India - US: Positive Pandemic Impact on Relations


India - US: Positive Pandemic Impact on Relations

There is an outpouring of support from friendly countries (US, UK,  EU, Canada, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and others) with even the unfriendly (China, Pakistan) wanting to help. Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla said in a briefing Thursday that over 40 nations are pitching in with urgently needed resources.  While the United States has agreed to divert 20 million vaccine doses, India is also in touch with China to ensure cargo flights remain operational as a large number of medical supplies are being sourced.

The US, initially hesitant, is now going over board to send material assistance to India.  After his phone call with  Prime Minister Narendra Modi,  President Joe Biden said India was there for the American people in their hour of need and the United States will be there for the country as it meets its worst-ever public health crisis. “The president pledged America’s steadfast ongoing support for the people of India, who have been impacted by the recent surge in the COVID-19 cases,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

It is not just a US support package at stake, writes The Hindustan Times, “the entire relationship and perceptions of the US in India were at stake.”


5 reasons why the US made a U-turn

The initial denial of help by the US, has ruffled many fathers in India. Several explanations are being offered for the US about-turn. Jyoti Malhotra, consulting editor, ThePrint lists them.

“First, the US dropped the ball because Biden was busy focusing on the climate change summit  he was hosting in the hope of transforming the US into a green power. Second, Biden has been under considerable domestic pressure with his own party pulling in different directions, with little time for foreign policy.

“Third, it was only when the US press began to publish and broadcast dire scenes from India, followed by New Delhi sending SOS signals, did DC sit up and listen.

“Fourth, the seriousness of the US response is a measure of the fact that epidemiologists and scientists have begun to say that if the Indian pandemic is not controlled, several more infectious variants can emerge, which can further infect the world.

“And fifth, as the US spokesman’s statement about US refusal went viral, questions began to be asked about India’s decision to join the Quad, especially if the Quad wasn’t able to help a fellow partner in distress –inevitably, raising questions about India’s own top leadership. That message also reached Washington DC.”


India-US partnership out of ‘necessity’: a common threat

Whatever the reasons, the close India, US relationship,  writes Rajesh Rajagopalan (professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi) is because of “something relatively straightforward: Necessity. This is a partnership that has a very specific purpose – balancing against China. This is not a favour India is doing the US, nor the other way around. It was America’s material power that was attractive to New Delhi…….India’s growing partnership with the US was the result of New Delhi recognising – even now, reluctantly – that it needed the American power to balance China…… India needs US partnership because only the US is strong enough for India’s purpose.”

For both India and the US, in different ways, argues Rajagopalan “China represents a threat. For the US, it is a threat to its global position primarily rather than a direct threat to its security, at least so far. For India, China represents both a threat to its territory directly and, equally importantly, a political threat because it could, left unchecked, become the regional hegemon in Asia. That would represent a distinctly uncomfortable condition for India to live under. What opponents of a partnership with the US ignore is that Chinese hegemony over Asia represents a far greater threat to New Delhi’s ‘strategic autonomy’ than a partnership with the US…….

“The harsh but simple truth is that India deepened the US partnership not out of choice but because it did not have any other choice – except, may be, kowtowing to China….”


Not to forget the ‘trust deficit'

Agreeing with the above view that it is mutual interest that led to the positive trajectory in this new chapter of India-US relations,  Arun Sahni (former army commander of the Indian Army) however, writes that analysts “seem to have forgotten the ‘trust deficit’ that had earlier impeded a closer relationship between the two like-minded democracies. This was exacerbated by the US’s continued support of Pakistan despite its despicable proxy war with India and meddling in Afghanistan. India, therefore, needs to be astute and cautious, especially as suspicion has now been precipitated due to the prolonged period it took for Washington to overcome its hesitancy and permit the export of key ingredients for the manufacturing of the urgently required COVID vaccine. This was not a stray event……...

“On April 7, USS John Paul Jones  transgressed India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), with utter disregard of the Indian policy requiring prior intimation. The tenor of the US press release was arrogant, as it stated that the FONOP (Freedom of Navigation Operation) was consistent with international law, of which it is not a signatory. Earlier, a US Human Rights watchdog, Freedom House, downgraded India’s status from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’, attributing it to India’s current policies. Washington has been reluctant to include India in the Afghanistan negotiations and has not been forthcoming about waiving the provisions of CAATSA (Countering America Adversaries Through Sanction Act) to accommodate India’s past contractual obligations. This insensitivity creates doubts about the US’s unconditional support to India when the chips are down…….”

Nevertheless, Sahni  says “geostrategic realities have brought the Indo-Pacific region centre stage. The shifting of the economic centre of gravity from the Atlantic to Asia has reinforced the importance of geo-economics in a connected and globalised world. China’s geographical location, its extensive economic bandwidth and ruthless pursuit for preeminence will inevitably cause turbulence.

“It is imperative that India take appropriate action to safeguard its future interests and so, has willingly partnered with the US to form a collaborative grouping of like-minded countries. The Quad, proposed a few years ago, has slowly but surely gained acceptance……..”


Situation tailor-made for strengthening Quad

Incidentally, the explosion of the pandemic in India is also a test for the Quad. In fact, the situation  in India is tailor-made for strengthening the Quad.  The March 12 virtual summit of the “Quad” countries, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United  States, emphasised the combating of Covid-19. They committed to combining medical, financing, manufacturing and delivery as well as development capabilities to address the “historic crisis”. India was seen as the hub of vaccine manufacture and the vanguard in this battle.

Covid-19’s second wave hit India soon afterwards and the Quad spirit of cooperation ran into vaccine nationalism when India’s pleas to the US for assistance were rudely rejected initially. The US finally relented. Among other things, the US Development Finance Corporation will aid the expansion of vaccine manufacture by Hyderabad-based Biological E Ltd, which has finished its Phases 1 and 2 trials. Baylor Medical College has provided the proven and simpler yeast-based expression technology. The company is to produce one billion doses by the end of 2022 at an affordable price.


All International Articles