by Makarand R Paranjape

There may never be a better time to upgrade India-US relations, in fact to take them to unprecedented levels of integration and partnership. If nothing else, that is what External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s recent US expedition shows.

Earlier, in sourcing oxygen from all over the world, the ministry which he heads had already shown that it is not only India’s best, but among the most effective in the world. There are both historical and administrative reasons for this.

From our very first, Jawaharlal Nehru, to the present incumbent, Narendra Modi, all Indian prime ministers have taken a special interest in foreign affairs. Several, such as Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, held additional charge of this ministry. Modi too, since he took over as prime minister, has been the real shaper of our foreign policy, although Sushma Swaraj did, and now S. Jaishankar, serves as external affairs minister.

There is another, slightly less noticed but equally obvious reason why the MEA sets a high benchmark for excellence. They are the only ones to have their own dedicated cadre, the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). All other ministries rely on the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), whose bureaucrats can be shifted around in many ministries over a career spanning about thirty-five years.

In the MEA, however, once a diplomat, always a diplomat. The best exemplar of this hallowed tradition of excellence is India’s current external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Not only did he ably serve as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2015-2018, but made a smooth transition to the position of his former boss in 2019.

But make no mistake. Diplomacy is hard work. Anyone following Jaishankar’s recent US trip will agree.

In his recent US trip, he made his presence felt in several important meetings, in addition to undertaking many speaking engagements. Among those about whom he tweeted on his official handle, the most prominent include several important cabinet members and top officials of the Joe Biden administration, including Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and several leaders, both Democrat and Republican, as well as captains of business and industry.

His visit culminated with a summit meeting with his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on 29 May. Wide-ranging discussions with the latter covered Indo-Pacific, the Quad, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and the UN Security Council. What is significant is that Jaishankar is the first Indian cabinet minister to make an official visit to the US after the swearing in of President Biden.

Meetings with senior officials of the Health and Homeland Security departments followed, in addition to conversations with members of the Congress.

Nehru Before Jaishankar

Cynics might ask, but to what end? What is the outcome of Jaishankar’s visit? Will he return with a planeload of vaccines? The vaccines may not have arrived with him, but they are expected later in June, given that the US has 60 million doses of AstraZeneca which are not authorised for use, in addition to another 20 million it has pledged to donate to as yet unspecified countries.

Will the US play saviour in India’s pandemic as it did in the 1960s and 1970s during our acute food shortages? Or when on 19 November 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote not one but two letters to President John F. Kennedy, beseeching the US to save India from the invading Chinese.

Nehru’s second letter is especially poignant:

“Within a few hours of despatching my earlier message of today, the situation in the N.E.F.A. Command has deteriorated still further. Bomdila has fallen and the retreating forces from Sela have been trapped between the Sala Ridge and Bomdila. A serious threat has developed to our Digboi oil fields in Assam. With the advance of the Chinese in massive strength, the entire Brahmaputra Valley is seriously threatened and unless something is done immediately to stem the tide the whole of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands.”

Nehru urges Kennedy to send all possible military aid, including air power, from the US: “The situation that has developed is, however, really desperate. We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India. Any delay in this assistance reaching us will result in nothing short of a catastrophe for our country.”

India’s air defence was so inadequate that Nehru acknowledged that, “in the present state of our air and radar equipment we have no defence age fret retaliatory action by the Chinese. I, therefore, request that immediate support be given to strengthen our air arm sufficiently to stem the tide of Chinese advance. I am advised that for providing adequate air defence a minimum of 12 squadrons or supersonic all weather fighters are essential.”

In retrospect, it does seem that the possibility of an active intervention by the US was an important factor in China’s agreeing to a ceasefire on 21 November 1962, after one month and one day. Even though it was in a vastly superior and advantageous position.

Time To Bond Better With The US

Those who believe that the United States is not to be trusted and that it is more advantageous for us to have closer ties with China are mistaken. It is not that we mustn’t strive for the latter, but what are the chances, with the red dragon’s relentless salami slicing and muscle-flexing on our borders? China will want normalcy with India, but continue to demand territory and strategic subservience from us in exchange. What is more, the balance of trade will always favour China, putting us at a perennial economic disadvantage.

That is the nature of the neo-colonialism inaugurated by the middle kingdom, with the new Communist Emperor, Xi Jinping, presiding over its fortunes and future. What we can never forget is that we are not at war, never have been, against the US. But with China, we have an unsettled border dispute in which our men have died. Pakistan, our adversary, is also, for all practical purposes, China’s client state. When matters get worse, we will face a potentially fatal left-right knockout from both sides of our borders.

The US, on the other hand, with a huge and powerful Indian diaspora, needs India’s help to counterbalance China and retain its numero uno ranking in the world. For our own interests, we must cement our relationship now. This, after 1962, is the most opportune moment. It may not come again for several decades. India-US ties need to be taken to a higher level than ever before. We lost that opportunity during the old Cold War. Now we must not repeat that mistake in the unfolding new one.

What about vaccines? They will follow as a matter of course. What is more, India will make sufficient quantities of them now that the second wave has served as much more than a wakeup call. In addition to enhancing India-US ties, one more important lesson may be drawn from Jaishankar’s US sojourn.

Increase, even double, the number of serving Indian diplomats. By lateral entry, if necessary. India has a bigger role to play in world affairs.

The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla