When you read the report on the conversation between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi on Monday, you may wonder whether you were reading a report of the same conversation.
The readout from the White House was methodical. It listed out the issues in what appeared to be an order of priority:
- fighting COVID 19 pandemic,
- climate change,
- rebuilding the global economy, and
- fighting terrorism.
Towards the end came the issue of “close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific”, support for freedom of navigation, and strengthening the Quad.
The American readout then noted, “The President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the US-India relationship.”
Note, that it categorically had Biden make that point.
India’s Official Statement Different from that of US
But the official Press Information Bureau (PIB) press release, will have you think otherwise. “They noted that the India-US partnership is firmly anchored in a shared commitment to democratic values,” it observed.
The Indian release then focused on the importance “of working with like minded countries to ensure a rules based international order and a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”
The Indian readout ignored the salience of COVID 19 and the task of rebuilding the global economy, or, for that matter, strengthening the Quad.
It did speak of their common affirmation of the importance of addressing “the challenge of global climate change.”
In a subsequent tweet Modi noted that “President Joe Biden and I are committed to a rules based international order.” That doesn’t quite square with what the Americans have put out. As for “rule of law” the American readout speaks of the leaders resolving that “the rule of law and democratic process must be upheld in Burma.” This is something the Indian release ignores.
India’s Statement Targets Domestic Audience & Sends a Signal to China
Clearly, the PIB is targeting an Indian audience and the aim is to show how chummy the Prime Minister is with the incoming US Administration. It seeks to emphasise the Indian commitment to the Indo-Pacific agenda of the US.
At the same time, it makes it clear to the third party (China) that India is not quite with the US in the process and is actually there for a “free and open,” but as well as an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific, as outlined by the PM in his speech to the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018. Notably, New Delhi has carefully steered clear of reporting on the PM’s conversation on Myanmar with President Biden.
On the other hand, the US is speaking both to New Delhi and the world. Given the ongoing COVID pandemic which could take the lives of 700,000 Americans by the end of this year, dealing with it is obviously the topmost priority for the US. The US has no time for PR gestures like India which is giving away vaccines, even while a fraction of its own population has got it so far.
Associated with this is the challenge of economic recovery. In2020, the cost to the US was n estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to be in excess of $ 8 trillion. But the pandemic and its consequences have yet to abate and the costs could rise. More than that is the problem of employment.
US Priorities Are Different & India Need Not Agree to Others’ Rules
Both the pandemic recovery and climate change are being targeted in a manner that will fundamentally change the economic profile of the US. This will mean an emphasis on federal spending on R&D, a push for electrical vehicles, new materials and manufacturing processes.
If India thinks that talk of a “rules based international order” buys it credit with the US, it is mistaken. That is not because of either India or the US, but that the very term is laden with ambiguity. Rules based order has been used as a kind of shorthand to condemn Chinese behavior in the South China Sea.
But recall that till 2020, the US had taken no position on the legality of various claims there. Its concern was with the right to conduct military activities in the Exclusive Economic Zones as per the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is something that India is leery about and our position is different from that of the US in this aspect of the rules-based order.
As recently as 2019, the US has conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to challenge India as well. And, of course, the ultimate irony is that the US has not even ratified the UNCLOS.
Keyword is ‘Democracy’
As for rules based order, there is also one that governs trading. What does one say about India’s position in negotiating and then not signing the Regional Economic Cooperation Agreement (RCEP) ? It clearly indicated that India was not keen on one particular kind of rules-based international order, while wanting to uphold another.
But the major message, if you were looking for one comes in “The President underscored…” bit in relation to democracy and the US-India relationship. All the other issues have a tone that signals common agreement. ”The leaders agreed…” or that “They further resolved….” If New Delhi chooses to gloss over it, it does so at its own peril.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)