Despite contrasting stances over Ukraine, Washington supports New Delhi as a defence industry leader and net provider of security in the Indo-Pacific. The two countries pledged to reinforce ties amid ongoing challenges from China, and to cooperate further in defence, cyberspace, space and maritime security

The amicable signals emanating from leaders of the United States and India this week stood in stark contrast to the awkward tensions between the two countries just days earlier due to their stances over the war in Ukraine.

In meetings between India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar, defence minister Rajnath Singh and their US counterparts Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, Washington said it supported Delhi as a defence industry leader in the Indo-Pacific and a net provider of security in the region.

Speaking at a press conference after the India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, Austin said that the “operational reach” of the two countries’ militaries would be extended “to coordinate more closely together across the expanse of the Indo-Pacific”.

Both have pledged to undertake more “high-end exercises” to reinforce ties with like-minded countries amid ongoing challenges from China. They also agreed to further cooperation in defence, cyberspace, space and maritime security.

Analysts said that these positive gestures are clear signs the US does not want to alienate India in its bid to contain China, and that the 2+2 talks have signalled that bilateral ties are moving forward.

Days before the meetings, US president Joe Biden called India’s stand on Ukraine “somewhat shaky” while a US official warned that the consequences of aligning with Moscow would be “significant and long-term”.

India stood firm and refused to criticise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, choosing to promote dialogue to end the war and suggesting respect for the sovereignty of each nation.

The reluctance to call Russia out stems from its status as India’s largest supplier of arms, said to be essential for dealing with China and the border stand-off. India’s continued buying of Russian energy is also a matter of contention, though Jaishankar said Western concerns were misplaced.

“I suspect looking at the figures, probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon,” he said.

There were also some ruffled feathers over the subject of human rights, after Blinken made remarks about Washington monitoring “a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police, and prison officials.”

Jaishankar did not immediately respond, but a day later said that New Delhi was monitoring rights issues in the US, and flagged an incident in which two Sikh men were assaulted in New York’s Richmond Hill area.

For diplomatic analysts, however, this bristling did not detract from the overall positive tone of the talks.

Sumitha Narayanan Kutty, Leverhulme fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London, said even though Washington and New Delhi diverged on a number of policies, the talks have shown that the bilateral partnership remains on track.

The US has also indicated its willingness to help India diversify away from Russian arms, and supports India’s accelerated efforts to strengthen its defence industry, Kutty noted.

“These efforts will undoubtedly take time but a step in the right direction nonetheless for the relationship,” said Kutty, adding that “the China challenge is long-term and very much on both governments’ minds”.

India is seen as a key player in countering China’s growing influence and also important for Washington’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Akriti Vasudeva, a fellow in the South Asia programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington DC said, given Washington’s offer of defence and energy alternatives to reduce India’s reliance on Russia, it appears the countries were successful in bridging the gap in their views.

“The overall state of the relationship is healthy and forward-looking,” Vasudeva said, adding that even though there were few major deliverables, several initiatives were discussed, suggesting relations have become “deeper and more robust”.

“The fact that Secretary Blinken spent almost two whole days with his counterpart … Jaishankar in the middle of the Russia-Ukraine conflict would perhaps convey the importance the US attaches to the relationship with India and its concerns regarding China,” Vasudeva added.

“Austin also linked US-India defence collaboration as a measure to ensure a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific amid China’s rise,” Vasudeva said.

Chirayu Thakkar, a doctoral candidate in international relations at the National University of Singapore, said even though India’s stance on Russia disappointed some officials in Washington, major Biden figures understood the country’s dependence on Russian arms from Moscow.

“Most importantly, (they understood) New Delhi’s desire for Moscow to remain neutral in a conflict between India and China,” Thakkar said, noting that neither the US nor its major European allies have lost sight of “the bigger prize in the Indo-Pacific, where India remains an indispensable pillar”.

“The 2+2 dialogue, happening in the backdrop of such divergent positions on a major global conflict, is a sign of willingness on both sides to iron out differences,” Thakkar said.

Thakkar noted that India had consistently abstained from certain votes at the United Nations, adding that if India had not stood with the US, it had “not provided unequivocal support to Moscow either”.

Rityusha Tiwary, an assistant professor political science professor at the University of Delhi’s Shahid Bhagat Singh College said while the talks sent positive signals it was too early to say that relations are back on track.

“The US has not yet made any decision on potential sanctions or waivers to India under CATSAA law for its purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia,” Tiwary said. He was referring to the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act which requires the US to impose sanctions on any country that has significant transactions with Iran, North Korea or Russia.

Can India Do More As A Quad Member?

Concerns had earlier been raised that India’s refusal to criticise Russia for invading Ukraine would weaken the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue which includes the US, Australia and Japan.

On whether there is more that India can do to ensure that the Quad will emerge, as Jaishankar put it, a “powerful force of global good”, Kutty said India is already taking the lead on multiple fronts, such as the vaccine programme and the group’s humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

“Given these efforts are still new and work-in-progress, ensuring their timely implementation and delivery would be viewed positively across the Indo-Pacific,” Kutty said.

In February, Quad foreign ministers highlighted the need to build resilience against natural disasters and the pandemic, while noting that the group supported Tonga after the country’s volcano eruption and tsunami in January.

Thakkar said the Quad needs to go beyond singing “paeans of democracy and rules-based order” and deliver more vaccines to the region. More than 500 million vaccine doses have been delivered since the Quad Vaccine Partnership was announced in March last year. Under the plan, they agreed to provide about 1.2 billion doses globally.

This week, India said it delivered 325,000 doses of the vaccine to Cambodia as part of the commitment to donate 500,000 doses to the Indo-Pacific under the Quad vaccine initiative.

The Stimson Centre’s Vasudeva said despite divergences in the US and Indian positions on Ukraine-Russian war, they agree on the importance of the Quad.

“The US has recognised India as a net security provider in the region and has appreciated India’s willingness to do more with the Quad over the last few years, largely triggered by Chinese aggression,” Vasudeva said.