Washington: India and the US further intensified their relations during the year, as President Joe Biden roped in New Delhi to several of his key foreign policy initiatives in recognition of India’s growing stature at the international stage, but differences over defence purchases from Russia and human rights could hamper bilateral ties.

Biden, a Democrat, successfully took over the baton of this bipartisan bilateral relationship from his Republican predecessor Donald Trump when he became the 46th US President in January.

The stage for this relationship was set within the first few days of this administration when Biden had a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and he dispatched his Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to travel to New Delhi for the first Cabinet-level engagement of his presidency.

Prime Minister Modi was among the handful of world leaders whom Biden invited for a meeting in his Oval Office. Biden hosted the first virtual and in-person meetings of the QUAD by roping in India along with America’s two traditional allies Australia and Japan to ensure peace and tranquillity in the strategic Indo-Pacific region which has seen increasing assertiveness by the Chinese military.

“What has not changed, but intensified, is the deepening of engagement between our two countries, notes India’s Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu.

“Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, there have been some historic milestones, he told a virtual meeting early this month.

“We saw Prime Minister Modi’s landmark visit to the US, in September for the in-person leader-level Summit with President Biden, and the first in-person Quad Summit. This was preceded by the first ever leader-level Quad Virtual Summit, in March. The Joint Statements issued, after each of these Summits, captured the depth and breadth of our engagement, Sandhu said.

While the much-expected 2+2 meeting could not take place this year because of scheduling conflicts, there have been several Cabinet level visits on either side including that of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to Washington.

From the US side, in addition to Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Special Climate Change Envoy John Kerry made trips to India. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai also travelled to India.

In addition to numerous high-level meetings at the secretary level, the two countries intensified their engagement and launched several new initiatives not only for their own people, but also for global good.

The Biden Administration and Modi Government have institutionalised the relationship for the global good in the field of climate change and healthcare.

India-US Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 partnership was launched and the healthcare collaboration especially in the field of COVID-19, development of vaccines has the potential to reach an epic proportion in the coming years.

This should also be seen in the context of the outpouring of support from the American corporate sector as India went through a new wave of COVID-19 pandemic early this year, the Indian-American community playing a catalyst role in this and pushing a seemingly reluctant Biden Administration to rush emergency aid to India.

However, developments of the year indicate that there are a few areas, in particular the defence sector and human rights issues, that have the potential to derail the relationship if not handled with tender care.

The indecisiveness of the Biden Administration with regard to CAATSA sanctions, after India started receiving S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia, does not send a right signal to the friends of India in the US.

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was brought in 2017, provides for punitive actions against any country engaged in transactions with Russian defence and intelligence sectors.

In October 2018, India had signed a USD 5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 air defence missile systems, despite a warning from the then Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may invite US sanctions. The Biden administration has said that it is in discussions with India on the issue.

There is a strong murmur within the beltway here about the way the human rights issues were raised by Vice President Kamala Harris during her meeting with Prime Minister Modi at the White House. It certainly did not go down well with the Indian leadership.

Of late, the Biden Administration and also the Congress have been receiving pressure from a strong lobby representing the Christian missionaries and non-governmental sector on certain restrictions imposed by the Indian government on sending foreign money.

Towards the end of the year, President Biden nominated his close confidant and the Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Michael Garcetti as the next US envoy to India.

During his confirmation hearing as US Ambassador to India earlier this month, Garcetti said that the growing defence trade between India and the US is one of the major success stories of the bilateral relations.

Responding to questions related to human rights in India, Garcetti assured American lawmakers that he would personally be talking to various stakeholders in India on this issue.

“I would not only just bring it up, but it would not be something at the end as an obligation. It will be a core piece of what I’ll be engaging my Indian counterparts have confirmed with, he said.

It is understood that the Biden Administration has taken up this issue with the Indian Government. The differences so far have remained under wraps, and have been handled with maturity, but it can spill into the open anytime, given the intense lobbying from certain groups in Washington.

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