The Indian connection

Ahmed Mustafa
Friday 7 Jul 2023

Washington’s courting of New Delhi may be a message to Beijing


An old saying might help us understand the American administration’s current keenness on India: “Don’t believe it until it’s officially denied.” Ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington last month, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that “this visit is not about China.” Yet he did not deny that China is high on the agenda of the summit. “The question of China’s role in the military domain, the technology domain, the economic domain will be on the agenda.”

Many in the White House including the president spent time countering the media claim that the US is leveraging India as a counterweight to China as part of a confrontational Beijing strategy. Biden made it clear that he sees India “as vital to helping preserve the Western-led global international order” that China is seeking to challenge.

Months before his 2020 election win, Biden stressed standing up to the rising role of China and Russia in his foreign policy strategy. In doing that, the US would reclaim the global role he accused his electoral rival, Donald Trump, of losing it. The Ukraine war last year was the first major test of that strategy. Building a “wider Western coalition” against Russia would reconfirm Washington’s position as the sole global power, which some argue is a project that has failed with cracks in the Western coalition behind Kyiv.

American pressure on European partners to de-couple from Beijing have not been too effective, and so the theory seems to be exploiting the long-standing rivalry between China and India. This at least is what Biden’s strategists believe, as the CNN and the Washington Post both noted. Even in denying that they are courting India to counter Chinese influence, officials implied it was true.

US Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby was quoted by news agency PTI as saying, “India has challenges with China as well, right on their doorstep, but also more broadly in the region… India is a sovereign independent state. They have their own foreign policy that they have to manage. And they live in a tough neighborhood.”

Before leaving Washington on his way to Cairo for his first visit to Egypt, Modi concluded unprecedented deals with American businesses – mainly in the military department – one of those being a multi-billion dollar agreement with General Electric to manufacture fighter engines in India. He also bought highly sophisticated drones from American suppliers. That is not necessarily an American attempt to enhance military cooperation with India in anticipation of an Indian position should the Sino-American struggle escalate. In fact, many analysts in the US doubt that Delhi would take a firm position in that case, rather than doing as it did with the Ukraine war. Good relations with the US and Europe did not stop India from being the main importer of Russian oil that fell under European embargo.

The populist Hindu government of Narendra Modi used to be a focus of American criticism, especially from the Democrats before they were in power. They accused former Republican president Donald Trump of cosying up to Modi whose government was “eroding human, political, press and religious freedoms,” as the CNN noted. Though India is the largest democracy, at least in comparison to its population size, it may well be an “imperfect” one, as the Washington Post suggested. That makes White House statements surrounding any partnership with India appear hypocritical.

But it was not only the Democratic administration that was upbeat about Modi’s visit. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told India Today that the visit was different from any other visit by an Indian PM to Washington. “PM Modi addressed the US Congress joint session twice, a feat previously achieved by only four people, two of them Israelis along with Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill,” the Indian minister said. The Republicans, it should be noted, control the Congress and half the Senate.

“Both Republicans and Democrats, as well as the business community, extended a hearty welcome… Earlier, the business community in America was hesitant about joining India during the visit. However, this time prominent figures such as Satya Nadella, Elon Musk, and Tim Cook were present.” It is also worth noting that Tim Cook’s Apple has recently moved some of its iPhone supply chain from China to India; whether this was for logistical reasons or succumbing to White House pressure on American companies to leave China is not clear.

Regardless of the motives that surround these developments, stronger relations between the US and India are undoubtedly beneficial. A closeness to America can even be used to leverage relations with allies in the Middle East, from Egypt to the Gulf countries. This does not necessarily mean that the region will be seeking to make India a closer ally than China any time soon. As a Gulf commentator suggested, this is all part of an independent foreign policy by countries in the region to diversify their global alliances. Keeping good relations with the US, Europe, Russia, China, India and others is a choice that many countries in the region are actively making.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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