The 2022 Power Couple: Despite differences, United States and India deepened ties, partnering for global solutions

PM Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden at G20 Summit in Bali Nov. 14-15, 2022, showing the victory sign. Photo: Twitter @narendramodi

Even though, the United States and India began the year with serious differences in terms of their policy disagreements over the Russia-Ukraine war, both countries have since acknowledged the other’s boundaries and limitations while learning to work together in this inter-dependent world. Clearly, the deepening bilateral engagement between the countries, in the midst of an ongoing war, underscores India’s growing stature on the global stage as it assumes the G20 Presidency.

The arc of the transition in Washington’s views are summed by two remarks by President Biden highlighting the beginning and end of 2022 — first with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – when he called India an outlier with a somewhat “shaky” position on Russia, to the second one at the end of the year when Biden said, “Together we will advance sustainable and inclusive growth while tackling shared challenges like the climate, energy, and food crises.”

Earlier in the year, the US not only expressed disappointment with India for not openly condemning Russia’s actions, but for also choosing to abstain from voting on United Nations (UN) Security Council and General Assembly resolutions against Russia. President Joe Biden highlighted India as the only country in the Quad alliance that was “somewhat shaky” in acting against Russia.

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Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland who was on a South Asia tour, at the time of Biden’s statement, in a TV interview in New Delhi said, “Democracies need to stand together and evolve their position vis-a-vis Russia because of the choices Putin has made. Democracies must stand against autocracies like Russia and China.”

India quickly reacted and tried to balance the situation. “India has called for immediate cessation of hostilities and return to the path of diplomacy and dialogue with respect to the conflict in Ukraine…India has close relations and friendly relations with both US and Russia. They stand on their own merit,” Minister of State for External Affairs, Meenakshi Lekhi told Parliament.

Ahead of the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between US and Indian Foreign and Defense Ministers meeting in April, the White House even dispatched its Deputy National Security Advisor to continue its “close consultations with Indian counterparts about the destabilizing economic impacts of Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

Following the consultations, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement: “The [2+2] Dialogue would enable both sides to undertake a comprehensive review of cross-cutting issues in the India-US bilateral agenda related to foreign policy, defense and security with the objective of providing strategic guidance and vision for further consolidating the relationship.”

A few hours prior to the Dialogue, on a virtual call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden said, “At the root of our partnership is a deep connection between our people – ties of family, of friendship, and of shared values.”

President Biden flanked by U.S. and Indian delegations on virtual call with PM Modi April 11, 2022. Photo: Twitter at MEAIndia

The Dialogue provided a platform for leaders on both sides to articulate and understand the reasons behind their policies adopted with respect to Russia. “India’s relationship with Russia was developed over decades – at a time when the United States was not able to be a partner to India. Times have changed,” said Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar noted the 2+2 Dialogue was taking place at a time when the global order encountered multiple challenges and that they devoted enormous time in discussing ramifications and impact on food and energy security.

About US-India Defense Cooperation, “The [Defense] Ministers commended the significant and continuing progress in the U.S.-India Major Defense Partnership.  Drawing on the momentum from the U.S.-India Defense Policy Group meeting in October 2021, they reaffirmed their ambitions for building an advanced and comprehensive defense partnership in which the U.S. and Indian militaries coordinate closely together across all domains,” State Department’s note said.

In April, US Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Katherine Tai met Jaishankar and discussed Biden’s initiative to launch an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is “aimed at strengthening regional economic cooperation in critical areas such as supply chain resilience.”  “They shared the perspective that the U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum (TPF), re-launched in November 2021, holds substantial promise as a mechanism for expanding bilateral trade and reducing barriers, including with respect to trade in agriculture,” said a statement from USTR’s office.

Noting that the US-India bilateral trade in goods and services reached a whopping $157 billion in 2021, a State Department’s brief said, “The United States is India’s largest trading partner and most important export market. Many U.S. companies view India as a critical market and have expanded their operations there. Likewise, Indian companies seek to increase their presence in U.S. markets and at the end of 2020, Indian investment in the United States totaled $12.7 billion, supporting over 70,000 American jobs. The nearly 200,000 Indian students in the United States contribute $7.7 billion annually to the U.S. economy.”

PM Narendra Modi, President Joe Biden, UAE’s Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, and Israel’s PM Yair lapid, at the July 14, 2022, I2U2 inaugural meeting. Photo: Twitter @MEAIndia

In May, Biden and Modi met on the sidelines of the Quad alliance meeting in Tokyo, Japan, and jointly addressed the I2U2 Summit virtually in June, discussing ways to solve global economic and humanitarian crises. In September, following these meetings, Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Today’s era is not an era of war,” in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In his recent editorial in The Times of India, Modi wrote “the world remains trapped in the same zero-sum mindset…we see it when countries fight over territory or resources.” It’s likely Modi will skip his annual in-person summit with Putin post-Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

At the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Modi, in his closing remarks, asserted, “India is taking charge of the G20 at a time when the world is simultaneously grappling with geopolitical tensions, economic slowdown, rising food and energy prices, and the long-term ill-effects of the pandemic,” adding “At such a time, the world is looking at the G20 with hope. Today, I want to assure that India’s G20 Presidency will be inclusive, ambitious, decisive, and action-oriented.”

When India assumed the G20 Presidency, Biden tweeted, “India is a strong partner of the United States, and I look forward to supporting my friend Prime Minister Modi during India’s G20 Presidency. Together we will advance sustainable and inclusive growth while tackling shared challenges like the climate, energy, and food crises.” On December 12th, the White House released the G7 leaders’ statement backing India’s G20 Presidency. “As we look to the 2023 G7 Summit in Hiroshima under the Japanese Presidency, and in our support to the Indian G20 Presidency, we stand strong, united and absolutely committed to rebuilding a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future for all,” it said.

Modi’s statements are an indication that India wants the war to end. These statements assume enormous significance at a time India assumed the G20 Presidency as of December 1st and has the potential to become a global leader ushering the world into 2023. The G20 countries consist of two-thirds of the world’s population and represent around 85 per cent of the world GDP and 75 per cent of the international trade. India will host G20 Leaders’ Summit from September 9-10, 2023, in New Delhi.

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

On December 26th, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted, “I had a phone call with @PMOIndia Narendra Modi and wished a successful #G20 presidency. It was on this platform that I announced the peace formula and now I count on India’s participation in its implementation. I also thanked for humanitarian aid and support in the UN.”

About the call, a statement from MEA said, “The leaders also exchanged views about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Prime Minister Modi strongly reiterated his call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, and said that both sides should revert to dialogue and diplomacy to find a lasting solution to their differences.”

In September, after participating in the UNGA general debate and meeting with over 100 foreign ministers, Jaishankar said Russia is very much at the center of the debate, where G20 is concerned. He underscored that India’s goal would be to ensure that the G20 remains cohesive, focused, and agenda-driven – which will be primarily financial, and economic development. He affirmed that India will be the leading voice of the Global South, a group of under-developed countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar with Guterres at the Dec. 14, 2022 meeting at UN. Photo: Twitter @DrSJaishankar

At a recent luncheon hosted by Indian Ambassador to US, Taranjit Sandhu, for the Indian Diaspora, and Friends of India, Biden’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Jon Finer called India a “consequential partner,” of the United States. Highlighting the relationship between Biden and Modi, Finer said, “Looking around the world when the United States and President Biden look for partners… India and Prime Minister Modi are very high on that list. We just saw this in real time at the G20.”

While highlighting the significance of 75 years of US-India bilateral relations, Sandhu stressed, “In the present moment, this relationship has been particularly steered by Prime Minister Modi and President Biden. In the last one and a half years, they met more than 15 times, both in person and virtually…”

India also held the Presidency of the UN Security Council in December 2022 and focused on themes including building a new orientation towards reformed multilateralism, global counterterrorism approach and the way forward.

India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ruchira Kamboj, addressing the Dec. 7, 2022, centennial celebrations for Pramukh Swami Maharaj at the UN. Photo: courtesy BAPS

“Over the last two years of our membership of the Council, I can say with confidence that we have been shouldering responsibilities well, and making every effort to bridge the different voices within the Council so as to ensure that the Council itself speaks in one voice as far as possible on a variety of issues. We will bring the same spirit to our December Presidency,” said India’s first woman Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ruchira Kamboj.

In an effort to bring India into the NATO fold, Indian-American Congressman, Ro Khanna (D-CA), announced in July that the US was working to bring India into NATO plus, which currently consists of five US-allies Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Israel, and South Korea.

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