Colombo, December 11 (Weekend Express): Throughout the Cold War (1947 to 1991), India was neutral between the power blocs. It was one of the pillars of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) founded in 1961. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, with the US becoming the sole Super Power and China posing a threat to its borders and as well as to its pre-eminence in the South Asian region, India tilted towards the US, becoming one of its ‘strategic partners’.
In recent years, New Delhi had signed several defense deals with Washington to get aircraft, helicopters and missiles worth US$ 22 billion. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA); the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and the Industrial Security Agreement (ISA) were signed. Under the US military umbrella, India did extensive development work in Afghanistan valued at US$ 3 billion, earning the goodwill of ordinary Afghans.
However, apparently, there is now a desire in New Delhi to free itself from the apron strings of the US and exercise its right to strategic autonomy seeing itself as a “power”, at least in South Asia. But New Delhi is doing this not by turning hostile to the US, but by re-asserting its traditional non-aligned status.
It has made a conscious bid to get closer to Russia by signing a US$ 5.4 billion deal for S-400 air defense missiles despite a threat of sanctions from the US under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). India is also pushing ahead with a US$ 600-million joint-venture agreement to make Russian AK-203 rifles in India. India and Russia also inked a pact to extend a military technology cooperation agreement for a further decade. On top of it all, Russian President V.Putin visited New Delhi and hailed India as a “Great Power”. In 2019, the Russians had awarded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ‘Order of St Andrew the Apostle’ making him the sole foreign leader to receive it.
New Delhi has also subtly indicated a softening towards China through a video interaction its outgoing Ambassador Vikram Misri had with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently. Ambassador Misri noted that the Indian Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, had stressed that “India does not change its strategic judgment on bilateral relations with China and is willing to work with China to understand each other’s core concerns and to achieve mutual benefits.”
According to Global Times Misri went on to say: “Although there are some dark clouds in the sky, we already see their silver rim. I would like to make continuous efforts on defending and developing China-India relations.” On his part, Wang praised Ambassador Misri’s remarks and said that “the dark clouds would eventually disperse and sunshine will come back to the land.”
At the end, Wang expressed China’s confidence and hope that Misri will “carry on playing the role of supporter, defender and promoter of China-India cooperation.”
Why move away from US?
Writing in the Rand Corporation website on May 21, 2021 Derek Grossman says that while democracies are supposed to get along, it has not always been the case between the US and India. “The relationship still suffers from New Delhi’s lingering distrust of Washington derived from raw Cold War geopolitics and India’s longstanding foreign policy of nonalignment.”
During the corona pandemic when India lacked vaccines, many Indians were disappointed that the US did not rush vaccines when it had a lot to spare. “Security constructs such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), of which India and the US are members along with Australia and Japan, had not assisted New Delhi on vaccines, in spite of vaccine cooperation and coordination being a stated priority of the group,” Grossman points out and adds: “Many Indians viewed Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine as a viable alternative.”
As for QUAD, it got automatically devalued for India as an anti-China body after the US and Britain joined hands with Australia to form the anti-China AUKUS with the supply of nuclear subs to Australia and undercutting their European ally, France, in the most despicable manner. The notion of the US being a reliable ally was thus blown.
In contrast, Russia in its earlier avatar as the Soviet Union, had stood by India like a rock, supplying arms, when India was fighting to liberate East Pakistan and help establish a free Bangladesh without world support.
Another point of bilateral friction between the US and India arose when a US naval vessel intruded into Indian territorial waters off Lakshadweep islands to establish it’s “Freedom of Navigation (FoN)”. New Delhi’s contention that under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, the Indian government “does not authorize other states to carry out in the Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] and on the continental shelf, military exercises or maneuvers, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state” was brushed aside. The US action was a slap on the face of India which had unreservedly supported Washington’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific concept targeting China.
According to Grossman, another point of friction with India is India’s slide toward becoming an “illiberal” democracy. The treatment of the minority Muslim community by Hindutva vigilantes said to be backed by the State, came in for public censure from US Vice President Kamala Harris in the presence of Modi. Freedom House, a U.S. government–funded nonprofit organization that ranks freedom in every country, decided in March 2021 to drop India from “free” to “partly free” status. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) hit back, noting that “India has robust institutions and well-established democratic practices. We do not need sermons especially from those who cannot get their basics right.” But this did not wash in Washington and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom labelled India a “country of concern.” The Modi government is probably thinking that non-interfering and human rights violating Russia and China would be better to work with than the democracy and human rights touting US.
India did not want the US to abandon Afghanistan ditching the Ashraf Ghani government. The US had entered into a unilateral deal with the Taliban, quit Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel, and as a consequence, opened the country to Pakistan’s influence and destroyed India’s influence in Afghanistan.
Writing in US New and World Report on May 18, 2021, David Moschella says that the US’ reliance on India for Information Technology (IT) and other high-tech services may cause problems. Indian companies’ sales of these services in the US has touched US$ 50 billion in 2020. And American IT services companies such as Accenture, IBM, Deloitte and DXC do much of their actual work in India employing some 400,000 locals. More than 1,000 U.S. companies have set up their own operations in India, employing some 1 million people for everything from back-office IT and call centers to strategic innovation and research and development. Additionally, three fourths of 400,000 non-U.S. residents working in the US through the H-1B visa program are Indians.
“But there are at least two scenarios where today’s dependencies pose significant risks,” Moschella warns. He points out that “ the US and India often disagree sharply about IP protection, taxation, regulation, data governance, privacy, preferences for local firms and other policy areas. More broadly, India has its own self-sufficiency, the Hindi-phrased “Atmanirbhar Bharat” movement popularized by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that seeks to reduce India’s dependencies on foreign firms. When negotiating in these complex areas, it’s never a good idea to be dependent upon the folks across the table.”
Interestingly Moschella foresees India making up with China. “India has a long history of non-alignment, and the current tensions with China might well fade over time. If they do, the enormous economic potential of the India-China relationship could come to the fore. The nightmare scenario for the U.S. would be the combination of China’s manufacturing prowess and India’s IT services and English-language capabilities.”
In conclusion he says: “For far too long, the US ignored its growing dependence on a rising China. So far, it has done the same with India. America needs to leverage India’s vast capabilities to effectively take on China. But having lived through one dependency, the US would be wise to avoid another. “