India’s relations with the United States have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years overcoming significant hurdles, including legacy issues and some mutual distrusts — all of this with the broad approval of the commentariat and the public.
The recent COVID-19 assistance imbroglio, however, caused a ripple, which was amplified by some commentaries advocating ‘caution’ in pursuing closer ties with the US. This advice was buttressed with references to the recent passage of a US warship, without due notification or permission, through waters India considers its economic zone; the looming CAATSA sanctions for the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system; and the threat of sanctions straining our relations with Iran.
In the wake of the US State Department statement, former Indian Army Chief Ved Prakash Malik tweeted “Remembering an old lesson... Not to become over dependant on the US for defence weapons and equipment.”
It all started with the April 22 statement by the State Department spokesperson in response to the health crisis in India. This was seen as a continuation of the US policy preventing exports under the Defence Production Act (DPA), which prioritises production of vaccines, vaccines-related material and even PPEs for the US.
This bald and rather insensitive statement sparked off a flurry of official activity, including discussions between the NSAs of the two countries and culminating in a conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden. It was later announced that the US would supply the required materials to the Serum Institute of India (Pune) to produce the Astra Zeneca Covishield vaccine.
US officials, at a background briefing, explained that the DPA continued to be in force but the US government was diverting some of its own orders to India without disturbing the other commitments of manufacturers, which it didn’t have the power to do. They were at pains to explain that the DPA did not actually ban exports.
It must be noted that these measures do not address another bilateral difference, on a vaccine-related issue — India’s move seeking a waiver of intellectual property rights of the companies on these life-saving vaccines to facilitate global production.
Subsequently, Washington announced that it would distribute 60 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccines. The US has substantial stockpiles of vaccines, including Astra Zeneca, which is not authorised for use within the US.
So far, it is not clear which countries would be the recipients of the vaccines. However, Indian officials have been cited in reports suggesting that they hoped India would receive a substantial part of the vaccines. But even that would be a small portion of India’s need.
While all these steps will likely mitigate some of the perception damage to the image of the US in India, it gave the opportunity for other countries to burnish their credentials — Russia, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan and others — stepped up to offer assistance to deal with the unprecedented health crisis gripping India.
The fundamental lesson of the cataclysm caused by the second wave of the pandemic is that it is important for India to understand that this crisis like most others in recent times will not and cannot be resolved by external actors. Other countries can help, but essentially India has to rely on its own capacities to deal with its troubles.
India’s larger challenge is to build significant indigenous capacities in health, education, science & technology, defence, and industry over a short timeframe, and possibly, under the stress of restrictions that could be imposed by our commitments to mitigate climate change. However, given the current geopolitical churn, it is important that minor disagreements do not lead us to miss the forest for the trees.
What India — the state and the people — has to keep in mind is that India cannot traverse this path of development alone. Many countries can help — Japan, Russia, the Europeans, but it is the US that is the country with the most capacity to substantially contribute to help India’s journey down this road.
Finally, while India’s primary problems are not external but domestic, this doesn’t mean the world will stop and wait for India to overcome these challenges. Any dissonance between domestic and foreign priorities will only add to the difficulties ahead.