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The US and India: Democracy and Strategic Autonomy

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The US and India: Democracy and Strategic Autonomy

The two countries should support democratic values, including the international rule of law, in their relations with the rest of the world.

The US and India: Democracy and Strategic Autonomy

India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House, April 11, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/DrSJaishankar

In spite of their differing responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration correctly has doubled down on its partnership with India. On the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, President Biden described India and the United States as “indispensable partners.” A week later, the White House Press Secretary was asked whether the India-U.S. relationship was drifting apart “in the aftermath of Russian invasion of Ukraine.” The response was emphatic: “[W]e had a pretty strong response to how we see our relationship with India. It’s indispensable. We see the partners as indispensable partners.” This follows Prime Minister Modi saying in April this year that “as two democracies that are the world’s largest and oldest, we are natural partners.” Prime Minister Modi has told President Putin publicly, “I know that today’s era is not of war and we have spoken to you many times on the phone that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue are such things that touch the world.” Thus, leaders on both sides have cited democratic values, including the rule of law, as fundamental to their foreign policies.

However, India and the U.S. would be unwise to ignore the gap between Indian rhetoric and actions with regard to Russia. The disparate applications of values to Russia, as opposed to China, presents the question of whether the U.S.-India partnership is in reality based not on democratic values but simply on a realpolitik calculus that Indian support to the U.S. on China is of more importance than support on Russia. Is India a global strategic partner of the U.S. and other democracies or is it mainly seeking regional strategic support against its border threats – China and Pakistan? Is “strategic autonomy” now producing not autonomy but deference to Russia? These questions should be of concern to the U.S. and India if they are truly “indispensable partners.”

Substantively, these concerns fall into four areas of India-Russia and India-U.S. relations: (1) arms; (2) energy; (3) trade; and (4) nuclear control. In each area, consideration should take place in concert with concrete U.S. actions that encourage a global U.S.-India partnership in support of democratic values.

On arms, many members of the Indian foreign policy establishment have acknowledged the danger of over-dependence on Russia. The result has been a recent decrease in the percentage of arms sourced from Russia as well as a push for the indigenization of weapons production. However, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Indian imports of arms from Russia increased in the decade between 2011 and 2021. The data from SIPRI’s most recent four-year period shows that Russia is by far India’s leading arms supplier with about 46 percent market share.

More important are India’s legacy dependence on Russia for spare parts and India’s intentions for the future. India is paying billions to Russia for its S-400 missile defense system. India is binding itself to Russian technology for its development of hypersonic weapons systems. The joint production of Russian AK-203 assault rifles continues apace. India has now supplemented its Russian defense armaments engagement by participating in the Russia-sponsored Vostok military exercises.

The U.S. should cooperate with its NATO allies, Israel, and other democracies to encourage India’s continued move away from Russian arms. India should have non-Russian sources of arms and armament development that are competitive with Russia in quantity, quality, and price.

On energy, India has done all it can since the Russian invasion of Ukraine to take advantage of the low price of Russian oil while shielding Indian petroleum companies from sanctions. The Indian Foreign Minister has said he has a “moral” obligation to do so. In response, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister has said that Indian oil imports are “paid with Ukrainian blood.” Indian purchases of Russian crude oil have increased to 1.1 million barrels per day and now constitute over a fifth of its crude imports as compared to around 2 percent last year. India continues partnerships in Russian oil development.

The U.S. needs to be aggressive in accommodating immediate Indian needs for energy. Prior to Ukraine, India sourced a minuscule part of its energy from Russia, while U.S. exports of oil and gas to India were on the rise. The U.S. has the means to ameliorate price effects with the goal of decreasing rather than increasing Indian oil and gas imports from Russia. Longer term, the U.S. should redouble its efforts to assist India in transitioning away from fossil fuels. This includes realizing at long last the promise of nuclear energy as well as renewables. At some point in the future, the transition from fossil fuels will take place, and Russia’s most important source of economic advantage will no longer be relevant.

On trade, India is working with Russia to institute an “International North-South Corridor.” The India-Russia partner in this project is Iran. The project is overtly intended to circumvent Western Europe and U.S. sanctions. Imports from Russia of fertilizer, coal, and sunflower oil are all up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia and India have signaled their intent to increase bilateral trade.

The U.S. economic relationship is far more important to India than that of Russia. Continued steps should be taken to grow the U.S.-India trade relationship. This includes new efforts to resolve the myriad U.S.-India trade disputes that are keeping U.S.-India trade from reaching its full potential. India’s economic future certainly lies more with the U.S. and other democracies than it does with Russia. U.S. sourcing from India as a friend of democratic values should be far more acceptable than sourcing from China. The U.S. should do more to work with India on international infrastructure as a counter to the attractiveness of projects like the “International North-South Corridor” at a time when Russia is seeking to destroy a democratic Ukraine.

India also seems reluctant to engage Russia on the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. In the International Atomic Energy Agency, India basically has stood with Russia in refusing to call out Iran’s apparent attempts to hide nuclear weapons development. Russia is sourcing drones from Iran to use against Ukraine. India’s vote at the IAEA combined with India’s engagement with Russia and Iran on trade raises questions about Indian support for the growing strategic partnership between Russia and Iran.

The U.S. has been a chief proponent of integrating India into the international nuclear order. The U.S. should redouble these efforts. India should be encouraged to work to move toward further safeguards and constraints on nuclear weapons including those of Russia and the U.S. and their development by Iran.

U.S. and Indian pronouncements over the past 30 years concerning the importance of democratic values in U.S.-India relations are fundamentally true. India’s tilt toward the Soviet Union in spite of its values during the Cold War did not end well for India. The U.S. and India should not shy away from their support of democratic values including the international rule of law in their separate relations with Russia or any other state. Rather, the U.S. and India should redouble their efforts to engage as equal partners in the struggle to support these values. Since peace, like war, must be waged, the U.S. and India should be worldwide allies in an effort to bring greater peace and stability based upon democratic principles.