With United States Secretary of State Antony J Blinken by his side, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar declared in Washington DC this week, “I am very bullish about the [Indo-US] relationship.” Only the previous day, Jaishankar had remarked that the US decision to provide a $450-million sustenance package for Pakistan’s aging F-16 fleet was “not fooling anybody”.
It would appear that Jaishankar had had a change of heart within 24 hours. In fact, such divergences are now routine in the deepening bilateral relationship.
So with Jaishankar listening, Blinken said it was Washington’s “obligation” to provide military equipment to ensure that Pakistan’s F-16s are kept capable to deal with “clear terrorist threats” from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Blinken offered some perspective too: “I think no two countries have a greater ability…opportunity and responsibility to try to shape the future of this century than the United States and India… [But] that doesn’t mean that we don’t have differences. We do, and we will. But it also means that because of the depth and quality of the dialogue we have, we talk about everything and work closely together on how we can advance the agenda that we have in common.”
This nuance is not unknown to those who have been associated with the evolution of the relationship over the past two decades. But as the countries navigate choppy geopolitical waters in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the relationship is being put through a “stress test”, many analysts say.
Following the nuclear tests of May 1998, as much of the western world came down heavily on India, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote to President Bill Clinton, putting China in the frame.
“We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem,” Vajpayee said.
While the tests were a temporary setback, “by the turn of the century, [India’s] relations with the US and the West in general had begun to crystallize into a mutually beneficial and substantive relationship”, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran wrote in his book, How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century (2018).
The rapprochement and subsequent strengthening of bilateral ties was a major geopolitical shift in the new millennium. Talks between then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott led to President Clinton’s historic visit of March 2000, and the Indo-US nuclear deal of the George W Bush years elevated Indo-US ties to a higher strategic trajectory.
In the last months of the Bush presidency, the international financial crisis hit, and Mumbai was attacked by Pakistani terrorists. In the storm that followed, ties between New Delhi and Washington stayed the course. Barack Obama became the only President to make two visits to India, and he hosted both Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi in the White House.
Despite President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, ties continued to improve, the Quad framework was revived, and the defence partnership was strengthened with the signing of the foundational agreements. Trump visited India, one of his last visits overseas before the pandemic shut down much of the world. Under President Joe Biden, the rhythm has been maintained, especially on the Indo-Pacific strategy — even though the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan last year left New Delhi vulnerable at a time when it was already facing a challenge on the Line of Actual Control.
“India’s relationship with the US has been the most comprehensive association the country has had since independence…this is truly a relationship forged in crisis,” Rudra Chaudhuri, head of Carnegie India, wrote in his book, Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947 (2014). At an Idea Exchange at The Indian Express in May, Saran said: “The kind of depth and breadth that the India-US relationship has acquired in the last couple of decades…has been a very surprising development. If you told me in 2005 that 20 years later, we would have such a strong military-to-military relationship, a strong counter-terrorism relationship, I would have probably said that that is an unrealistic prospect. But that has happened… There is a recognition that in terms of the challenges that we face, and will continue to face, this relationship is going to be very critical. And I agree with that.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has tested the relationship like never before. India’s refusal to criticise Moscow’s war has made New Delhi’s allies in Europe deeply uncomfortable, and caused a fair bit of consternation in Washington and other Western capitals. So on September 16, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi told President Vladimir Putin that “today’s era is not of war”, the US was pleased with the formulation and its articulation in full public glare.
“As he (Modi) said, this is not an era, this is not a time for war. We could not agree more,” Blinken said. “If Russia stops fighting, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends…so this is incumbent upon President Putin.”
The US has been unhappy that India has been buying more oil from Russia than earlier. India argues that it must protect its citizens from the inflationary impact of the war.
While Washington did brief New Delhi on the F-16 programme, framing it as a continuation of the old programme, not a new one, and necessary for Pakistan to fight terrorism, South Block disagreed both on its optics and substance.
“It’s really for the United States today to reflect on the merits of this relationship (with Pakistan) and what they get by it… For someone to say I am doing this because it is all counter-terrorism content and…you are talking of an aircraft like…an F-16 where everybody knows…where they are deployed and their use… You are not fooling anybody by saying these things,” Jaishankar said.
Some analysts in New Delhi view the renewal of the US-Pakistan military engagement as a message to New Delhi for its strategy of “issue-based alignment”. Also, while senior US officials such as Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Assistant Secretary Donald Lu have made visits to New Delhi, the absence of a full-time ambassador 20 months after the Biden Administration took charge, has had an impact on ties.
Charge d’affaires Patricia A Lacina has been holding the fort at the US Embassy in New Delhi as the confirmation of President Biden’s pick for Ambassador, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, remains stuck in the Senate. This has been the longest that the US has been without a full-time envoy in New Delhi since 1950. Kenneth Juster left the position in January 2021.
For New Delhi, having a full-time US envoy is important to deliver key messages to Washington DC. From South Block’s perspective, the envoy must be able to get on the phone with someone in the corridors of power in the US capital — the higher the better.
Even as they navigate the minor turbulence in their relationship due to the Ukraine war, both India and the US see China as the biggest threat and rival. New Delhi had seen the problems with a rapidly rising and increasingly aggressive Beijing early, but US administrations had ignored the warning signs until around 2011, when President Obama started to talk about a “pivot” to the East. But it took the Trump administration to clearly spell out China as a strategic threat and rival.
This framing has continued under Biden. But as the US has exited Afghanistan, Beijing’s leverage in Pakistan-Afghanistan has increased. In this context, India has sought an exemption on the Russian air defence system, the S-400, from US sanctions.
With the recent “no-limits” ties between Russia and China, irritants in the US-India relationship present potential weak spots. Every leader since Vajpayee has seen the nations as “natural allies” — and there is no better time to accommodate and invest in the relationship.