Delhi must heed Ambassador Juster’s concerns. US anxieties may find more vigorous expression under President Biden
In his farewell address in the capital on Tuesday, the outgoing US Ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, celebrated the significant progress in bilateral relations over the last few years. He also pointed to the lingering challenges that could test ties in the days ahead. Juster’s tenure of a little over three years saw the unprecedented expansion of defence and security cooperation and some unflinching American support for India in its ongoing conflict with China in the high Himalayas. Forward movement on the trade front, however, has been elusive. Juster also underlined the emerging discomfort in the United States over the perceived growth of religious intolerance and declining commitment to diversity in India. Delhi needs to pay attention to Washington’s anxieties that may find more vigorous expression under President Joe Biden.
The last few years have seen significant convergence of Indian and US strategic interests in the extended region of the Indo-Pacific. Delhi has accelerated induction of the advanced US weapons systems into the Indian armoury, improved interoperability between the two armed forces, and supported renewal of the moribund quadrilateral security framework involving the US, Japan and Australia. When China occupied territory in the Ladakh frontier last April, Washington was among the first to call out Chinese aggression and offer sustained military support. But the enhanced defence partnership is not without wrinkles. Juster flagged India’s continuing purchase of advanced conventional weapons from Russia amidst deteriorating ties between Washington and Moscow.
While Delhi hopes to finesse the emerging tension between India’s longstanding defence cooperation with Russia and deepening security partnership with America, it has a far larger challenge at hand on trade policy. The frustration at the inability to conclude even a small trade deal that Juster highlighted is now common to all of India’s major commercial partners. Asia is disappointed by India’s decision to walk out of a region-wide free trade agreement. Trade talks with the European Union have been stalled for long and Delhi is now trying to decouple from the Chinese economy. This is not an enviable situation to be in. India has an equally daunting challenge of restoring its image as a thriving plural society. An important section of US opinion has already begun to tag India as an “illiberal democracy”. Concerns about India’s domestic politics are not limited to the US. Many of India’s friends and well-wishers in the neighbourhood and the world are anxious about the direction of India’s domestic politics. Official Delhi might believe that India’s economic size and geopolitical salience give it the option of dismissing these concerns. But in the current fluid international environment, the costs of being seen as a closed economy and intolerant society could be high for India.
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