Modi-Biden Talks: Is US Trying to Accommodate India’s Pro-Russia Stance?

In an exercise of ‘strategic patience’, the US papered over the Ukraine cracks and took a positive approach.

5 min read
Hindi Female

India and the United States have just concluded their fourth “2+2” dialogue of their foreign and defence ministers. The overall impression that emerges from what has been made public through press releases and briefings is that the US has made huge efforts to accommodate India’s Russia-leaning neutrality on the Ukraine issue.

In an exercise of what could well be called strategic patience, the American side papered over the Ukraine cracks and gave a positive spin to the talks. Indeed, in a special gesture, they dressed the routine annual dialogue with a virtual summit between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi to set the tone for the discussions.

Just how long the US will continue to hold this course could depend, to a great deal, on the path and outcome of the Ukraine war.


Effort to Establish a Common Ground

Briefing the media on a background basis after the Biden-Modi summit, “a senior administration official” said that the two leaders had “an hour-long, very candid conversation” on bilateral and global issues. But, as s/he noted, besides talking about handling COVID-19, climate change, the global economy, and the plans for the Indo-Pacific, Biden took the opportunity to discuss the issue of “Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine”.

The remarks indicated an effort to establish a common ground to mitigate the impact of Russia’s Ukraine actions on issues like food insecurity and rising prices.

The extent to which President Biden and his officials, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, went out of their way was evident in their repeated and positive references to India’s condemnation of the Bucha killings and its call for an impartial inquiry into the event.


But Has India Let Russia Off the Hook?

Modi’s own remarks were somewhat more oblique. After describing the situation in Ukraine as “very worrisome”, he veered off into India’s efforts to rescue its stranded students there and his telephonic calls for direct talks between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine. The “killings of innocent citizens in Bucha city was very worrying” as well and India had condemned the killings immediately and has also “demanded a fair probe.”

This does not quite conflate into some kind of a censure of Russia. The condemnation of what was clearly an atrocity is the very least India could have done, and the call for an “impartial” inquiry actually lets Russia off the hook.

But then, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted at a press briefing later, there was “a long history and a long relationship between Russia and India”.

Yet, it is difficult not to see the somewhat defensive tone in External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s response to pointed questions on New Delhi’s actions. India’s positions, he insisted, are that “we’re against the conflict; we are for dialogue and diplomacy; we are for urgent cessation of violence; and we are prepared to contribute in multiple ways to those objectives”.

With reference to oil purchases from Russia, he tartly noted, “our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon”.


'Mitigating the Volatility Afflicting the World'

But we need to note that the summit and the 2+2 dialogue is an exercise in building India-US relations and the key objective right now was to somehow sidestep the cracks that have emerged over Ukraine and to move forward on the common ground that the two have established for a common Indo-Pacific policy, which features strong and deepening security cooperation and a planned economic partnership.

In his opening remarks at the press briefing, Jaishankar succinctly and accurately laid out the agenda of discussions – strategising on “mitigating the volatility and unpredictability” afflicting the world, thinking through the Indo-Pacific challenges and boosting collective efforts to build the Indo-US relationship.

Secretary of Defence Austin said that the two sides had “made important commitments today that would drive technological innovation and cooperation” in the coming period. This included cooperation between the US Space Command and India’s Defence Space Agency, as well as a Space Situational Awareness arrangement for information-sharing and cooperation in space.

Indeed, Austin indicated that information and intelligence-sharing was being enhanced in virtually all “warfighting” domains, especially space and cyberspace. Another feature of the cooperation were the increasingly complex exercises between the militaries of the two countries.

For his part, Secretary of State Blinken outlined the economic agenda. Among the more ambitious is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that President Biden will announce in the coming weeks. Under its rubric, the US and the countries of the region will work on building supply-chain resilience, infrastructure investment, green technology, and health infrastructure and security. Whether this can make up for the absence of the US and India from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) respectively, will have to be seen.


Blinken's Warning on Human Rights Abuse in India

The Indian decision to import some oil from Russia inevitably featured in the press briefings. The “senior administration official” noted that the US had not asked India “to do anything in particular” – it was aware that India was not a major consumer of Russian oil. However, what the US was warning against is an acceleration or sharp increase of Russian energy supplies by New Delhi.

At the post-dialogue press briefing, Blinken returned to the issue, noting that both countries were working on dealing with the disruption caused by Russia. The US had begun the release of oil from its strategic reserves to ensure sufficient availability of oil in the world market.

Besides, the US had already developed a significant energy trade with India and was also assisting the country in transitioning to clean energy through the Strategic Clean Energy Partnership as well as mechanisms set through the Quad. He also announced that the US Development Finance Corporation had just announced a $500-million loan to First Solar to produce solar panel modules in southern India.

In their opening remarks, both Biden and Modi repeated the well-worn trope that India and the US were “vibrant” democracies and “natural partners”, “friends with shared values and ties of family”. But it was left to Blinken to underscore the fact that “democracy” also meant “protecting human rights”.

He warned, “We’re monitoring some recent concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials.”

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Narendra Modi   Joe Biden   India-US 

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