As the first official visitor from India since President Joe Biden took office, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s mission was to keep the United States sharply focused on the partnership in both mind and matter.
Subtext: Keep the faith through India’s rough patch and work together.
In that, the minister succeeded given the ringing endorsements from his interlocutors. He stressed the need to make the India-US “vaccine partnership” successful as India tries to expand production with American help. At the same time, he conveyed India’s appreciation for the “very strong solidarity” shown by the US government and the private sector in sending $500 million worth of much-needed supplies of oxygen-related equipment, rapid test kits, medicines, and PPEs to India.
The other takeaway was Jaishankar’s full-throated endorsement of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue known as the Quad, a grouping of the US, India, Australia and Japan. He said India has “clarity on the Quad” and the group fills “a very important gap that has emerged in contemporary times” in global and regional requirements. No single country or bilateral relationship can fill that gap by itself.
The very fact that India is a Quad member shows it’s keen on the idea “otherwise we wouldn’t be members”. The Quad is an “expression of the convergence of interests of many countries” and not old-style bloc politics. “It’s only those who are stuck in the Cold War who can’t understand that,” Jaishankar commented in an apparent reference to critics who have tried to paint the Quad as an Asian NATO-type alliance.
Jaishankar’s Visit Can Be Seen As America’s ‘Deep Commitment’ To The Partnership
A skilled diplomat and strategist, Jaishankar met several key members of Biden’s cabinet to discuss the full range of bilateral and multilateral issues on which India and the United States find themselves inching ever closer. Be it China’s determined aggressions on India’s border or fighting the pandemic unleashed from its shores, the India-US relationship has become inevitable in more ways than earlier imagined.
The range of US officials Jaishankar met was impressive and can be seen as a statement of America’s “deep commitment” to the partnership.
During his two-and-a-half days in Washington, he met Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and a number of senior officials from departments of health and homeland security for a working dinner. He also had conversations with key members of the US Congress.
The visit was the first opportunity when the two sides could discuss sensitive issues with “greater candour” because virtual meetings are limited by their very nature. The Biden Administration has its worldview and they needed “to hear ours” on contemporary challenges, from fighting COVID to protecting democratic gains in Afghanistan.
Top Agenda: Vaccine Cooperation
Topmost on Jaishankar’s agenda was vaccine cooperation because “in terms of supply chain for vaccines, the US is absolutely indispensable”.
If India is to expand production, it will need to work with the US, where more than 50 percent of the ingredients are produced. Vaccines can require more than 200 individual components such as glass vials, resin, tubing, disposable bags, and filters. The US has a tight grip on the last three.
The performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has given India’s best friends a pause, as comparisons with Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the COVID pandemic are common.
It’s as if Modi is making some of the same mistakes Trump did — letting states fend for themselves for vaccines in the world market is a stark reminder of how Trump’s policies led to bidding wars among 50 states for PPEs and ventilators, because the federal government essentially washed its hands off the problem of procurement and distribution.
Indian diplomacy is aimed at transforming those comparisons into empathy — look, you went through it too and couldn’t cope and now we are stuck. Jaishankar said as much during the one substantive public interaction during his five-day trip to New York and Washington. In a discussion with HR McMaster, a former national security advisor, Jaishankar said the world needed to realise that what’s happening in India could easily happen elsewhere.
And “the right response is, therefore, to help each other out and I am glad to say, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of international support and solidarity”. All countries need to think more about health security.
To a large extent the MEA under Jaishankar has succeeded in turning India’s complete failure to anticipate, prepare, and tackle the second wave of COVID into a lesson, that a global problem requires a global response. Indian diplomats are busy trying to plug the many holes in whatever goes for health policy in New Delhi. They are chasing ingredients for vaccines in the US, Europe, and Japan. It seems supply chain issues have improved.
This unorthodox task set for the MEA is because of lack of advance planning by the India’s health ministry and the empowered bureaucrats who run the country to secure materials ahead of time and order enough vaccines. Even though India is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, it is unable to meet either domestic demands or foreign commitments. Jaishankar had the tough job of seeking help without seeming to.
Jaishankar Calls For ‘Decentralised Vaccination’
The Biden Administration’s invocation of the US Defence Production Act, which prioritises domestic production of vaccines, has created supply shortages for other manufacturers in the queue. One of Jaishankar’s main objectives was to get US officials to further ease the situation, since they have more than enough vaccines and will have a surplus of up to a billion doses by the end of the year if current production levels are maintained.
Looking at a post-pandemic world, Jaishankar argued for a different model, he called it “decentralised globalisation”, where countries are not dependent on “single geographies” but can tap more centres of production. The current design has limitations because it works for some countries, not all.
“I would argue that in many ways, international equity and fairness, these are not just noble principles, they are practical common sense. It’s like creating a broader stakeholder-ship in the world, so that the totality of the world is better balanced,” Jaishankar said in his discussion with McMaster. Apply that to vaccine affordability and availability and you see the dangers of “a world which is part vaccinated and part neglected” and therefore unsafe.
And that was the essence of the trip — India needs to vaccinate its people, produce for others, and the US’ help is necessary.