Originally Published 2021-05-10 10:00:37 Published on May 10, 2021
The ties between Delhi and Washington seemed headed for the doldrums due to a policy error on Biden’s part, but the US reversal is a good sign for both nations
India-US ties: Overcoming hesitation

The air bridge bringing in American assistance to India to combat the Chinese-origin Covid pandemic is in operation, putting an end to the uncertainty and hesitation that marked the Biden administration’s initial stand on this issue. Indians growing up in the 1960s remember the PL-480 wheat shipments for a grain-starved India were each personally authorised by President Lyndon Johnson. He was irritated by India’s stand on the Vietnam war. The American State Department’s official spokesperson’s comments that the nation’s obligation devolved first on its own citizens and this would be good for the world must rank as insensitive, if not an egregious faux pas during the Covid pandemic.

The Biden administration had earlier invoked the US Defense Production Act to ban the export of critical raw material for the production of vaccines and other medical equipment. This Act, whose purpose was to ensure that raw material and finished equipment was available for Americans and not exported, goes back to the Korean war in the 1950s. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being produced in the US depend on crucial raw material supplied by some Indian companies. If the US could ban export of such precursors for vaccine manufacturers, so could India.

The fact that this came on the heels of a kerfuffle caused by the Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) by an American Navy Destroyer through India’s EEZ near Lakshadweep didn’t help matters, particularly the statement put out by the US Navy about its position on the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). India had signed up to the UNCLOS with reservations about FONOPs by naval ships in her EEZ. Ironically, the US has not even ratified the UNCLOS and does not accept any restriction on FONOPS; it has exercised this right in the South China Sea and the Taiwan straits.

The reaction in India to the export ban was uniformly negative, with Indians recalling that India had supplied essential drugs when the US ran short during the first phase of the pandemic. All of a sudden, India-USA ties, hitherto touted as the emerging strategic partnership of the 21st century, seemed headed for the doldrums. Clearly, the reaction in India led to a flurry of high-level political contacts between the two countries to contain the damage. The Indian-American community weighed in on behalf of India, as did several leading political leaders in the US Congress.

The problem was triggered by Adar Poonawalla’s appeal to President Biden to permit export of precursors that are vital to the production of vaccines at the Serum Institute of India (SII). The lumbering American deep state sprang into action only after the negative reaction in India gathered momentum. The Biden administration quickly took policy decisions that it can now count among its achievements of the first 100 days. Its policy to revisit and reverse some decisions that were crucial to both the global and India’s fightback against the virus has been helpful. These policy reversals were important for bilateral ties that were suddenly poised at a sensitive juncture. President Biden must be commended for quickly absorbing the implications of not acting on this issue and being decisive after some initial confusion. The consequences of not acting would have left bilateral ties bruised and taken years to heal.

China, which has kept a wary eye on India’s growing ties with the US and forward movement in the Quad, jumped in gleefully to drive a wedge by unleashing a torrent of editorials, cartoons and social media posts via the CCP’s media propaganda arm the Global Times. It pointedly accused the US of being an unreliable partner and deliberately harming India by withholding supplies. “Their closeness to each other is fragile and superficial,” the media outlet crowed. Simultaneously, it urged India to improve ties with China and quickly organised a conference of South Asian countries on Covid cooperation to leverage India’s inability to export vaccines. India declined to attend.

China reached out to India with a telephone call from their FM to our EAM, preceded by a letter from President Xi Jinping to PM Narendra Modi, offering assistance for the fight against the pandemic. This was the first letter after Beijing provoked a bloody conflict in Ladakh. At the same time, China banned flights that prevented commercial medical supplies, required for the struggling healthcare sector, to reach India. The low level of trust was further undermined by such devious actions at a time of medical emergency.

Social media posts by Chinese government security agencies also mocked India by juxtaposing pictures of funeral pyres and the launch of a Chinese rocket. The sarcastic caption that accompanied these said that China was igniting a fire for sending a rocket into space while India was igniting fires to burn the dead. The photos of several funeral pyres burning together were similar to the ones published by media outlets in Western countries, which are also quick to depict India as negatively as possible. We have to blame ourselves too, since Indian photojournalists were selling these photos to the highest bidder among foreign media organisations.

In China, there was a social media backlash from the general public that remains sympathetic to the people of India. The photos and caption were quickly withdrawn and China has since been offering help which has, so far, remained limited to expediting cargo flights carrying medical supplies, contracted by Indian companies. True to her mercantile interests, China is merely facilitating supply of medical goods for which its companies will be making hefty profits. China’s rethinking of her policy may be linked to the potential spread of the mutant virus to the nation as the pandemic spreads to India’s neighbours. The pandemic knows no borders. China has not yet offered government-to-government aid to India, unlike the US, France, Russia, UK and many others. It is unlikely that the Indian government will accept any aid from China after such duplicity.

The controversy generated by Poonawalla’s visit to London and his media interview about pressure and threats has added to the toxic mix of controversy about vaccine production and pricing. Delhi was clearly aware of this situation since it authorised a high level of security to the industrialist. The paucity in the supply of vaccines for developing countries has starkly undermined trust between developed and developing countries, with the former hoarding vaccines and withholding medical precursors for manufacture of vaccines in India. These developments have increased traction in India for those arguing for strategic autonomy and creating doubts about the US. Realising this, Russia quickly expedited export of its vaccine “Sputnik” that has reached India along with other medical supplies like oxygen. China will want to play catch up with Russia.

The macro takeaway from this crisis is the inevitable conclusion that the Indian government underestimated the ferocity of the second wave and believed that that the pandemic was over. This negated its success in containing the first wave with draconian measures like the lockdown that was clamped so suddenly that it led to a migrant crisis. The inability to fund the ramping up of vaccine production early enough has led to the current shortage of doses in the country. Though the initial export and gifting of vaccines has resulted in reciprocal sympathy and aid from several countries, it has also led some countries to grumble about India’s ban on export of vaccines even though contracts had been signed by the SII.

This commentary originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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