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China was the ghost at the US-India feast


China was the ghost at the US-India feast

News Portal Space

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi basked in the most lavish honors that the US can bestow on a visiting leader. But for much of his state visit, the specter of an uninvited guest hovered over Washington and the future of US-India relations.

China – and the growing belief that the US is on a collision course with the Asian power – is driving the relationship between Washington and India. That helps explain why President Joe Biden and Congress feted Modi despite the fact that his populist Hindu nationalist government has presided over a significant erosion in human, political, press and religious freedoms in a way that appears to violate the US leader’s push for global democracy.

Biden made clear that he sees India as vital to helping preserve the Western-led global international order, a set of rules-based principles and values that China is seeking to challenge. But despite Thursday’s pageantry, there are deep questions over whether the Modi government, while seeking to leverage its warming ties with Washington to its own advantage, sees itself in quite the same role as a linchpin of US diplomatic strategy. It remains unclear, for instance, whether India would throw its full weight behind Biden in the event that any of the increasingly alarming US-China confrontations escalates into a full-scale military or diplomatic standoff.

The backdrop of Modi’s visit – a feud over a Chinese spy balloon’s trip across US skies earlier this year, which was just reignited by Biden publicly branding Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a dictator – showed just why India’s growing strategic weight could be so valuable to the US.

The president denied on Thursday that his comments, in the relaxed atmosphere of a Democratic Party fundraiser this week, had sunk his effort to rescue disastrously poor US-China relations. He said he had no plans to stop calling things as he sees them. He also drew a contrast between Washington’s ties with Beijing and those with India.

“One of the fundamental reasons that I believe the US-China relationship is not in the space as with the U.S.-Indian relationship is that there is an overwhelming respect for each other because we’re both democracies,” Biden said.

Biden’s decision to grant one of his term’s rare state visits to Modi represented a doubling down of a strategy to draw India into the Western orbit, which was initiated as far back as the Clinton administration and was accelerated by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Like most of his predecessors, he pointed to political synergy in the governing systems in India and the United States, both once under British colonial rule.

Biden’s embrace of Modi also put him in the odd position of drawing praise from some Republicans who are committed to an even more robust policy toward China and often accuse him of being soft on Beijing. He effectively offered Modi cover in a news conference in which the US side persuaded the Indian prime minister to take the unusual step of taking questions.

“We believe the dignity of every citizen, and it is in America’s DNA, and I believe in India’s DNA that the whole world – the whole world has a stake in our success, both of us, and maintaining our democracies,” Biden said. “(This) makes us appealing partners and enables us to expand democratic institutions across around the world.”

Modi, meanwhile, offered exactly the kind of words that his American hosts wanted to hear, describing US-India relations as more important than ever before and saying that they could together be “successful in enhancing the strengths of the whole world.”

Biden’s embrace of Modi exposed him to criticism that he trampled his own calls for the preservation of global democracy, human rights and press freedom, given the democratic backsliding in India.

“In order to advance these values with credibility on the world stage, we must apply them equally to friend and foe alike, just as we work to apply these same principles here in the United States,” a group of 70 Democratic lawmakers wrote to the president regarding Modi’s visit.

Biden faced the same kind of criticism when he traveled to Saudi Arabia last year and fist bumped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after vowing on the 2020 campaign trail that he would make the kingdom a pariah over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Biden’s wider goal is the preservation of the international liberal order that is under assault from China and Russia. This may insulate him from criticisms that erupt whenever an American president sets a moral grounding for US foreign policy and then inevitably faces criticism that he’s prioritizing grubby geopolitical interests over core American values.

Obama addressed this very conundrum in an exclusive interview with News Portal Space broadcast on Thursday.

“Look, it’s complicated,” Obama told Christiane Amanpour. “The president of the United States has a lot of equities. And when I was president, I would deal with figures in some cases who were allies, who, you know, if you pressed me in private, do they run their governments and their political parties in ways that I would say are ideally democratic? I’d have to say no.”

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Modi visited Washington at a time when there is an almost universal belief across both parties that China’s rise poses a dangerous challenge to US power, influence and the entire Western-led system of economic and political rules. This is taking priority over concerns about democracy in India, which are becoming increasingly acute. In March, for instance, the main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was thrown out of parliament after he was convicted in a defamation case centering on Modi’s name that critics said was politically motivated. There have also been raids on foreign and local media outlets and increased faith-based oppression.

US officials insisted this week that the Modi visit was not about China. But in a way in Washington, these days, everything is about China.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who has often spoken about the need to fight autocracy abroad, summed up the mood surrounding Modi’s visit in a statement.

“Our nations’ economic and security interests overlap on many of the most pressing issues, especially the growing hostility of the Chinese Communist Party in the Himalayas and in the Indian Ocean,” the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

From Washington’s perspective, India appears a promising partner in its effort to counter China, which has seen the Biden administration strengthen the defense component of alliances with Japan and Australia and reengage the Philippines in an initiative that will lead to more US troops being stationed on the soil of a longtime ally that sometimes flirts with China. India’s economy is benefiting from Western governments’ desire to wean themselves off Chinese supply chains. The Covid-19 pandemic and a spike in inflation underscored how painful over-reliance on a manufacturing base vulnerable to political confrontation could be.

Tensions and exchanges of fire across China’s long border with India have, meanwhile, raised the question of whether New Delhi’s most dangerous foe is Beijing rather than Pakistan. India has also become a participating member of the Quad security forum that also involves the leaders of Australia, Japan and the US and met recently in Japan.

In his address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, Modi moved toward the US position and was clearly referencing Beijing’s expansive sovereignty claims in the region that are not recognized by international law. He said India shared the US vision of a “free open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” marked by freedom of navigation defined by international law and was against the domination of any one nation.

Even in the cloaked language of international diplomacy, those comments represented a significant statement of alignment with the US position and a message to China.

Yet the world often behaves very differently than policy makers in Washington expect. While there was much talk of Biden supposedly compromising his principles on democracy, there was less attention this week on what kind of payoff the US can expect for an intense engagement with India. Could New Delhi, for instance, simply rack up significant wins while pursuing its own path?

One of the most significant deliverables from this summit, for instance, was a deal that will see General Electric partner with an Indian firm to build jet fighter engines after years of relying on Russian and Soviet weaponry. The agreement sent a message to both Beijing and Moscow – America’s primary adversaries.

No one in Washington expects India to become a formal US ally. It has always resisted being drawn into organized alliances and is now positioning itself as the leader of the developing world. Its policies also sometimes conflict with those of the US. It has been an eager customer, for example, of cheap oil from Russia despite sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. And it is unlikely that despite closer defense ties India would line up alongside the United States in a military confrontation with China over Taiwan or in the South China Sea.

Ashley Tellis – one of the architects of a civil nuclear energy cooperation deal with India in the Bush administration, which was a platform for years of subsequent engagement with New Delhi – warned last month that the US was making a “bad bet” with Modi.

“India’s significant weaknesses compared with China, and its inescapable proximity to it, guarantee that New Delhi will never involve itself in any U.S. confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security,” Tellis wrote in Foreign Affairs.

“India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis—even one involving a common threat such as China.”

Such a view reinforces the idea that India and the US may have different ambitions and visions for their ever-tightening relationship, and the possibility that Biden could end up being disappointed in the returns for his attention on Modi.

But at a time when every foreign policy question eventually comes down to a broader confrontation with China, even incremental gains from this visit could benefit the US.

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