The United States is unique in that it possesses a rare self-confidence and grace, to make a quick course correction if required and even go public with it. This is the hallmark of a great power. During his visit to the US (24-28 May), External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar noted that the US had “not only an enormous ability to reinvent itself, it also has a great ability to assess its situation and re-strategise in a way.”
Within six days of the State Department Spokesperson’s insensitive remarks on the COVID crisis, President Joe Biden was on the phone with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to convey his solidarity and affirm support to India’s efforts to contain the ongoing wave of the pandemic. Mobilising at remarkable speed and with a sense of purpose, Washington dispatched six plane loads of medical supplies, including therapeutics, ventilators and components needed for vaccine production in India. So far, emergency supplies worth around $500 million have reached India.
Responding to the PM’s request, the Biden administration was also prompt in endorsing India’s initiative at the WTO to relax the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) norms, to ensure quick and affordable access to vaccines and medicines to developing countries. That position was reaffirmed by US Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai, whom the External Affairs Minister met on May 27. He tweeted – “Welcomed her positive stance on IPR issues & support for efficient & robust supply chains.” Nevertheless, it remains an uphill task as Europe is non-committal and the Big Pharma is opposed, yet the American solidarity is heartening.
India is grappling with the lethal second wave of the pandemic but due to paucity of components and raw material, especially from the US, is unable to ramp up vaccine production. Some 200 million doses of vaccine have been administered in India, which has immunized roughly 3 per cent of our population, as against 50 per cent in America. We need to produce 2 billion doses this year just for ourselves. Then we have bilateral export commitments besides producing 1 billion doses in 2022 for developing countries, as mandated by the first Quad summit in March. Therefore, unclogging the supply lines and expediting licensing arrangements with pharma majors topped the EAM’s agenda in the US. “… focused on Indo-US vaccine partnership aimed at expanding access and ensuring supply,” the Minister tweeted after his meeting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
Blinken termed the India-US partnership as “vital, strong and increasingly productive”. Their broad-ranging discussions also covered matters pertaining to bilateral cooperation, regional and global issues, including Indo-Pacific and the Quad, Afghanistan, Myanmar, UNSC and other international organizations, climate crisis, multilateral cooperation, especially at the UN Security Council. The External Affairs Minister noted that the talks had “further solidified our strategic partnership and enlarged our agenda of cooperation”.
The EAM similarly held a comprehensive conversation about further developing bilateral strategic and defence partnership with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin. They exchanged views on a range of contemporary regional security challenges (read, China). Secretary Austin looked forward to hosting the next 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue later this year with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the External Affairs Minister.
The well-timed visit gave the EAM an opportunity to interact with key members of the Biden administration in-person, some of whom he counts among friends from his previous avatars. Besides Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin (only minister from Biden dispensation to have visited India in March), USTR Tai, he also met National Security Adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan, Director of the National Intelligence Avril Haines and a number of ranking Congressmen. The US is India’s largest trading partner. EAM Jaishankar interacted with business forums like the US-India Business Council (USIBC) and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF).
His visit and statements are being closely watched in China. Earlier an op-ed in ‘Global Times’ had predicted (and cautioned!)—“New Delhi and Washington will not become real allies, because India will not give up its strategic autonomy. India will only become a US “ally” in some fields, but it will not become another Japan or Australia that are allied with the US.”
India enjoys the most comprehensive ties with the US, which are steadily deepening. As fellow democracies and pluralistic societies, there is a broad and growing convergence in our geopolitical outlook. Since we are located in different geographies some divergence in assessment about our respective neighbourhoods is not unnatural. Yet we are at one about the real-time threat to the peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, posed by Chinese aggression and ambition, which along with Quad and the need to maintain FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region) figured prominently in EAM’s discussions.
The months ahead will witness developments that would test established geo-strategic arrangements and assumptions in India’s neighbourhood and West Pacific region. The US decision to pull out of Afghanistan which could see a triumphant return of the radical Taliban; continued stalemate between India and China in Ladakh; ongoing intimidation of Taiwan by China; increased presence of American aircraft carriers in the South China Sea; President Biden’s directive to intelligence agencies to investigate the origin of the coronavirus pandemic within 90 days; military crackdown in Myanmar; possible revival of JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) talks and pandemic management, to name a few.
It may be recalled that the first in-person Quad leaders’ summit is likely to be hosted by the American president later this year. Prime Minister Modi should be paying a return visit to the US (President Trump was in India in February last year) to reinforce the wholesome practice of regular highest-level interactions. The Biden administration’s proactiveness and quality of response will set the tone of Indian symphony with the US and Quad. India is ready with its musical composition and so is the US, judging from what appears to be the outcome of the EAM’s visit.
The author is Former Envoy to South Korea and Canada and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.