Ministerial Dialogue: U.S.-India deepen understanding in midst of differences

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U.S. and Indian Defense and Foreign Ministers during the India-US 2+2 Dialogue at the US State Department on April 11, 2022 in Washington DC. PHOTO: Twitter @rajnathsingh

Washington: Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has resulted in suffering to millions impacting the global order, combined with the ongoing pandemic with millions of unvaccinated, Foreign and Defense Ministers of the United States and India met on April, 11, 2022, in Washington DC, for the Fourth US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue – a first between the Biden and Modi administrations. They reviewed progress on critical issues confronting the two nations, and discussed pathways to tackle global food and energy security challenges caused by the Russia-Ukraine war.

During the dialogue, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, India’s Defense Minister, Rajnath Singh, and External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, accompanied by their delegations, covered key areas of development that ranged from global partnerships and Indo-Pacific cooperation to space, science and technology, COVID, climate change, and education and skill training.

Importantly, the dialogue provided a platform for India to quell widespread criticism about its unwillingness to openly condemn Russia. Leaders on both sides clearly articulated and understood underlying reasons for their respective policy decisions adopted by Washington and New Delhi keeping in mind their national interests, and discussed prospective opportunities to jointly address the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Ultimately, they reinforced their shared commitments to combat the pandemic, uphold a free, rules-based international order that safeguards sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.

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Addressing the leaders, Blinken said, “these 2+2 meetings have already played a key role in strengthening our bilateral relationship. This is the core whole-of-government dialogue in our strategic partnership framework. Today’s discussions will build upon the previous productive meetings that we’ve had,” adding, “we’re working closely to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Quad partners have collectively provided more than 500 million vaccine doses; we’re rapidly expanding production to make more at the Biological E facility in India.”

US Experts who specialize on India-US relations felt the 2+2 dialogue went without a hitch despite their major differences over Russia. Even though the relations appear to be fine for now, they said, moving forward it remains to be seen how far New Delhi is willing to extend its support for Moscow.

Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said it was expected that the meetings would go well as the Biden administration has been exercising tremendous patience with the fact that India has such divergent positions on Russia. So, this was an effort by the administration to focus on other important bilateral issues to show that the US-India partnership is still delivering despite their differences.

“It seems clear that a good relationship with India is a high priority for the administration. The conversations in the 2+2 dialogue appear to have been very wide ranging as they discussed how to operationalize a major bilateral defense partnership agreement along with other topics such as climate change, and COVID,” Curtis, who was Deputy Assistant to the President, and Senior Director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, during the Trump administration, told News India Times.

At a joint press conference, on April 11th, at the State Department’s Dean Acheson Auditorium, while reacting to a question as to why India has yet to condemn Russia’s invasion, Blinken noted that India condemned the killing of civilians in Ukraine, rendered humanitarian assistance in Ukraine, called for an independent investigation against these horrific killings, and offered to help mitigate the profound impact this war is causing on global food supplies and prices.

Indian and US delegations during the India-US 2+2 Dialogue at the US State Department on April 11, 2022 in Washington DC. PHOTO: US Embassy India

Blinken said, “India’s relationship with Russia has developed over decades at a time when the United States was not able to be a partner to India. Times have changed. Today we are able and willing to be a partner of choice with India across virtually every realm – commerce, technology, education, and security. And that was very much the nature of the conversation that we had today.”

Responding to the same question, Jaishankar pointed out, “we have made a number of statements which outline our position in the UN, in our parliament, and in other forums. And briefly, what those positions state is that we’re against the conflict; we are for dialogue and diplomacy; we are for an urgent cessation of violence; and we are prepared to contribute in multiple ways to these objectives.”

During his opening statement at the press conference, Blinken stressed, “Russia’s aggression stands in stark contrast to the vision that the United States and India share for a free and open Indo-Pacific. And Russia’s actions are having a profound impact not just in Europe and in Ukraine, but around the world – for example, causing food insecurity and rising prices. Ukraine’s farmers have been forced to flee or to fight, as Russian troops intentionally destroy farmland and equipment and prevent Ukraine from exporting their wheat through Black Sea ports,” while appealing to the world to support Ukraine and condemn Russia’s actions, “Russia’s war against Ukraine is an attack on Ukraine’s people; it’s also an attack on that rules-based order that we both adhere to and defend. The United States will continue to increase our support to the government and people of Ukraine and call on other nations to do the same, just as we call on all nations to condemn Moscow’s increasingly brutal actions.”

Stating that the 2+2 dialogue is taking place at a time when the global order is facing multiple challenges, Jaishankar said they devoted a considerable amount of time to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine to discuss its ramifications and global impact on energy and food security. “So let me sum up our discussions in three broad points. One, it has helped us today to strategize on mitigating the volatility and unpredictability that the world is currently experiencing. That will be reflected in our policies. Two, it has encouraged us to think together on long-term challenges, especially in the Indo-Pacific. And three, it has energized our collaborative endeavors to build what is emerging as a key bilateral relationship of our times,” he said.

US and Indian Defense and Foreign Ministers addressing the joint press conference at the US State Department on April 11, 2022 in Washington DC. PHOTO: T. Vishnudatta Jayaraman, News India Times

During his address, Singh thanked both Blinken and Austin for their leadership in strengthening U.S.-India relationships, and invited them for the next 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi. He said, “during the hard time of pandemic, the United States have given us a lot of support, and on this occasion, we express our deep appreciation for that, and during this time I would like to thank Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin and would like to thank them for their leadership. Today’s leadership meeting and the 2+2 meeting shows that we are here to strengthen the relationship between the two nations.  And in the areas of mutual interest also, I would like to say that we would support for better contribution.  We want that global access should be given, and peace and security should be maintained.”

Echoing Blinken’s sentiments that the US and India are witnessing an important moment in their partnership, Austin recalled that it’s been nearly two decades since the two countries signed their first bilateral defense framework, and their partnership has grown immensely since then. He underscored that the 2+2 dialogue reinforces the deep commitment in maintaining open channels of communication on a range of challenging issues.  He said that the two democracies should stand together to preserve the international rules-based order, when the world is witnessing Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Austin said, “today’s meeting shows that we’re working together to build one of the most consequential partnerships of our time. We’ve made important commitments today that will drive technological innovation and cooperation in emerging defense domains, including space and cyberspace. For example, we’re committed to launching new defense base exchanges later this year between our Space Command and India’s Defense Space Agency. And I’m pleased to announce that just a few moments ago, we signed a bilateral Space Situational Awareness arrangement, and this will support greater information sharing and cooperation in space.”

Answering another question on India’s role in mitigating the current volatility and unpredictability, Jaishankar while informing about India’s ongoing humanitarian relief to Ukraine, said, leaders at the 2+2 dialogue, and Biden and Modi during their virtual call discussed the role India could play to help stabilize the global economic situation.  “We are quite willing, and in fact we’ve already started responding to the need for greater food supplies, especially wheat most of all but to some degree sugar as well,” he added.

With respect to the role of the US in mitigating energy and food security issues, Blinken elaborated, “one of the important steps that President Biden took was to proceed with a coordinated release from strategic petroleum reserves that will continue over the next – for the part of the United States over the next six months to ensure that there is adequate energy on world markets, both to have an impact on availability as well as on price to deal with the disruptions caused by the Russian aggression.  I think if that aggression stops, if the conflict stops, it will have a positive impact both on energy availability and prices as well as on food availability and food prices.”

During the 2+2 dialogue, the leaders announced the formation of a ‘Working Group on Education and Skill Training.’ In order to build on that, Blinken and Jaishankar also visited Howard University, on April 12th, to acknowledge the significant role being played by the University in deepening interpersonal ties between India and the US.  During his address, Blinken stated the working group on education and skill training will bring together academic intuitions in these two countries for advancing joint research programs, and creating more opportunities.  Jaishankar, said the working group will enable both countries to explore a range of opportunities in the field of education, research, innovation and entrepreneurship. He also said they are committed to advancing the US-India Gandhi-King Development Foundation proposal for implementing social development projects in India.

Richard Rossow, Senior Adviser and Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told News India Times, “it was good the 2+2 dialogue went off without a dramatic incident. In the weeks leading up to it, we were concerned that different approaches on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might really taint the dialogue and put it in a more negative way. But, that didn’t take place. Even though it was a pretty positive progressive discussion, the dialogue itself was really kind of devoid of too many big significant announcements. They were agreements on geospatial awareness, and creation of a new working group on higher education and skills.  Again, the fact that we avoided a rupture is probably the top line because it didn’t look like that would be the case before the dialogue happened.”

Rossow added, “but we still don’t have kind of a final decision and a pathway forward on whether the US is going to implement sanctions against India, under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). So we have to keep a close watch on that aspect. We also have the Quad Summit coming up on May 24th in Japan and multiple work streams are currently operational underneath the Quad. It seems to be moving just fine in a positive fashion.”

Regarding India’s developing statements about the Russia-Urkaine war, Lisa Curtis underscored that India is taking a tougher stance regarding human rights atrocities in Ukraine. Although, Indian officials are still reluctant to call out Russia by name, there is an appreciation that India is coming out and calling for independent investigations of what has happened in Bucha, she said.

Curtis also felt that Indian officials recognize that as Russia comes under increasing sanctions, Moscow will be a less reliable partner and therefore, India’s reliance on Russian military exports will likely decrease. While stating there’s an expectation that India is going to diversify its military suppliers out of necessity given the fact that Russia will be isolated within the global economy, she however cautioned, “if India continues to rely heavily on Russian military equipment, and its position does not evolve, then I think it becomes more difficult for the US to sell sophisticated defense technologies to India. It may also be difficult for the Quad, to cooperate on areas or to deepen its cooperation on areas like maritime security.”

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