Is the India-US Relationship in Trouble?
Strains in India-US relations once "based on shared democratic values", are out in the open
It was not very long ago that many thought that India had totally abandoned its traditional non-aligned foreign policy and was squarely in the United States' camp. The 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal which gave Indian critical waivers, increased purchase of arms from the US in preference to Russian makes after the collapse of the Soviet Union; and burgeoning Indo-US trade (now worth US$ 157 billion); were thought to have sealed a relationship "based on shared democratic values."
The glamorous September 2019 'Howdy Modi' event in Texas attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, was also cited as proof that India was in the US camp.
But there is a marked departure from that now. Perhaps due to the consolidation of the nationalistic Narendra Modi regime in India; the emergence of a belligerent Russia as manifested in the brazen attack on Ukraine to stem the advance of NATO; and the deleterious effects on the Global South of US sanctions on Russia, India has been reassessing its world view including its relations with the US.
Under Union Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, India is now a proponent of a multipolar world, knit together by individual national interests, in place of a world based on large blocs led by one or the other of the great powers. As in the 'non-alignment era' (1950s-1980s) India is now seeking independence designated as "strategic autonomy".
It seeks to establish relations based on its national interest on a case-by-case basis. It is buying arms from Russia as well as the US. It maintains a political standoff vis-a-vis China but puts no barriers on bilateral trade which has crossed US$ 125 billion. It is telling Russia to find a diplomatic way out of the Ukraine crisis while abstaining from US-sponsored resolutions against Russia at the UN.
Raymond Vickery writing in The Diplomat on April 28, 2022, says that India is very sensitive to questioning on any issue from outsiders because such criticism reminds it of the country's subjugation by the British for 150 years. When asked about Russia's alignment with India's rival, China, an irritated Jaishankar said: " We draw our conclusions and make our assessments. And believe me, we have a decent sense of what is in our interest and know how to protect it and advance it."
India's strategic autonomy was in evidence even at the Samarkand summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) this September. The West made much of Modi's telling Vladimir Putin that "this is not an era of war" and that the Ukraine issue should be settled by diplomacy.
But, as Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview to Truthout, the West had conveniently blackout what the Indian Prime Minister added to his appeal. Modi had said, "The relationship between India and Russia has deepened manifold. We also value this relationship because we have been such friends who have been with each other every moment for the last several decades and the whole world also knows how Russia's relationship with India has been and how India's relationship with Russia has been and therefore the world also knows that it is an unbreakable friendship."
In a recent joint conference, while the US Secretary of State Blinken castigated Russia and pledged all help to Ukraine, the Indian Foreign Minister did not utter a word against Russia. On the contrary, he highlighted the sufferings heaped on the Global South by the war and the US sanctions.
While the US wanted India to join it in a combined front against Russia, Jaishankar announced that India might have a mediatory role to play in resolving the Ukraine crisis and that many countries wanted India to play that role. But an Indian bid to mediate ill fits the US plan, which is to overthrow the Putin regime and replace it by a pliant one.
On September 30, Russia took over the captured areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine after a referendum that the West denounced as "illegal". The US took the issue to the UN Security Council, but India abstained when a vote was taken, as indeed it did on previous occasions when the Ukraine issue was taken to the UN. China, America's global rival, had done likewise.
India's permanent representative to the UN, Ruchira Kamboj, reiterated New Delhi's position in favor of peace, diplomacy and dialogue. India's position, she explained, "has been clear and consistent from the very beginning of this conflict. The global order is anchored in the principles of the UN charter, international law, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. Escalation of rhetoric or tension is in no one's interest. It is important that pathways are found for a return to the negotiating table. But Keeping in view the totality of the situation, India decided to abstain on the resolution."
This was disappointing to the US, but should not have come as a surprise. Jaishankar has been sending enough signals for a long time that India will not toe the US line like a camp follower or a faithful. He had taken on the US liberal Establishment even on the human rights situation in India.
Brushing the violations under the carpet he said that India has its own concerns about the human rights situation in the US. He told a press conference in April 2022, Llook, people are entitled to have views about us. But we are also equally entitled to have views about their views and about the interests, and the lobbies and the vote banks which drive that. So, whenever there is a discussion, I can tell you that we will not be reticent about speaking out."
On its part, the US has been giving pinpricks to recalcitrant India. In April 2021, a US Guided Missile Destroyer USS John Paul Jones sailed through India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) without intimating India, in violation of an Indian law. A statement released by the US Navy's 7th Fleet said, "On April 7, 2021 (local time) USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India's exclusive economic zone, without requesting India's prior consent, consistent with international law."
It said India's requirement that ships should seek prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers in its EEZ or continental shelf, was inconsistent with international law.
"We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements," the US Fleet said.
India's Ministry of External Affairs, however, raised "concerns" through diplomatic channels, noting the country's adherence to the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But the US has not ratified UNCLOS.
More recently, an Indian company was sanctioned by the US for trading in Iranian petroleum products with China violating US sanctions against Iran. On September 29, the US Treasury listed the sanctioned companies which included the Mumbai-based Indian firm, Tibalaji Petrochem Private Limited.
The US treasury said that Tibalaji "has purchased millions of dollars' worth of Triliance-brokered petrochemical products, including methanol and base oil, for onward shipment to China." The Iranian company Triliance had been sanctioned by the US earlier. Tibalaji Petrochem is the first Indian company to be sanctioned by the US.
Earlier in September, the US agreed to give Pakistan spare parts and services worth US$ 460 million for its F-16s fighters (which will be used only against India). The Hindu reported that India was miffed. On September 27, after a meeting between Secretary of State Blinken and Pakistan Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto, State Department spokesman Ned Price made it clear that India cannot dictate to the US on US-Pakistan ties.
"The relationship we have with India stands on its own; the relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own," Price told a news conference. "We also want to do everything we can to see to it that these neighbors have relations with one another that are as constructive as can be possible," he added. Both India and the US are practicing "strategic autonomy".