The US and India Manoeuvre Around Their Differences

US Vice President Kamala Harris with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House on 24 September 2021. Courtesy of Office of the Vice President of the United States / Wikimedia Commons

Disagreements between the US and Indian governments over democratic values, as highlighted in a recent meeting between Kamala Harris and Narendra Modi, may have a growing impact on their relationship.

Since Joe Biden became US president with Kamala Harris as vice president, observers have wondered how long it would be before the Democratic Party’s strongly felt distaste for Narendra Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism in India began to affect the strong bond that has developed between the two countries over the past 20 years.

This came to the fore when Modi visited Washington to speak at the UN General Assembly at the end of September. He held his first in-person meeting with Biden, and then with Harris, who was pointedly outspoken at a public meeting about the need for democracy. Modi rebutted their views when he addressed the UN General Assembly on 26 September.

Modi also attended the first in-person meeting between the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). This was significant as it came soon after the announcement of the AUKUS security alliance between the US, the UK and Australia, which points to the Biden administration reassessing India’s potential military utility in the Indo-Pacific.

AUKUS is in fact good news for India, which is traditionally reluctant to join security alliances, especially when it is trying to find a balance in its complex relationship with an increasingly aggressive China; major confrontations last year along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between the two, have yet to be fully resolved.

Both the US and India are now playing down suggestions that their relationship was disrupted by Harris’s criticisms. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin last Sunday described a recent visit of India’s chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, to the Pentagon as ‘historic’, reaffirming the two countries’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The US considers it important to keep India as close as possible because of China’s adventurism, even though Delhi forges a different path in matters such as relations with Iran and the key defence orders it places with Russia. This difference will be tested soon when Biden decides whether to sanction India for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, which are due to be delivered in December; on balance, it seems that Washington and Delhi will find a compromise formula.

There is antipathy in Washington towards the idea of India becoming a Hindu homeland where Muslims do not have equal ranking, and where freedoms of speech and expression are harshly curbed

Modi used to revel in enthusiastically bonding with his soulmate Donald Trump. Although he was wholeheartedly welcomed by Barack Obama when he came to power in 2014, his rapport with Trump went much further. They even staged what amounted to joint political rallies in each other’s countries in 2019 (Houston with Indian Americans) and 2020 (Ahmedabad), and the Indian prime minister seemingly endorsed Trump’s bid for for re-election. There was no chance of that being replicated by the more reserved and politically distant Biden.

There is antipathy in Washington towards the idea of India becoming a Hindu homeland where Muslims do not have equal ranking, and where freedoms of speech and expression are harshly curbed. Obama said during an October 2017 visit that Muslims should feel integrated, and that this was something that ‘should be cherished and nurtured’ – but this was to an invitation-only audience at the end of his trip after his meetings with Modi had finished.

Biden voiced some concern when he met Modi on 24 September in view of the media. He talked about shared interests, including the family ties of four million Indian Americans living in the US and the fact that some people with the Biden name have been found in India. The meeting, he said, marked ‘a new chapter in the history of US–India ties’ – but he then stressed the need to uphold ‘democratic values’ and added that the message of ‘non-violence and tolerance matters more than ever before’.

The Confrontation with Harris

Harris (who has an Indian mother) was much more outspoken during the public part of her meeting with Modi. This echoed her earlier criticisms of the Indian government’s policies on issues such as Kashmir.

Looking straight at Modi, she said: ‘As democracies around the world are under threat, it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries and around the world and that we maintain what we must do to strengthen democracies at home’.

Directly challenging Modi’s approach, she said: ‘I know from personal experience, and from my family, of the commitment of the Indian people to democracy and to freedom, and to the work that may be done and can be done to imagine and then actually achieve our vision for democratic principles and institutions’.

The Ties that Bind

Modi failed to attend a subsequent Quad meeting held by Harris, which went ahead with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia. Modi was rumoured to have stayed away because he resented Harris’s public remarks, but this was offset by the fact that he had already had his own meeting with the vice president, which officials later said had been constructive despite her initial remarks.

First set up in 2007 without much impact, the Quad – comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan – has been developing as a counterforce against China’s expansionism over the past four years. However, its strategic defence role has now been seemingly reduced by the creation of AUKUS.

While it welcomes growing links with the US, including large defence orders, India is reluctant to be drawn too far into the Western orbit

Six months ago, the four leaders came together for the first time in a virtual meeting – earlier contacts had mostly been between officials – and the subsequent meeting in Washington was the first time they had met face to face. They discussed issues such as trade, the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, stability in the Indo-Pacific, the need for Afghanistan to develop without becoming a hub for terror, and Pakistan’s role in supporting terror groups.

Responding to China’s aggression, they agreed to ‘recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond’. But their cooperation in the immediate future will be in non-military areas ranging from vaccines and infrastructure to semiconductor supply, cyber security and satellite data – all areas targeted by China.

The AUKUS deal has underlined Australia’s superior status compared to India because, although the US sells hi-tech defence equipment to India and has an agreement with the country to develop nuclear power plants, it has resisted behind-the-scenes requests for nuclear submarine technology.

‘An American offer of nuclear propulsion technology, such as the one made to Australia, would be welcomed in New Delhi’, says Ajai Shukla, a former Indian army officer and now a leading defence analyst. ‘However, that would carry the quid pro quo of alliance burdens, a price that India, unlike Australia, is unwilling to pay’.

This goes to the heart of India’s conundrum. While it welcomes growing links with the US, including large defence orders, it is reluctant to be drawn too far into the Western orbit. India is therefore much more comfortable in the Quad, modified as it is by AUKUS, and the Biden administration probably respects that.

The Harris–Modi clash over democracy and freedoms will, however, be less easily accommodated. Its importance will partly depend on Harris’s political standing in the US as Biden’s presidency progresses. But Modi will not soften his Hindu nationalism and all that it entails, especially as he will want to use it in election campaigns such as the state assembly polls that will be held in Uttar Pradesh early next year.

John Elliott was in India as a foreign correspondent for some 25 years and writes a current affairs blog, Riding the Elephant:

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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