How does one treat India these days?
By James E. Fanell
In the 3rd century BC, the Roman poet Quintus Ennius wrote ‘Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur,’ which translated means “a sure friend is known when in difficulty.” After two millennia, this statement is now being discussed from Delhi to Washington by those who are wondering whether the current U.S. administration is really a true friend to the people of India.
Recent events have Indians wondering if, rather than build on the previous administration’s whole-of-government approach to the Indo-Pacific—which perforce showed the importance of the United States and India drawing closer together—the Biden administration may instead be indulging in siloed, bureaucratic decision-making that risks undermining carefully built trust.
The first major event was earlier this month when the USS John Paul Jones conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the western Indian Ocean near the Maldives. The United States has conducted similar FONOPs in the region. Unfortunately, given this occurred so soon after the Quad Leader’s Summit, the 7th Fleet’s standard press release needlessly generated undue negative attention.
While the United States FON program, which has been in existence since 1975, is designed as a legal challenge to U.S. assessed excessive maritime claims and is not directed towards any one nation, Delhi still has been left wondering why the current administration in Washington is treating India the same as the People’s Republic of China, a stated strategic competitor.
Two other actions from the current U.S. administration also caused bewilderment, and even growing resentment, to the people of India. The first was the recent announcement by the State Department putting India on notice that it will face potential sanctions for not allowing “religious freedom”—something that is especially galling for India that has a tradition of religious liberty and has been a courageous host to the Dalai Lama for over sixty years.
Second, the administration’s Treasury Department added India to its currency manipulation watch list. While India has been on this list before, the timing of this announcement, given all the other seemingly adversarial decisions and actions, is threatening to undo the trust that had been built up these past four years.
However, by far the worst decision involved the current deadly surge of the COVID-19 virus across India. With hundreds of thousands of new cases and thousands of deaths each day, India’s medical infrastructure has been pushed to the limit, with reports of overflowing hospitals and critical shortages of oxygen, medical supplies, and ICU beds.
While the Modi administration will face its own public for this situation, there was a clear need for urgent international support. Very quickly, the UK, France, Germany, and even China and Pakistan all offered help. Unsurprisingly, Russia swiftly announced it was arranging for shipments of oxygen and medicine.
Meanwhile, on the U.S. side, the February 2021 implementation of the Defense Production Act (DPA) resulted in a ban on the export of the raw materials (some 35 that come from America) used for the making of anti-virus vaccines. This ban adversely affected India’s pharmaceutical industry and degraded, if not prevented, it from being able to produce vaccines for its own people and saving lives.
While the Biden administration has justified the blanket export ban as being part and parcel of the DPA, Delhi was left wondering why the Biden administration had not sought to exempt India from this law, especially after many requests by Indian diplomats.
When asked why the United States blocked the already-agreed upon delivery of raw materials for making vaccines to India, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “Number one, we have a special responsibility to the American people. Number two, the American people, this country has been hit harder than any other country around the world—more than 550,000 deaths, tens of millions of infections in this country alone.” He then added, “It is not only in the U.S. interest to see Americans vaccinated, but it is in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.”
One can understand why Indians would be stunned. India has been a team player in the fight against COVID-19. During the surge of the virus in the United States in 2020, at the request of the United States, India exported 50 million capsules of hydroxychloroquine to America and has exported tens of millions of free vaccine doses worldwide, in part on the assumption that raw materials would continue to flow.
It is not surprising one respected and normally U.S.-friendly Indian news panel show anchor said: “the Russians are sending us oxygen, now convince us we shouldn’t buy their missiles.”
Over the weekend, the Biden administration suddenly woke up, and now there are tweets of support and promises of delivery of needed supplies. Apart from the lives needlessly lost, it’s unclear how much reputational damage has been done. Will this be considered a new administration’s ‘beginner’s mistake’ (even though this is supposed to be a tried and tested foreign policy team), or will it be taken as a glimpse at the true thinking of the leadership?
To get through this, the Biden administration will have to realize that it can’t treat India in a siloed fashion, with each department making its own points for its own reasons, possibly influenced by specific lobbies. In Delhi, swipes from the Navy, Treasury, and State aren’t seen in isolation, they are seen as a pattern.
The short-term gain of treating India as a true friend is clear… save lives. The long-term gain is the furtherance of a strategic partnership that saves the world from the destructive ideology and actions of the Chinese Communist Party—something we can only do together.
It’s time for America to demonstrate that those words from over 2,000 years ago remain true today: A friend in need is a friend indeed. India was there when the United States was in need, now it’s America’s turn.
Jim Fanell, a retired U.S. Navy captain, is currently a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in Switzerland, and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. His nearly 30-year career as a naval intelligence officer spanned an unprecedented series of afloat and ashore assignments across the Indo-Pacific, specializing in the People’s Republic of China’s navy and its operations. A recognized international public speaker and accomplished writer, Fanell also is the creator and manager of the Indo-Pacific Security forum Red Star Rising/Risen.