‘Debatable’ is a space where writers for The Sunday Guardian will debate all that is there to debate, from politics to geopolitics and more.

Which way are India-US relations headed at a time when India is not willing to take sides in the Ukraine war, while that’s exactly what the US wants India to do? We discuss and debate.

ANDERS CORR: Thanks for offering to discuss the friendship between India and the United States. It seems to me that given the threat to India from China, and its ally Pakistan, that India and the United States should more closely align with each other, and with allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, including Japan, Australia, and South Korea. This could mean formalization of the Quad as a security alliance, India and other Quad countries joining Nato, or the creation of a new global alliance of democracies, as suggested recently by Boris Johnson. It might also mean India publicly distancing itself from Russia, including for example by joining in sanctions over the Ukraine invasion that forbid the purchase of Russian oil, gas, and arms.

JOYEETA BASU: Thanks for joining the discussion. We in India are all for a closer strategic partnership with the United States, which is already happening, and for enhancing the friendship that already exists, given the presence of a huge Indian diaspora in the US and people to people contact. But India’s relations with the US are independent of India’s relations with Russia and vice versa. India’s ties with Russia cannot be severed so easily, given the history and its dependence on Russian materiel, although it is coming out of that situation by diversifying its sourcing of defence equipment and making them at home. At a time when the US was actively working against India, Soviet Russia was a friend. Times have changed, Russia is no longer the great power it was, but in a troubled neighbourhood, when China and Pakistan are already India’s enemies, can India afford to turn a big country like Russia into another enemy? Also, India is a strong believer in multilateralism and is engaged with both Russia and China on certain multilateral platforms including BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where conversations happen even with China. After all, absence of peace does not necessarily mean war. In fact, SCO serves as a gateway for India to Central Asia as well, an area where Russia still wields a lot of influence. India cannot abandon its multilateralism. India does not see the world in an “either-or” binary.

AC: As China promotes a “new type of international relations” in which Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea seek to conquer the territory of their neighbours and support terrorism around the world, including through the Taliban, Hamas, and breakaway Ukrainian republics, for example, we cannot continue to see these countries as multilateral partners. Russia is no longer India’s friend, and probably never was. The old Soviet Union sought global hegemony just as the Chinese Communist Party seeks the same now. They use any means to expand their power, from the threat of nuclear war against democracies, to the bribing of democratic leaders. Engaging with these countries is dangerous for democracies, especially since the more we engage them, the more they can buy off our leaders without citizens ever knowing. This is clearly what the CCP has attempted to do with the Biden, Trump, Clinton, and Bush families, all of which had some financial dealings with China. All of us need to reorient our leaders and economies away from quick profits and cheap goods bought from dictators in Beijing and Moscow, and towards responsible democracies like India. But this is a two-way street. When Russia attacks a democracy like Ukraine, India should denounce it and participate in sanctions just as the rest of the world should sanction China and Pakistan for their aggression against India.

JB: I agree that democracies should avoid dealing with authoritarian regimes—in an ideal world. Perhaps the West can set an example on this, and the rest will follow. In 2020, after the face-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Himalayas, it was the democracies of Europe that stayed silent on India’s territorial violation by the PRC. The US spoke up, not Europe, obviously because of close trade ties with PRC. For the same Europe to want India to pick its side in what is essentially a European war, is hypocrisy. Also, India has always been against sanctions, for such punitive measures do not hurt the people in power but only the masses. If the West’s hope was that sanctions would lead to the Russian people rising up in protest against Putin and overthrowing him, the way the pro-Putin Viktor Yanukovych regime was overthrown in Ukraine in the Maidan Revolution of 2014, the Russian people are not showing any signs of doing anything like that. Apparently, Putin’s popularity has increased. And the ruble is getting stronger, while the rest of us are suffering, dealing with high fuel and fertilizer prices that are leading to inflation. It seems that Putin has been preparing for sanctions, knowing full well what would follow if he invaded Ukraine. So why let this war escalate any further? Shouldn’t the West’s focus be on immediate cessation of violence, which India has been saying right from the beginning. Instead, it seems that Nato is fighting its war with Russia to the last Ukrainian standing.

AC: Yes, the West should do more to sanction China and Pakistan for their aggression against India. This, New Delhi should demand more strongly. But the war in Ukraine is led and fought by Ukrainians, who have surprised Nato with their strength and demands for more weapons. The Ukrainians are publicly shaming Nato for not doing more. This is not Nato’s war. But Nato is at least doing something to help democracy by providing Ukraine with only the bare necessity of defensive weapons. Capitulating to Putin through giving him the territory he took, soaked in the blood of Ukrainians, only rewards aggression and invites more. A negotiated peace at this point would be an illusion. Meanwhile India profits off the war by buying oil and gas from Russia at a major discount. This is unethical and should cease immediately, or India risks secondary sanctions and a bad reputation for not being a team player with the other democracies. India also empowers Putin by giving him billions of dollars for the energy that he can use to buy weapons used to kill Ukrainians, and collapse their hospitals and schools. These are not just sanctions against regular Russian citizens. Putin’s regime directly benefits from Indian oil purchases through his ultimate control of Russia’s oil industry.

JB: Issuing threats is not how a partnership works. You come with a big stick and there will be pushback. If the US sanctions India, it will have a direct impact on US’ own Indo-Pacific strategy. There is already a strong belief in India that the US cannot be trusted, and any move that goes against India’s interest will inflame public opinion here and reduce the government’s room to manoeuvre, the reason why the talk about sanctioning India should be kept on the back burner. Also, to accuse India of funding Putin’s war by buying oil is a bit of a stretch, given India is nowhere near buying what the rest of the world, including Nato countries are still buying from Russia. Of course, they say they will phase out their oil purchase from Russia gradually, but the operative word here is “gradually”. How gradual it is, only time will tell. We stopped buying oil from Iran because of US pressure. That has not helped our economy. Why should we suffer even further by stopping buying discounted oil from Russia? What you call profiting, we call national interest. Also, this whole pressure on India is seen as designed to make us buy more expensive oil from the US, which we are anyway buying—ethics have nothing to do with it. It’s all about US business interests. And if Biden’s moves against Russia are so popular in the US, I am certain the midterms will reflect that. The need of the hour is solutions. Not threats, for they result in alienation. Our focus is on the Indo-Pacific because that is where the real trouble is. I agree with one of your earlier points that it is time to build supply chain resilience, in other words, move manufacturing out of China. India, Australia and Japan have already signed an agreement towards this end. Much more needs to be done. We also have to think in terms of securing the Indo-Pacific, without making the most malign imperial power there so insecure that it starts behaving like Putin. Any kinetic conflict that may result from that insecurity, will be much worse and has the potential to suck the whole world in.

AC: Neither can partnership be built on funding the enemies of democracy, which is what India is doing by increasing its purchases of Russian energy after the start of the invasion in February. Contrast that with Germany and the Netherlands, for example, which have already decreased purchases of Russian energy, and are planning to decrease them to zero by the end of 2022. If all democracies act selfishly, rather than in coordination, then dictators in Beijing and Moscow will win. Some democracies are sure to try and fink while others carry the burden, but this decreases trust and should be targeted with secondary sanctions. I’m sorry if that increases alienation between the US and India, but in this case, New Delhi started the downward spiral by allowing the increase of Russian gas purchases just as responsible countries are sacrificing to decrease them. India can also buy energy from the Middle East or Africa—it need not buy from the US. Oil is a global market. The US is also losing from this war, which is weighing on markets, the environment, social service spending, and America’s pivot to Asia. India cannot expect a friendly US and help with China in the future if India not only refuses to help with Ukraine, but profits from its pain.

JB: We are already buying the bulk of our oil from elsewhere. But if the US really thinks that a country deciding that it will not let its own people suffer, is a selfish decision, and should be sanctioned for that, then there is no movement forward. But that there is a movement forward, proves that there are people who understand the need for partnership among two of the most important democracies in the world. That’s the reason why the Quad is there and a summit is planned for 24 May. That is the reason why US-India ties are flourishing. That is the reason why there is talk that the democracies must unite to take on the Chinese threat, for there is no bigger threat to the way we know the world than the People’s Republic of China. It is insidious, dangerous, treacherous and increasingly stronger, militarily. No country is happier than the PRC at the way things have developed in Ukraine, for the focus is no longer on Xi Jinping. One wonders what Putin told Xi when he visited Beijing before he invaded Ukraine. So instead of trying to teach each other a lesson, let the focus be on where it should be—the communist rulers of PRC.

Anders Corr has a PhD in Government from Harvard University. He is the Principal of Corr Analytics Inc., and the Publisher of the Journal of Political Risk. His most recent book is the Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy & Hegemony (Optimum Publishing International, 2021). Dr Corr has conducted extensive political, historical, and field research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His areas of expertise include quantitative analysis, international security, and Asian politics.
Joyeeta Basu is the Editor of The Sunday Guardian.