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India-US ties will face test if conflict in Ukraine continues to intensify


Ties between the United States and India, which have grown closer in recent years, have come under the spotlight, particularly in Washington, because of New Delhi's stance on the crisis in Ukraine.

NEW DELHI - The Biden administration has held back from criticising India's refusal to condemn Russia for invading its neighbour, acknowledging New Delhi's "distinct" relationship with Moscow but expressing a desire for the former to distance itself from a close defence partner.

The US Congress is not expected to be as understanding, particularly if the crisis continues to intensify, with lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, criticising India's decision to abstain four times at the United Nations Security Council on resolutions against Russia.

"There is a lot of concern among the think tanks and the US Congress on India which was seen as an emerging strong ally. So I think there is a lot of surprise about India's four abstentions.

The US government and agencies know the extraordinary Indian exposure to Russia and the arms dependence. They also know India has got a huge conflict with China on the border.

"At this point, India simply can't alienate Russia and must keep supply lines on its weapons open. The government statements have been fairly moderate," said Dr C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Asia Society Policy Institute.

"India has some work to do to explain the difficult situation (to US legislators) that Russia is a legacy of the past. Overall the weight of India's engagement is now closer to the West," he added.

The relationship between India and the US has been shaped by mutual concern on the rise of China.

In 2020, a major border clash erupted between India and China resulting in troop deaths on both sides, further heightening concerns in New Delhi about China's intentions.

The US, which has called India the main driver of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), views India as a key partner in containing the rise of China and both countries are part of the Quad, which includes Australia and Japan.

Quad leaders held a meeting on Feb 12 that analysts said was aimed at ensuring a greater convergence of views on Russia amid the Ukraine crisis. The leaders agreed that what was happening in Ukraine should not be allowed in the Indo-Pacific region, said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

US President Joe Biden spoke of "sovereignty and territorial integrity around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific".

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused on "peace, stability" in the Indo-Pacific region in his comments.

A key test of how the Ukraine crisis could impact India-US ties will be whether Washington will impose sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act over the ongoing S-400 Triumf air defence system deal between India and Russia.

"It's unlikely that sanctions would be resorted to by the US in India's case or India would be targeted directly but certainly many in the US Congress would start publicly questioning India as a partner in the future. The US Congress might be more difficult to handle if tensions continue to rise," said Professor Harsh V. Pant, who is director of studies and head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation.

He noted that India would have to articulate its position clearly otherwise "the danger of being looked at through the prism of Russia rises and that is not something Indian foreign policy can afford".

"At this point, I think the main strategic challenge is China and, in managing China, India needs both Russia and the US."

Still, some analysts in India are already working out the worst-case scenario for India, which wants nothing more than the US to refocus on the Indo-Pacific and China.

One scenario sees the China-Russia partnership deepening following the Ukraine crisis which could leave India with an even bigger problem closer to home.

India's former foreign secretary Shyam Saran said in an interview with The Wire, an Indian news portal, that the worst-case scenario would be if the US thought the greater threat was Russia, not China, and conceded "Chinese dominance in Asia while safeguarding its European flank".

But Dr Raja Mohan believed Washington would continue to view China as a threat. "At least for now the Americans are signalling that the Indo-Pacific remains important through the Quad summit, which was held on short notice," he said.

"A large section of the US establishment thinks China is the bigger challenge. There is also a view in Delhi that if the US can get Europe, with Nato being activated and Germany spending more on defence, to assume a larger responsibility to deal with the Russian threat, the US may be freer to do more things in the Indo-Pacific."

Nirmala Ganapathy

India Bureau Chief

The Straits Times

Published : March 22, 2022