Scale and intensity of US support following Biden-Modi call indicates vasudhaiva kutumbakam isn’t a fuzzy concept

Sreemoy Talukdar
·15-min read

The delay on part of the United States to respond to the raging COVID-19 crisis in India triggered considerable angst, and for a while, it seemed that the goodwill generated over the last two decades will be washed away by a tsunami of adverse public reaction. That adversity wasn't restricted to the street but also manifested itself in rarefied corners.

Former army chiefs and envoys pointed out that American conduct has affected mutual trust at a time when India was most vulnerable. It amounted to betrayal by a friend. Former chief of the Indian army Ved Prakash Malik said on Twitter: "Remembering an old lesson... Not to become overdependent on the US for defence weapons and equipment."

Ambassador Vishnu Prakash, a former envoy to South Korea and Canada, wrote in News18 that "Washington is not overly concerned about the avoidable loss of hundreds of Indian lives daily" and quoted Winston Churchill: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing €" after they've tried everything else."

According to Nirupama Menon Rao, former foreign secretary and ambassador to China and the United States said, as stated in an article in Bharat Shakti, "the perception that the US which has a global strategic partnership with India, and is a sister democracy, was not spontaneous and empathetic in responding more promptly to the public health crisis caused by the drastic rise in COVID infections in India has jolted the image of America in Indian eyes. It is as if a trusted friend has been rather late in responding with help and that impression takes some time to dispel."

Underlying these concerns is the fact that though India and the US are growing strategically close, driven by a convergence of interests, that closeness cannot be taken for granted given the weight of history and the baggage of the Cold War. Both sides need to nurture the relationship and keep building trust. COVID-19, it was suggested, could also become an important factor in determining the pace of the relationship.

Presciently, scholar Tanvi Madan of the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution had predicted in her testimony before the US House Intelligence Committee in 2020, "...the fallout from COVID-19, could also pose challenges for the US-India relationship. Much will depend on how the health and economic consequences play out. Credible responses to COVID-19 will help each country see the other as a more attractive partner. Moreover, the nature and effectiveness of each country's response will likely affect both the willingness and ability to take the relationship forward bilaterally, regionally, and globally."

India's sense of betrayal stemmed from multiple factors. One, India had extended a hand of help last year when the Donald Trump administration was in need of hydroxychloroquine. India removed an export ban on HCQ and shipped it to the US in spite of domestic criticism.

Two, the US remained silent on easing the restrictions on exports of critical raw materials imposed under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to give precedence to the needs of US companies.

Three, Washington remained non-committal on sharing the "tens of millions of AstraZeneca vaccines" it has not authorised for domestic use and won't ever need.

And four, there was radio silence and a complete lack of supportive statements from senior figures in the Joe Biden administration even as India was grappling with its biggest public health crisis in a century and losing thousands of its citizens every day to the pandemic.

And when some statements were finally made, these reflected arrogance, insensitivity and lack of concern for India's plight. For instance, the now-infamous comments made by US Department of State official Ned Price who stressed on 'US first' policy in vaccination. "It's, of course, not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated; it's in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated."

Or, take the statement of White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, who stated the obvious that India needs to get its people "vaccinated because that's the only way we're going to turn that around" but refused to say anything on sharing the doses lying unused in Ohio.

The delayed response from the US gave rise to speculation that the Biden administration's actions were dominated by an "anti-Modi" perception till inaction became politically unsustainable.

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This delay was also noticed by America's strategic rivals US and China, and a bit of geopolitical wrangling took place. China's state-sponsored Global Times newspaper carried a spate of articles on how the US has "abandoned" its Quad partner India, and suggested that India cannot depend on the US.

In an editorial carried on Tuesday, the Communist Party of China's mouthpiece noted that Washington has agreed to help, but suggested that "It is doubtful whether the late actions of the US could heal the scars the US left on the heart of India... India has behaved as a friend in need, but when the US is needed, it just backtracks. The US agreed to help only because it feels that if it does not lend a helping hand, it would lose an important chess piece to contain China, and its self-claimed international credibility and the hegemonic status would be in jeopardy. Also, India's surging cases that know no boundaries pose a potential risk to the US."

Chinese efforts at undermining New Delhi and Washington's strategic partnership isn't new, but the pandemic and the recent negative perception of the US in India has provided Beijing with a sharper opportunity. Beijing hopes that if an anti-US perception persists in a democratic India, policymakers in New Delhi won't be able to align themselves so readily to American policies for Indo-Pacific. At the very least, there would be clamour within India to pivot away from the US towards a more strategically unaligned foreign policy.

Bloomberg quoted Aparna Pande of the Washington-based Hudson Institute as saying, "The delay in US response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in India is regrettable... What these incidents have ended up doing is reinforce the argument within India that strategic autonomy is the path to continue with, not further alignment with the US."

Much as China may try, however, there is a limit to such reorientation. Public anger towards the US may be high right now and might even be feeding the ideological opponents of the US in both rightist and leftist camps but whether it may spill over into the policy arena and impact bilateral ties is still debatable. From a realist prism, the US-India partnership is driven by a geopolitical necessity and common concern against China, and this shared interest will override all other grievances.

As professor Rajesh Rajagopalan of JNU points out in The Print, "For both India and the US, in different ways, China represents a threat. For the US, it is a threat to its global position primarily rather than a direct threat to its security, at least so far. For India, China represents both a threat to its territory directly and, equally importantly, a political threat because it could, left unchecked, become the regional hegemon in Asia."

It is also worth noting that the Biden administration may have responded with a delay, it has gone full spectrum in backing India both in words and deeds. The momentum picked up after India's national security adviser Ajit Doval had a conversation over the phone with his US counterpart Jake Sullivan. Following the conversation on 25 April, Sullivan wrote on Twitter: "Spoke today with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval about the spike in COVID cases in India and we agreed to stay in close touch in the coming days. The United States stands in solidarity with the people of India and we are deploying more supplies and resources."

This statement was followed by concrete assurances that Washington has "identified sources of specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine that will immediately be made available for India."

The White House readout attributed to US official Emily Horne also stated that "to help treat COVID-19 patients and protect front-line health workers in India, the US has identified supplies of therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that will immediately be made available for India".

The US, it was stated further, is also "pursuing options to provide oxygen generation and related supplies on an urgent basis" and "is deploying an expert team of public health advisors from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and USAID to work in close collaboration with the US Embassy, India's health ministries, and India's Epidemic Intelligence Service staff."

The statement mentioned above also carried a sentence: "Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need." It appeared that the Biden administration was finally aware of the reputational damage triggered by its late reaction and was going on an overdrive to calm frayed tempers and assuage concerns.

Shortly thereafter in what seemed like a coordinated effort, all top honchos of the Biden administration came out in vocal support of India and promised specific help. The message was clear. Washington was telling India that it can be counted upon as a friend.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who had visited India recently, stated that he has "directed the Department to use every resource at our disposal, within our authority, to support US interagency efforts to rapidly provide India's frontline healthcare workers with the materials they need. We are currently assessing the equipment we can both procure and draw from our own inventory in the coming days and weeks."

He also added that "In the next few days, we will provide transportation and logistics assistance to deliver needed supplies to India, including oxygen-related equipment, rapid testing kits, and personal protective equipment."

A day later, Biden rang up Narendra Modi. The groundwork behind that call having been done earlier, Biden "pledged America's steadfast support for the people of India who have been impacted by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. In response, the United States is providing a range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials, and therapeutics."

More statements of support followed, and it is hardly coincidental that US businesses and business leaders came forward in leveraging the private sector's expertise and capabilities in providing relief to India. The list included Google chief Sundar Pichai, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon India CEO Amit Agarwal.

Interestingly, the private sector threw its hat into the ring post the Biden-Modi call, almost as if they were unaware of the scale of the crisis in India. But it didn't stop there. Following US secretary of state Antony Blinken's meeting with leaders of American business, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the US-India Business Council, the US Chamber of Commerce on Monday (Tuesday IST) announced that in partnership with over 40 companies, a "Global Task Force on Pandemic Response" is being mobilised for India. This US public-private partnership will "provide India with critical medical supplies, vaccines, oxygen and other life-saving assistance amid an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases."

As Madan has noted on Twitter, on India's COVID-19 crisis, statements of support have come from a host of senior officials of the new administration including the president and the vice-president. She has also collated a list of US Congress members who have tweeted about the Covid crisis in India.

Two other developments are worth noting.

The Biden administration faced intense criticism even at home for not sharing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines that are lying unused and gathering dust on a shelf at a facility in Ohio. White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients had indicated that the US is looking to share "its entire stock of AstraZeneca vaccines" that amounts to around 60 million doses "with the world once it clears federal safety reviews".

On Tuesday, Biden told reporters at a presser that it is his "hope and expectation" to share coronavirus vaccine doses with India, though he refrained from sharing a timetable, according to a report in The Hill.

A White House readout of the presser, issued later, quotes Biden as saying that he has spoken at length with Modi. "We are sending immediately a whole series of help that he needs, including providing for those €" remdesivir and other drugs that are able to deal with this and prevent, in some cases, but recover €" help recovery... We're also discussing €" I've discussed with him when we'll be able to send actual vaccines to India, which would be my intention to do. The problem is, right now, we have to make sure we have other vaccines, like Novavax and others, coming on, probably. And I think we'll be in a position to be able to share €" to share vaccines, as well as know-how, with other countries who are in real need."

Biden added: "When we were in a bind at the very beginning, India helped us."

The second development is the US decision to "divert" its own raw materials to India to aid vaccine production. This arises from a technical difficulty in law associated with the Korean War-era DPA, that has been imposed by the US to facilitate and prioritise domestic production.

White House official Horne said, "as requested by the Government of India, we will be providing raw materials for the production of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine at the Serum Institute of India... So, I want to be clear here that we did not intervene with the manufacturer to make them fill the Serum Institute's order; we don't have that power. Instead, what we are doing is diverting our own order of our own supplies to the Serum Institute for their manufacturing."

Dhruva Jaishankar of ORF America summed up on Twitter the steps announced by the Biden administration to India, which includes PPE kits, diversion of critical raw materials to oxygen generators.

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Given the evidence, dimension and intensity of the US support, it will be misleading if not churlish to suggest that the US was deliberately delaying aid and support to India to make a political point, or is helping out now for geopolitical gains €" as China repeatedly claims.

A more likely explanation, according to analysts, is that a still understaffed Biden administration failed to fathom the scale and ferocity of the crisis in India, and bureaucratic delays from officials who were still occupied with the Climate Summit made matters worse. Once the reputational damage became clear, however, the Biden administration acted swiftly and with a plan. It also may be argued that reluctance on India's part to specify its demands and requirements added to the confusion.

It also needs to be stressed that Modi's equation with Biden played its part in shaping the US response. White House officials and Biden himself has pointed out that apart from all other considerations, the US is obligated to help a country that stood behind the US in its hour of need.

This relates to the longstanding moralist dimension in India's foreign policy that Modi, in his own way, has stressed through his mantra of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam €" which regards the world as one family. It is this moral imperative that saw India sharing over 66 million doses of vaccines to 95 countries around the world (a list that includes some of the world's poorest nations) before its own domestic demand crept up.

This strategy has come under (unreasonable) attack, but it also harks back to India's tradition of moralism and idealism in foreign policy and reinforces its credentials as a moral power. This is why Australian foreign minister Marise Pyne tweets that "India's generous vaccine support has been there for our region and today Australia stands with India in response to this distressing COVID-19 surge."

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When Biden says "when we were in a bind at the very beginning, India helped us," he is not only expressing gratitude but deferring to the truism that this virus requires a global concerted effort to be beaten because no one is safe until everyone is safe.

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