A Jaishankar Odyssey
The most difficult diplomatic situation I witnessed in the history of India-US relations was the period between May 1998 when India tested nuclear weapons and July 1998 when discussions began between Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Jaswant Singh and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on a whole range of nuclear and strategic affairs. There was virtually no communication between the two countries as the US accused India of betrayal and insisted that India should pay a price for it. But in two years, there was a new architecture in place and the signing of the nuclear deal in 2008, made the two countries strategic partners. With some contradictory signals from the Biden administration, the time had come for an exchange of views with Washington.
Dr Jaishankar has been a major player in the developments in India-US relations in different capacities, but his present visit was a challenge even for him because it took place in exceptional circumstances. It had no parallel in history as at no time had India approached the US or any other country in an acute health emergency for much needed material to fight a life and death battle with a pandemic. However, much we may have projected it as a bilateral visit to a friendly country, the world saw it in the context of the anxiety in India that the second wave of Covid-19 had overwhelmed India after having claimed victory over the first wave.
Even worse, India had given away its stock of medicines and vaccines to other countries to match the Chinese vaccine diplomacy. The Minister’s visit was seen like a country seeking weapons to fight a war which it was about to lose. The success of the visit would be judged in India and abroad on the basis of what it achieved in getting massive quantities of vaccines. The fact that the Minister personally met major manufacturers of vaccines spoke volumes about the objectives of the visit.
Actually, there was a commitment at the level of President Biden to help India as much as possible, given his own constraints under US law to conserve health assets for the needs of his own country. He even went to the extent of offering to waive IPR and patent restrictions on American medical equipment to pave the way for transfer of technology, machinery and vaccines to India. Even before the present acute crisis in India, the Quad had already decided to launch a vaccine programme, involving US technology, Japanese investment, Indian manufacturing capacity and Australian logistics. Therefore, there was a certain inevitability about the success of the Minister’s visit as far as the vaccines were concerned. But how fast it will be accomplished and how many thousands of lives will be saved will be the real test of American solidarity with India.
The Minister’s visit had many other important dimensions, even if such a visit had taken place in different circumstances. This was the first most important political visit since President Biden took over. China is very much a preoccupation with both the US and India and convergence of the views and strategy of the two countries will determine the future of the globe. We consider China as an adversary and the US views it as a competitor, but in substance we are likely to be on the same side. As a country with a land border and a history of conflicts, India maybe circumspect, but India is very much on its way to become a committed partner in the Quad. The present freeze in the military situation in Ladakh is a matter of extreme concern to India and any discussion on this matter between the Minister and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken must have helped.
The visit must have provided an opportunity for an exchange of views on Russia on the eve of the US- Russia summit in June. There have been some concerns in Russia about Indian proximity to the US and disquiet in India about Russia’s moves on China and Pakistan. But Russia lived up to its reputation of being a permanent friend of India by sending Russian vaccine to India. The US position on the purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles may also have been discussed.
The American deadline for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was fast approaching, but an agreement on a new dispensation was not yet in sight. The US had shown interest in involving India in the negotiations, but its proposal for a new format had not materialized. At the same time, India hopes that a complete withdrawal will not take place without a viable dispensation in place. Dr Jaishankar may have been updated on the situation.
No less important were the developments in Vienna on the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has already agreed to extend the agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, but the question of withdrawal of sanctions before renewing the deal remained unresolved. But there is still hope as the negotiations continue. India’s interest in ending sanctions without giving a free hand to Iran to proceed with its nuclear activities is well known.
Minister Jaishankar must have caught up with the American initiatives on climate change about which India has considerable concern. The US and China are engaged in promoting pledging of reduction in emissions without any commitment to provide technology and funding to developing countries. India must have made our reservations clear to the Americans this time.
Secretary of State Blinken had visited the Middle East even when Minister Jaishankar was in Washington and the two Ministers must have exchanged ideas on the most recent developments. The US stood steadfast with Israel, but the role it played in bringing about a ceasefire and extending assistance to rebuild Gaza were hopeful signs of support to the two-nation formula. The US will continue to pursue to build upon the Abraham Accords to build peace in West Asia and it can expect India’s support.
The meeting that the Minister had with the UN Secretary General to seek international cooperation to fight the pandemic was long overdue. If only the UN had taken on the coordination of the international efforts to battle the pandemic, the situation would not have been catastrophic in many parts of the world, including India. China may strengthen its resistance to the UN involvement as the call for another investigation of the origin of Covid-19 has strengthened. But UN involvement in the biggest threat to international peace and security is imperative in the present uncertain situation and the Indian initiative is commendable.
The visit of EAM Jaishankar to Washington was most timely and important. He had a wide exchange of views with not only Cabinet members, but also significant law makers. More than anything else, such intensive interaction in Washington may have also prepared the ground for a visit of Prime Minister Modi to Washington before long.
T.P.Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and a member of the National Security Advisory Board and presently the DG of the Kerala International Centre. He has nearly 20 years of experience in multilateral diplomacy and has represented India at a number of international conferences organised by the UN, the Commonwealth and the NAM. He has chaired several UN Committees and Conferences.
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