The India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue on April 11, 2022 no doubt carried the momentum of bilateral ties forward. But the timing was not the most opportune.
The US is treating the Ukraine crisis as an international conflict, not essentially a European one, which it is. It is having international repercussions because of the exceptionally draconian sanctions imposed by the US, UK and the EU on Russia which are disrupting the very global order that the West has created over the years in support of its global interests.
India has come under pressure by the US and others, directly and indirectly, to condemn Russia’s aggression. Our repeated abstentions on resolutions moved in the UN forums have come under criticism in the West in general. India’s economic ties with Russia are limited, with bilateral trade less than $ 10 billion and Russia supplying less than 2% of India’s oil needs.
Yet, India is being cautioned by the US not to buy discounted Russian oil more than it has bought in the past so as not to finance “Putin’s war machine”, and not to breach the US economic sanctions in general through rupee-ruble payment mechanisms as that would invite “consequences”. The US wants to make these sanctions as water tight as possible, with pressure on India to abide by them at various levels
More importantly, while acknowledging its “legacy” defence ties with Russia, India is being exhorted openly to reduce its defence dependence on Russia, with the US offering to help New Delhi to procure Soviet era equipment and spares from east and central European countries to meet its needs. India is also being told that with the losses that Russia has suffered in the Ukraine conflict which it will need to replenish, the supply line of defence items from Russia will get disrupted and India will have to factor this into its future planning, quite apart from the poor performance of Russian weaponry in military operations in Ukraine.
Both in its political and military dimensions, the 2+2 Dialogue had this as a backdrop, quite apart from the purely bilateral agenda. India cannot have the same view of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the US and Europe. If Russia is wrong in attacking Ukraine, the West has been wrong in many decisions it has taken over the years with regard to Ukraine, disregarding warning signals from Russia.
This includes offering it NATO membership, not pressing Ukraine to implement the Minsk Agreements ratified by the UN Security Council, supporting the overthrow of a legitimately elected government viewed as pro-Russian and replacing it with a pro-European government, seeking to draw Ukraine into the EU without regard to its parallel duty free trade ties with Russia, arming and training the Ukrainian armed forces especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and today openly supplying Ukraine with weapons to combat the Russians, and encouraging President Zelensky to continue fighting despite parallel negotiations between Russia and Ukraine to reach an agreement.
If India were to condemn Russia’s obvious aggression, should it also criticise all the reasons that led to it. How would that serve the ends of India’s diplomacy and its desire to maintain friendly ties with both sides?
What would make the Indian side even more reluctant to side with the US on Ukraine are its stated intention to isolate Russia, cause its economic collapse and topple Putin. This is not an agenda that India can share. Neither can India endorse implicitly the scope of US and European sanctions on Russia which are hurting India too.
There is no doubt that India’s relations with the US and Europe are far more wide ranging than with Russia, and will continue to expand in every sphere, including defence. But that is no argument to willfully reduce ties with Russia in areas where it serves our national interest. Our ties with Russia meet certain specific security, defence and economic needs. As an Asian country, India’s geopolitical needs are different to those of the US and Europe. India has to take into account the consequences of strengthening Russia-China ties if it yielded to US pressure to move away from Russia and reduce the latter’s stake in maintaining a dynamic balance in its ties with both India and China. India sees no contradiction in maintaining friendly, productive ties with Russia and drawing closer to the US to subserve its overall developmental needs.
In his virtual meeting on April 11 with President Joe Biden prior to the 2+2 Dialogue, Prime Minister Modi laid out his vision of expanding India-US ties when he remarked “that friendship with the United States will remain an integral part of India's development journey over the next 25 years”. Yet, it was noticeable how Ukraine seemed to dominate this meeting, with the PM mentioning his efforts for peace in Ukraine and appeals to Presidents Putin and Zelensky to have direct talks to end the conflict, and expressing the hope that the ongoing dialogue between Russia and Ukraine would pave the way for peace. He rightly mentioned our humanitarian aid to Ukraine. He condemned the killings in Bucha and recalled that we had immediately demanded a fair probe. This has been wrongly interpreted as a sharpening of our tone against Russia, which, it needs recalling, had denied any role in the killings and had also asked for an independent probe. The PM asking for a fair probe implies that India is not accepting the Ukrainian version.
The External Affairs Minister too acknowledged that a good part of his bilateral meeting with Secretary of State Blinken on April 11 was devoted to the Ukrainian conflict and its ramifications, with countries far away worrying about energy security, food security, commodities prices and logistics disruption. Ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan and recent happenings in the Indian subcontinent were also on the agenda. Jaishankar mentioned the great strides in defence and security, partnership in counterterrorism and maritime security, and the steady growth in trade and investment with the US. Significantly, he appreciated the attention and energy devoted by the United States to the Quad, whose elevation and intensification in the last year, he said, benefited the entire Indo-Pacific. He underlined that the Quad had emerged as a powerful force of global good, a formulation that China would no doubt have noted.
In his public remarks on the occasion of the 2+2 Dialogue, Jaishankar noted that the bilateral trade had reached the $ 160 billion-mark, recorded investment levels were the highest and energy trade was rapidly growing. In the Joint Statement on the Dialogue India has made sure that the language on Ukraine-despite the attention given to the subject in the talks and the pressure on India-does not go beyond India’s comfort zone. It refers merely to the humanitarian crisis, calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities, condemns civilian deaths without apportioning blame and makes pro forma references to the UN Charter, respect for international law, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.
The Joint Statement does not break any notably new ground. There is a reiteration of the earlier formulations on the Quad and the Indo-Pacific, with the next Quad Leaders’ Summit planned in Tokyo in 2022. The commitment to empower the Quad as a force for global good for the Indo-Pacific region has been mentioned, but it remains to be seen whether the Ukraine conflict will in effect draw attention away from the Quad and the Indo-Pacific.
The Statement notes the enhanced engagement between India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the US in the new forum created in October 2021 on shared priorities such as food security, clean energy, waste management, and infrastructure development. It reiterates standard formulations with regard to the Taliban adhering to its commitments without spelling out how, cooperation in multilateral negotiations on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, triangular development activity with third countries and remaining engaged through the Blue Dot Network and Build Back Better World (B3W) Initiative.
The Statement contains nothing new on trade issues. Reconvening the India-U.S. Commercial Dialogue and the CEO Forum is planned for this year. The vital role of secure, resilient, reliable, and diverse supply chains for Critical and Emerging Technologies (CET) finds mention. Of more interest is the substantial progress noted in negotiations for an Investment Incentive Agreement (IIA) between the two countries. The ongoing engagement under the two main tracks of the India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership is commended. The announcement of a Joint Commission Meeting on Science and Technology in 2022 to discuss future science and technology collaboration is welcomed.
The Ministers announced the conclusion of a Memorandum of Understanding on Space Situational Awareness and applauded the ongoing development of the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite, planned for launch from India in 2023. They recognized the pivotal role of the India-U.S. partnership in combating the COVID-19 pandemic through the India-U.S. collaboration in vaccine R&D and production including the Janssen and Corbevax vaccines being manufactured by Biological E., and the Novovax vaccines by Serum Institute of India.
On defence and security, the Ministers welcomed plans to conduct an inaugural Defense Space Dialogue and the third Defense Cyber Dialogue in 2022, as well as an inaugural AI Dialogue. The importance of building a comprehensive framework under which the two militaries are equipped to exchange information in real time across domains was mentioned, as was progress made toward full implementation of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) to support the exchange of geospatial information.
Opportunities to further advance and deepen maritime cooperation, including in underwater domain awareness, were discussed. India’s decision to join the Combined Maritime Forces Task Force as an Associate Partner to expand multilateral cooperation in the Indian Ocean was welcomed by the US. Possible future DTTI projects to be considered are counter-unmanned aerial systems (UAS) systems and an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform. Both sides would be exploring reciprocal participation of U.S. and Indian vendors in each other’s defence supply chains, as also possibilities of utilising the Indian shipyards for repair and maintenance of ships of the U.S. Maritime Sealift Command (MSC) to support mid-voyage repair of U.S. Naval ships. All this does not amount to any firm commitment by the US to concretely participate in India’s programme for “atmanirbharta” in defence manufacturing. The 2+2 Dialogue has kept the issue of CAATSA sanctions on India hanging in the air. On terrorism past formulations are repeated.
All in all, if nothing really new of note emerged from the 2+2 Dialogue, it underlined the commitment of both sides to keep nurturing our growing strategic partnership, despite some headwinds created by the crisis in Ukraine.
(Kanwal Sibal is India's former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Russia. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)