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US-India ties too important to be neglected

The upcoming joint military exercise between the US-India known as War Practice, in a high-altitude area less than 100 kilometres from India's border with China, highlights the partnership's growing strategic importance. India holds more annual military drills with the US than any other country, as the two powers seek to improve their forces' interoperability.

But President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and effectively surrender the country to a Pakistan-reared terrorist militia, in addition to tensions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have strained the ties between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies.

Like many others, including US allies Israel and Turkey, India has taken a neutral stance on the Ukraine war. Much to the chagrin of the US and Europe, India has continued to purchase discounted oil from Russia.

At the heart of India’s decision is fear of losing out to China. Since 2019, the US has used the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports to deprive India of cheaper Iranian oil, thereby turning it into the largest market for US energy exporters. The main beneficiary of the sanctions is China, which has increased its purchases of Iranian oil at a discount and developed a security partnership with the Islamic Republic without facing US reprisal.

While the US has already surpassed Russia as India’s largest weapons supplier, the US defence sector views the war in Ukraine as a “great opportunity” for arms sales to India to “surge”. Moreover, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged Indian officials to avoid buying Russian equipment and purchase US-made weapons from now on.

Yet Mr Biden’s overriding focus on punishing Russia could exacerbate India’s security challenges, especially if the international efforts to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin inadvertently empower an expansionist China. The US-led sanctions and Europe’s shift away from Russian energy effectively put Moscow in the pocket of the resource-hungry Chinese. Its alliance with Russia has allowed China to build an energy safety net.

Meanwhile, America’s recent US$450 million (17.2 billion baht) deal to modernise Pakistan’s F-16 fleet has evoked bitter memories of the US arming Pakistan against India and supporting the initial development of the Pakistani nuclear-weapons programme during the Cold War.

The Biden administration’s disingenuous claim that upgrading Pakistan’s F-16 fleet would advance counterterrorism has prompted a sharp response from India. During a recent visit to Washington, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar publicly condemned the deal, saying that the US explanation “is not fooling anyone”: Pakistan would undoubtedly deploy the upgraded fighter jets against India.

Against this backdrop, some observers have revived the old theory that US-India ties fare better under Republican administrations. Bilateral relations thrived during president Donald Trump’s administration, which relied heavily on India in developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. Mr Trump instituted new US policies on China and Pakistan, whose increasingly close partnership has raised the prospect of India fighting a two-front war. In a major policy shift, he ended the 45-year US policy of aiding China’s rise. He also cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terror groups.

Mr Biden, on the other hand, has resumed America’s coddling of Pakistan, made outreach to Beijing a high priority and said nothing about China’s encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas.

Nothing better shows his neglect of India ties than the fact that, since he took office, there has been no US envoy in New Delhi.

Moreover, the Biden administration has been trying to leverage human-rights issues against India. In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged a “rise in human-rights abuses” in the country, prompting Mr Jaishankar to counter that India is similarly concerned about the state of human rights in the US. Likewise, prominent members of the US Democratic Party can barely conceal their hostility to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of Hindu nationalism.

Given that the US and India are both polarised democracies, officials should avoid statements that could inflame domestic tensions. If the US wishes to shift strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific, it must improve relations with its most important strategic ally in Asia. To that end, Mr Biden must not squander the historic opportunity to forge a “soft” alliance with India. If the US is to prevail in its escalating rivalry with China and Russia and avoid strategic overreach, it needs India more than ever. But without mutual respect, the bilateral partnership is doomed. ©2022 Project Syndicate

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of ‘Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis’.

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