Washington: If the idea of a deep friendship is being able to talk about everything; about issues that you were once uncomfortable discussing; about differences; about things that go beyond your immediate horizon; about threats and challenges — and leave the room with a sense of warmth and a promise to meet again, soon — India and the United States (US) have got there.
At the end of his four-day visit to Washington DC — after six days in New York where he met 100 of his counterparts and addressed the United Nations General Assembly — external affairs minister S Jaishankar went back home giving both India and the US credit for how far they have come.
If Jaishankar set the tone for the bilateral leg of his visit on Sunday by suggesting that the biggest change in his professional career was the transformation in the India-US relationship — and remember he has been in the business for 45 years — he wrapped up his trip by saying that he had “solid, positive, productive bilateral conversations framed in the context of global challenges” with the American side.
Talking about everything
The most revealing element of the India-US friendship is the number of domains it spans. And it is a point that both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jaishankar made at their joint press appearance on Tuesday at the State Department.
Blinken termed the partnership as one of the most consequential in the world. “It’s vital to addressing virtually every global challenge that our people face, whether it’s health security, climate change, food security, upholding the free and open international order, to name just a few.”
Jaishankar, a few minutes later, concurred, saying about the partnership, “Most of you would readily understand that it has grown very significantly in scope and depth over the last few years. We engage each other across pretty much every domain, and the quality of our cooperation – as indeed of our conversations – have steadily improved.”
The personal connection between the two helps — they worked together in their earlier avatars when Blinken was a state department deputy secretary and Jaishankar was foreign secretary, and have known each other even before that — but the bond between the two countries has also become more structural. And this is reflected in the nature of the conversations they had.
On the bilateral front, Jaishankar and American officials (he met a range of senior cabinet officials besides Blinken) talked about what may seem like the mundane consular issue of visas, but which affects hundreds of thousands of people. They talked about trade and commerce, the growth that has happened, the potential that remains, India’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. They talked about how to get more American businesses to India and strengthen resilient supply chains. They talked about defence, how to strengthen operational ties between the militaries, the possibilities that existed in the domain of bilateral military-industrial ties, and India’s diversification efforts. They talked about climate, and how the US can help meet its financing obligations and commitment so that India meets its updated nationally determined commitments. They talked about science and technology — particularly emerging and critical technologies, the importance of trusted research, and its interplay with national security, economic security, and workforce development.
On the plurilateral front, they talked about Quad. In New York, just last week, Blinken, hours after losing his father, hosted a meeting of Quad foreign ministers where India, Japan, the US, and Australia agreed on guidelines for humanitarian assistance, disaster management — and given the scale of climate disasters and humanitarian emergencies, this is both critical and plays to an Indian strength — and agreed to battle cyber crimes together.
This is the sixth time Quad leaders have met since Joe Biden took office — the foreign ministers had a virtual call; there was a a leader level virtual summit; Biden then hosted an in-person leader summit; foreign ministers met in Melbourne before the Ukraine war began; there was a second leader level virtual summit a well after the war commenced; leaders met again in Tokyo, and now foreign ministers have met, promising to meet again in Delhi early next year.
On the multilateral front, India and the US talked about the UN Security Council reform — an agenda that is dear to India and the Americans, according to Jaishankar, have offered their most explicit and specific backing so far with Biden mentioning it in his UN General Assembly address. They talked about continued cooperation at the UN, where, remember it is the US and India that together proposed the listing of Pakistan-based terrorists in the sanctions committee, a move that China has consistently blocked.
And this is just a smattering of conversations that both sides have acknowledged having. In diplomacy, there is often more that is hidden than revealed and it can be safely surmised that India and US spoke about more themes that they may not want to introduce in the public domain just yet.
Talking about the C word
The two sides talked about China — there is little doubt that it would have come up in conversations with national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Blinken, defence secretary Lloyd Austin, and leaders of the intelligence community Jaishankar met. But there was a difference in the public emphasis on the issue.
The most upfront about the China challenge was Austin, who, like in April during the 2+2 meet, explicitly mentioned China when he hosted Jaishankar at Pentagon.
Austin said, “In recent months, we have seen the PRC intensify its efforts to challenge the rules-based international order from its unprecedented provocations in the Taiwan Strait to its actions in the Indian Ocean. The PRC continues to support Russia amid its unprovoked and cruel invasion of Ukraine.” But these “sustained challenges to peace, security and prosperity in the region and beyond” only reaffirmed the importance of the India-US partnership, Austin said.
The Indian minister did not mention China in his public remarks unless specifically asked a question on the issue. But he referred to the Indo-Pacific consistently in his remarks, and it is an open secret that the threat to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific theatre comes from China. When asked about the American and Indian convergence on China, when both have difficult ties with Beijing, the minister said that where the convergence lies is in seeking “stability, security, progress, prosperity and development of the Indo-Pacific”.
Giving the example of the Ukraine war and the turbulence it has created for people across the world, the minister pointed out that the globalised, interlocked, interdependent nature of the world meant that India had vital stakes in the region. He explained that as New Delhi’s interests had sufficiently expanded eastward, and Washington had become more open and flexible about partnerships outside its old alliances and treaty frameworks, this convergence had grown.
But it was hard to miss that there was an underlying China subtext to a range of the engagements.
If India is investing in wooing American investors to set up businesses and manufacturing plants in India, it is to boost Indian economic growth and employment generation — but also to reduce dependence on Chinese manufacturing. If American investors are looking seriously at India, it is because they know the risks of investing in China have shot up over the past few years. If India wants to become a part of supply chains in semiconductors, it is to leverage its tech strength — but also to reduce dependence on untrustworthy strategic adversaries. If America is willing to have that conversation, it is because it recognises the power of Indian talent and considers India more trustworthy. If India and America see an interest in cooperating on critical and emerging technologies, it is because they know that the next battle will be fought in the domains of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, digital networks — and both want to prevent China from setting the rules. And if India and the US are willing to cooperate more across South Asia, in West Asia, even in the Pacific Islands, it is because both don’t want China to build on its aspirations for hegemonic influence.
Talking about the region
Indeed, the two sides talked about the regional landscape. Remember, there was a time not so long ago when India wasn’t comfortable with an American role in South Asia, but that is in the past now.
At the joint presser with Blinken, Jaishankar said, “We particularly value closer coordination in the Indian subcontinent, where we perceive that our convergences are very strong. It is essential that democracy, pluralism, progress, development, and prosperity are nurtured. Conversely, we must counter radicalisation, extremism, and fundamentalism.” India, the minister pointed out, is widening its international footprint, and there are many more regions where Indian interests will be intersecting with American interests. “It is to our mutual benefit that this be a complementary process.”
American diplomats have long wanted to work with New Delhi in the region, recognising India’s historical strengths, its extensive network, its deep and nuanced understanding of societies, and its political and economic leverage in the neighbourhood. For India, as broader interests with the US converge, and as China’s political interference in neighbouring countries grows, it helps to have the Americans on the same page.
When HT asked Jaishankar whether the two countries discussed Bangladesh and Myanmar — they discussed the latter in more detail than the former, given the deeper political and security challenges in Myanmar — the minister provided a deeper analysis of these conversations. “With multiple interlocutors, there is a broader understanding today that in the subcontinent, it is to our mutual benefit if we coordinate policies effectively. It is a region where we put in a lot of resources, energies. It is closer to us, so we have an understanding of the place. And that is appreciated.”
Talking about differences
It is a cliche in politics that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. And it is indeed true that interests drive relationships, both collaborative and adversarial ones.
But when interests converge in a range of areas, the space for friendship grows — to the extent that when interests don’t converge, friends learn to live and let live. And that is where India and the US seem to be at the moment when it comes to those differences.
Take democracy. The administration may not have prioritised what critics of India’s ruling party see as India’s democratic backsliding in its approach to New Delhi. But there is little doubt that the larger ecosystem of the Democratic Party (human rights organisations, the media, leaders of the Left who constitute the progressive faction) believes that India has slid on the democratic metric.
Blinken made his point in public remarks, when he said, “We must continue to hold ourselves — both of us, as well as our fellow democracies — to our core values, including respect for universal human rights like freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, which makes our democracies stronger.”
Jaishankar made his point too, for within India’s ruling ecosystem, there is annoyance with what is seen as American moralising and hypocrisy.
He said, “We spoke over the last two days of our commitment to practicing and furthering democracy, human rights, and good governance. Each country approaches the set of issues from their history, tradition, and societal context. Our yardsticks for judgement are the integrity of the democratic processes, the respect and credibility that they command with the people, and the nondiscriminatory delivery of public goods and services. India does not believe that the efficacy or indeed the quality of democracy should be decided by votebanks.”
But while both made their viewpoints known publicly, they then moved on rather than argue about it or make it a defining issue.
Which is exactly what was done on Pakistan too, even though media questioning on it gave it more focus than perhaps either government wanted.
On Sunday, Jaishankar asked the US to reflect on costs of its ties with Pakistan and that the explanation given for the F-16 support — counter-terrorism — didn’t fool anyone. But it is important to note that he said this in response to a question at an Indian-American community event rather than in his opening remarks.
On Monday, the State Department said that the US saw its ties with India and Pakistan as independent of each other. Once again, this was said in response to a question about Jaishankar’s statement. On Tuesday, Blinken explained the package wasn’t an additional one, but a sustainment programme but did emphasise that Pakistan faced terror threats of its own, in what was a clear rebuttal of Jaishankar’s statement on Sunday. But both his points too were in responses to questions by the press.
But that was pretty much it because all sides knew there was a degree of choreography involved. The US did what it decided what is in its interest given the current state of Pakistan’s domestic politics. India knows it doesn’t lead to a change in the strategic balance of power in the subcontinent and doesn’t, in any way, mark a major strategic reset in ties at the cost of Washington’s ties with Delhi. While India wasn’t pleased with the F16 support, it had to pretend to be more angry than it actually is. The Americans knew that Indian statements were meant more for domestic political consumption than for their ears and let the sharp barbs pass.
Or take Ukraine.
Ever since the Russians invaded Ukraine, the striking thing has not been the fact that India and the US differ. The striking thing has been the effort by both sides, but particularly the American administration, to underplay the differences. With time, the Indian position has evolved and become more critical of the Russians — adding to the convergence in understanding.
It is also instructive that in their conversations, the two sides exchange views on how the situation is evolving, the course of the war, the facts on the ground as they see it rather than engage in a slanging match about who should be doing what about it.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t differences. Americans and Europeans are invested in punishing and defeating Russian and how the war ends, on what terms, matters to them; India is invested in the consequences of the war and the end of the conflict, as distant as it may be at the moment, is arguably more important for India than the actual terms on which it ends. More specifically, the US and Europe are toying with the idea of price caps on Russian oil; India has made it clear that energy security, both in terms of availability and cost, is its number one priority and has shown little interest in participating in mechanisms designed in the West to isolate Russia.
But again, these are conversations held privately. Both sides make their points known publicly but without the acrimony and rancour that characterises the mood sometimes in the public sphere. They figure out if there are ways to bridge the divide; when there is, they work on it; when there isn’t, they move on.
This spirit — of being able to deal with differences, understand each other’s compulsions, and then find common ground within that framework when possible — probably marks the most important feature of the relationship today.
As Blinken, when referring to the expanse to the bilateral conversation, said, “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, which – as you have heard, I think, from both of us – extends to virtually every issue that is confronting our own citizens and people around the world.”
Jaishankar too said, in the context of bilateral ties in the context of global challenges, that Indian and American positions may not be identical, priorities may be different. “But the good part of the relationship today is that we understand that we have to make space for each other and that we can work with each other even if we don’t entirely agree on every aspect of every issue. It was a very comfortable visit in that sense”
Jaishankar’s visit once again reaffirmed that India and the US are deeply closely engaged in their bilateral relationship, about the wider regional challenges in Indo-Pacific, and about the state of the world. Like friends, the two countries talk, they agree, they find avenues to collaborate, they disagree and argue (sometimes loudly, often gently), but through all of this, the depth of their relationship grows. In a volatile world, that’s good news for both countries.