blindly sided with the West on all counts of sanctions and voting in the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council. But it did support a probe into the killings at Bucha.
Essentially, India has exercised its strategic autonomy and has taken a balanced view, mindful of our strategic partnership with the US, but, at the same time, not ignoring that Russia has been our trusted friend and has come to our aid several times when we needed it the most.
India has also drawn a judicious balance between humanitarian issues and economic pragmatism.
When the American Secretary of State attempted to make India see reason for at least not helping the Russian war effort by buying oil from them, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar's pithy but polite reply was:
“If you're looking at [India's] energy purchases from Russia, I'd suggest your attention should be on Europe. We buy some energy necessary for our energy security. But I suspect, looking at figures, our purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon.”
This put an effective end to this line of persuasion and Antony Blinken was forced to say that India should at least not buy additional oil, or words to that effect.
It was heartening to hear the US Secretary of Defence articulate that the US will stand by India if there is a threat to India from China. India, on its part, made it very clear that it wants to participate in all endeavours to make the Indo-Pacific free and open.
The US Should Know That India Has Its Own Concerns
The US must understand India's compulsions. Not only had Russia been a trusted friend in times of need, but it has also shared technology with India in defence manufacturing for several platforms in the form of licensed production, joint ventures, etc. Secondly, with Russia’s growing closeness with China, India has to keep a communication channel open with Moscow, more so because China has already shown its intentions at the LAC in Ladakh.
However, the US also needs India in its pushback against China, which is openly trying to replace it as the sole superpower and even unseat the dollar as the international currency. In the Indo-Pacific region, especially, India is an invaluable partner in Quad. It is also conceded that the US wants India to move away from Russian defence equipment and it is willing to offer their platforms instead. But that would amount to leaving one dependency to join another.
If the US is serious about India's support, then it should be forthcoming in assisting India in its quest for Atmanirbharta, or self-reliance. The Americans should consider helping India bridge the technology gap.
A Self-Reliant India Can be More Objective
The Russia-Ukraine war has demonstrated that kinetic wars are far from over, although the employment of precision munitions is the order of the day. India needs to modernise its military machine in more ways than one. Technologies like hypersonic missiles, advanced armed drones, loitering missiles and more will give India an edge that a growing power with two active and unresolved borders deserves to have. This will also bode well for the Quad and the West in general as far China and its hegemonic designs are concerned.
In addition, technologies connected with space satellites and the aviation sector are sorely needed. India will do well to leverage its current position and potential to get some help in developing these technologies.
Perhaps India could be offered technology along the same lines on which Australia was offered support for nuclear submarines under AUKUS. A self-reliant India will be strong enough to take a more objective position in its national interests.
Can India & China Align Against West? Improbable, But Not Impossible
An outlier thought. Today, it is Russia, but the US should perhaps worry that it could be China tomorrow. If India and China resolve their border problems – and a workable model of Arunachal vs Aksai Chin is omnipresent just beneath the surface – these two old civilisations and neighbours could align together, to the peril of the West. Given our political dispensations, it's not very likely. However, weren’t we all convinced that in the 21st century, the world will not see any full-blown ‘World Wars’? But Ukraine did happen. So, in international dynamics, one can never be too sure.
Hence, it will make eminent sense for the Americans to see a self-reliant, West-inclined India, now that our relations have been energised over the last decade or two. India, however, should continue to act in its national interests.
(Lt General Satish Dua is a former Corps Commander in Kashmir, who retired as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. Views expressed are personal. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)