India’s default position of opposing the West on multilateral issues is now history. It illustrates a new synergy and commitment to deepen the strategic partnership — at the bilateral, regional and global levels
by C Raja Mohan
External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s visit to New York and Washington this week highlights the new India-US synergy between bilateral, regional and multilateral issues.
The three domains, viewed as separate until recently, are beginning to come together as India raises its multilateral ambitions and President Joe Biden discards America’s unilateralist impulses that came to the fore under his predecessor Donald Trump. But Biden has embraced and reinforced the idea of an Indo-Pacific regional space articulated by Trump.
This new Indo-Pacific consensus in Washington presents India and the US an enduring geography for regional cooperation. In the past, regional issues, including those in the subcontinent and broader Asia, were a major source of friction between Delhi and Washington. Meanwhile, the mechanism of the Quadrilateral Security Framework, which arose out of the India-US bilateral defence cooperation and includes Japan and Australia, is emerging as a potential instrument to shape the regional architecture in the east.
India’s principal national challenge today — of beating back the virus by vaccinating its population — is expected to be an important part of the Jaishankar’s talks in Washington. This conversation goes beyond the bilateral and has regional and global dimensions.
In New York, the first stop in Jaishankar’s itinerary, the ambition is to make India’s current tenure as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council count. Traditionally, Indian diplomacy in Washington and New York seemed to inhabit two different planets. There was so little in common between India’s bilateral goals in Washington and its global discourse in New York. Today, they have begun to reinforce each other.
But first to the profound changes in Washington that form the background to Jaishankar’s talks. If Trump’s policies suggested America was turning its back on the world, Biden has promised to restore US leadership in multilateral institutions. Biden is vigorously contesting the notion — especially popular in China — that America is in a terminal decline. Biden has declared that Washington will not cede the top slot to Beijing under his watch. He has promised extreme competition with China. And this has the full support of the Republicans.
America’s allies and partners were despondent in the last four years and complained bitterly about Trump’s transactional approach to international relations. Many of them are now welcoming the opportunity to engage with the Biden administration that looks better organised.
India finds itself in a relatively sweet spot with the Biden administration. It is quite familiar with Biden, who has spent nearly five decades in Washington’s public life before becoming President. Many of the key people in his administration have worked with India before. Continuing with the recent tradition of advancing ties with India and disappointing the many sceptics of US-India ties, Biden was quick to demonstrate the commitment to deepen the strategic partnership with India — at the bilateral, regional and global levels.
Although the brief delay in the US response to the second wave of the pandemic in India generated much chatter, Washington has now come through strongly — by facilitating the release of essential items for vaccine production and delivering significant relief supplies.
That bilateral cooperation on pandemics has a natural regional dimension. Well before the virus began to surge in April, the Biden administration saw the partnership with India as a critical element in the regional effort to expand the production of vaccines and deliver them across the Indo-Pacific. That was one of the main outcomes from the first meeting of the Quad leaders at the summit level in March that Biden convened.
The terrifying April surge of the virus certainly set back India’s own Vaccine Maitri initiative and the collective plans of the Quad. As the second wave begins to recede and India’s vaccine production revives, Jaishankar and his American interlocutors must now plan to reboot the strategy to vaccinate the Indo-Pacific.
Beyond the regional, there is much that Delhi and Washington could do by pooling their resources and strategies in boosting the global resilience against the pandemics and framing new international norms to combat it. Delhi, like the rest of the world, has welcomed Biden’s move to reverse Trump’s decision to walk out of the World Health Organisation.
This, in turn, brings us to the emerging possibilities for expansive India-US cooperation in the multilateral domain. During the Cold War, India and the US ended up on opposite sides of most global issues. A great ideological divide limited the possibilities for international cooperation between Delhi and Washington. After the Cold War, Delhi tended to rally behind Chinese and Russian positions on multilateral issues. The idea that multilateralism is a natural domain for India-China cooperation took a big beating as Beijing blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Delhi’s quest for a permanent seat at the UNSC.
To make matters worse, China has sought to get the UNSC intervention against India’s constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir. It also continues to protect Islamabad from international pressure on the question of Pakistan’s continuing support for cross-border terrorism in the region. It was the US that led the charge to end India’s nuclear isolation and France that took the lead in blocking China’s Kashmir moves at the UNSC.
India’s default position of opposing the West on multilateral issues is now history. In the last couple of years, Delhi has actively backed the European “Alliance for Multilateralism”. It is now open to positive engagement with the Biden administration on global issues.
Two items are at the top of this agenda — climate change and trade. A conversation on the former has begun with the visit of John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate change to Delhi, last month. The key to success here is finding a way for the US to support India’s transition to green growth.
But the time has come for a productive dialogue between Delhi and Washington on overcoming their serious differences on trade-related issues. There is an unexpected convergence. But Modi and Biden are taking a fresh look at the trade theology; they are convinced that overexposure to China has hollowed out their domestic manufacturing. Industrial policies are back in fashion in both Delhi and Washington
In the US, Biden has embarked on a bold battle to wean America away from the neoliberal economic orthodoxy of the last four decades. It is by no means certain he can win that battle. But there is a real debate in Washington, and Delhi must explore possibilities for a new bilateral trade compact and potential cooperation to reform the global trading order.
President George W Bush (2001-09) helped transform the bilateral relationship. Trump has created the basis for regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. President Barack Obama (2009-17) had begun a major conversation with India on multilateral issues, especially on climate change. The Biden moment is about making multilateralism an important part of the India-US strategic partnership.