Can the U.S. and India Cooperate Despite Differences over Ukraine?

By James Durso

In a rebranding reminiscent of New Coke, in 2018 the U.S. Pacific Command was christened the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to reflect increased cooperation with countries in the Indian Ocean theatre, including India, in response to increased assertiveness by China’s military.

Four years later, the official U.S. view of India, the world’s biggest democracy, soured and Washington threatened sanctions against Delhi for buying the Russian S-400 air defense system, and warned of “significant and long-term” consequences for India’s engagement with Russia, that includes buying Russian crude oil at a 25% discount, creating a rupee-ruble payment system to facilitate trade with Russia, and abstaining from UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions opposing the Russian attack.

In early March, Foggy Bottom sent instructions to U.S. diplomats to inform India that its neutral position put it “in Russia’s camp,” but cooler heads prevailed and the instructions were cancelled the next day. In an effort at fence-mending, in late March, the U.S. State Department announced, “India is an essential partner for us in realizing our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” when addressing India’s role in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (India, the US, Japan, and Australia), which was formed to counter China.

Then, in April, the U.S. sanctioned the Russian state-owned diamond miner Alrosa PJSC, which produces about 30% of the world’s rough stones. Most diamonds from Russia are polished in India, so the sanctions will hit diamond processing centers in Gujarat, the home state of India prime minister Narendra Modi.

Also, in April, the U.S. State Department notified the Congress that it is considering a sale of additional F-16 fighter aircraft to Türkiye, despite ongoing sanctions for its purchase of the Russian S-400. The U.S. backsliding on sanctions on Türkiye will be noticed in India, which may surmise it can moderate the sanctions threat if it provides a little something-something to America’s defense-industrial complex.

Why the sudden U.S. turnaround?

Well, India is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the world’s sixth-largest economy (ahead of the United Kingdom and France, and on the verge of overtaking Great Britain), is the biggest buyer of Russian weaponry and, according to the International Monetary Fund, has almost wiped out extreme poverty.

If India complies with U.S. demands on Ukraine, it will be a significant loss for Russia and may influence the two-thirds of the world that lives in neutral or Russia-leaning countries.

Why is India insisting on going its own way?

First, it’s a sovereign right. Next, India was until recently (1947) a colony of the United Kingdom and is averse to taking orders from foreign capitals. India’s Cold War legacy was as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of countries that avoided joining the competing Soviet and American blocs.

During the Cold War, India’s opponent, Pakistan, explicitly aligned itself with the U.S., and the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, told Life Magazine in 1947, “Pakistan needs America. America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America.”

Though it was non-aligned, India developed close ties with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and the two nations signed the 1971 Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation, partly to counter Pakistan’s growing ties with the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China.

Aside from an anti-colonial legacy, India has an information technology (IT) sector that contributes over 13% to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is the largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and is itself becoming a significant source of investment abroad. The country occupies a key position in Eurasia close to the South China Sea shipping lanes that supply China, and has 1.4 billion people, to boot. It probably feels that in Asia it “makes the weather,” so its cooperation should be requested, not demanded.

In Afghanistan, India supported the U.S.-led reconstruction by sponsoring development projects and provided military assistance to Kabul. India has been a reliable supporter to UN peacekeeping efforts, and is the #3 contributor of troops and police to UN missions, and it considers itself a responsible global citizen.

Shivshankar Menon, the former Indian national security advisor recently observed that many Asian capitals view the Russian-Ukraine war as “a war between Europeans over the European security order” that was only possible because “the center of gravity of the world economy has moved from the Atlantic to east of the Urals.”

Delhi is dubious about Washington’s judgement after witnessing the disasters authored by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and is taking the opportunity to avoid a role in the NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine.

The U.S. should recognize that independent allies, that are democracies and who have border disputes of their own, may not eagerly respond to a border dispute on another continent, and at the bidding of a country that won’t control its own borders.

Diversity is all the rage but, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy, fresh from the near-disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis, declared, “We must recognize that we cannot remake the world simply by our own command. Every nation has its own traditions, its own values, its own aspirations. Our assistance from time to time can help other nations preserve their independence and advance their growth, but we cannot remake them in our own image.”

India has been defined as a “civilization state,” similar to China and Russia. Bruno Maçães observed “the [civilization] state has the paramount task of protecting a specific cultural tradition” which may place it at odds with many in the U.S. political class who are busy deconstructing America’s civilization and traditions, such as the role of the family (though not without growing internal resistance).

That cultural foundation, leavened by the anti-colonial tradition, may make India’s current day political leaders uninterested in taking orders from America which has no recent successes to point to, and which lurches from crisis to crisis, demanding the rest of the world follow – a country with no moral authority.

If Delhi decides to play ball with Washington, what will it want?

Support in its struggle against longtime U.S. client Pakistan? To India, the Russia-Ukraine war may look like a matter of post-Cold War border cleanup, but the West has framed it as a pivotal moment in the history of the world, so India may as well name a good price.

The conflict in Ukraine may not be of concern to former colonies like India as it is a struggle between European nations over the future European security architecture.

Unlike the past, the competition European countries it isn’t being fought out in Africa and Asia by armies of local levies whose blood was shed for ideologies none of them shared. Instead, the Europeans are shedding European blood in Europe over European concerns, so why get involved?

One of those “local levies” was the British Indian Army that fought for the Allies in World War 1 (60,000 dead) and World War 2 (over 87,000 dead). The World War 2 army numbered over 2.5 million and was the largest volunteer army in history and the service of the troops motivated India’s demand for independence.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been decried as an assault on the “liberal, rules-based order” so beloved of Western officials and TED Talks, but India and other members of the Global South remember “the damage inflicted on the region [Asia] by European imperialism” that bequeathed a healthy skepticism about the motives of the West.

It’s no wonder that India and its non-aligned partners view the “rules-based order” as the West’s rules and their order.

And Delhi no doubt noticed that when China encroached on its territory in Ladakh from 2020 to 2022, no leading European or North American country called for a boycott of Chinese rare earth elements, though it is still expected to respond when the White House drunk-dials at midnight.

Trita Parsi pointed out that leaders in many countries in the Global South “largely sympathize with the plight of the Ukrainian people and view Russia as the aggressor,” but the U.S. has historically violated international law with impunity, so Washington’s sudden reverence for the “rules-based order” is unlikely to win over the support of countries “that have often experienced the worse sides of the international order.”

The U.S. tried to rally the G-20, whose members represent more than 80 percent of world GDP, 75 percent of international trade and 60 percent of the world population against Russia.

However, it hit a BRIC wall as Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa have failed to respond to U.S. pressure.

India may be used to a tone-deaf Washington but, of more pressing concern, the U.S. doesn’t appear to grasp that the U.S., Russia, and India is the natural coalition to oppose China’s expansion, directed by the Chinese Communist Party that, according to the U.S. State Department, aims “to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.”

The primary reason the U.S. won’t pay the price to get Moscow on-side is because congressional leaders, administration officials, and much of the commentariat, think Putin is a “bad guy” and “KGB something-something.” And Washington is so consumed by the Ukraine conflict that it isn’t paying attention to China, casting doubt on its judgement and priorities.

Washington’s short attention span is always on display in Central Asia where its involvement is transactional and sporadic.

But India has taken the initiative and increased engagement with the republics as a long-term partner that can help them balance against China, Russia, Iran, and Türkiye, maximizing their opportunities. Delhi’s pragmatic engagement in the region will support Washington’s regional strategy that prioritizes independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

The U.S. should encourage and support India’s outreach to the republics as India may prove a more durable partner for Central Asia as it brings science and technology (information technology, pharmaceuticals), and the English language that will be more widely used in the future, especially by the region’s large young population, as many governments are changing from the Cyrillic to a Latin alphabet. India lacks the West’s mission civilisatrice and its shared experience of being part of someone else’s empire will keep it sensitive to the republics’ vigilance to any threats to their independence and sovereignty

India has a free trade agreement with Afghanistan dating from 2003, but implementation may be delayed by a lack of capacity in the Taliban government. India is the “I” in the troubled TAPI natural gas pipeline that will bring Turkmenistan’s natural gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, though the project is challenged by concerns about the security situation in Afghanistan (and Delhi hasn’t yet recognized the Taliban government in Kabul), and India’s concern that Pakistan will stop the flow of gas in a crisis.

Recently, India and Uzbekistan announced they concluded 98 investment agreements worth $2.3 billion, in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, education and infrastructure development. Kazakhstan, the biggest Central Asian economy, is India’s main trading partner in the region, and the Indian-Kazakh trade turnover exceeds the total trade with the rest of the countries in the region, so we may see Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan competing to be India’s hub in the region.

 India operates an air base in Tajikistan that will be an opportunity to keep an eye on what Pakistan is up to in Afghanistan, and India and Kyrgyzstan recently concluded special forces exercises in India.

Prime Minister Modi underlined India’s interest in engagement with Central Asia by meeting the Central Asia foreign ministers in December 2021 at the India-Central Asia Dialogue. Modi “emphasized the importance that India attaches to its long-standing relations with [the] Central Asian countries, which are part of its ‘extended neighbourhood,’” and “underscored the potential of enhanced economic cooperation between India and Central Asia, and the role of connectivity in that regard.”

Despite U.S. president Joe Biden’s characterization of India’s stance on Ukraine as “somewhat shaky,” and a White House threat of “significant and long-term” consequences for its neutrality, Biden met virtually with Modi during the India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. The meetings were a success as both sides pledged to reinforce ties and continue to focus on the challenge from China, and to increase cooperation in defense, cyberspace, space and maritime security.

And, in another outbreak of diplomacy, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told his ministers he won’t “lecture” India over its ties to Russia and neutral stance on the Ukraine crisis during his upcoming visit to India.

But despite the bonhomie after the ministerial dialogue, which focused in defense and foreign affairs, not economic matters, Washington and Delhi should focus on the long-term issue that has bedeviled the relationship: trade disputes, not the crisis du jour in Ukraine.

According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, “India was the United States’ 11th-largest overall goods trading partner; and the United States was India’s largest merchandise export destination and third-largest merchandise import supplier (after China and the EuropeanUnion).”

India’s 2020 exports to the U.S. totaled almost $50 billion, and the country received $26.6 billion in U.S. goods and services. These are big numbers, but the volume of trade is less than it could be, possibly due to each country’s withdrawal from regional trade agreements: the U.S. left the Trans Pacific Partnership in 2017, and India left the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2019.

Ongoing trade issues such as intellectual property rights protection, market access, foreign investment limitations, agricultural products, medical devices, H1B visas, and the digital economy, have also put a brake on trade.

The U.S. and India should commit to resolving economic issues that have throttled the bilateral relationship. The U.S. can help by not bedeviling India over out-of-area issues like Ukraine or who it buys oil from, and supporting India’s engagement in Central Asia which may help quell the Central and South Asian regions upset by two decades of the failed NATO intervention in Afghanistan.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Central Asia.

Featured Photo: Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, on 15th nov. 2021 and launch several initiatives for the welfare of the tribal community on the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, which the Center is celebrating as Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas.

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