U.S. Wants India’s Help on China, but There Are a Few Sticking Points
The Biden administration is working to embed India in a network of countries in sharp competition with China, though they need to smooth over disagreements that include human rights and New Delhi’s acquisition of a Russian defense system.
Highlighting the push is a virtual Friday meeting between President Biden and the prime ministers of two longtime treaty allies—Australia and Japan—as well as of India, the fourth country in the so-called Quad and the least developed economically.
They are expected to unveil a deal for stepped-up manufacturing in India of American-designed Covid-19 vaccines, some of which will go to Southeast Asian nations, U.S. and Indian officials said, in an effort to compete with China’s “vaccine diplomacy” with other developing countries.
While the Quad has been around on and off for more than a decade, Washington in recent years has turned to the group as the U.S. rivalry with China intensified. India’s has too. A clash last year between Indian and Chinese troops along their contested Himalayan border was the deadliest in more than five decades and provided an additional opening for Washington.
A slate of challenges now looms if the Biden administration is to keep relations on track. India is in the midst of acquiring the advanced Russian S-400 missile system, a step that could result in U.S. sanctions. The Indian government’s treatment of religious minorities and recent farmers’ protests have brought renewed scrutiny from human-rights groups and members of Congress.
India’s government has threatened to jail employees of Facebook Inc., its WhatsApp unit and Twitter Inc. in response to the tech companies’ reluctance to comply with data and takedown requests related to protests by Indian farmers, people familiar with the warnings said.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology denies the government has issued such threats, in writing or orally, to social-media firms.
These tensions with India, which has long championed its nonaligned status, contrast sharply with that of Australia and Japan, whose solid cooperation with the U.S. in defense is backed by shared views on governance and free markets.
Biden administration officials, for now, are treading carefully as they try to assemble a coordinated international strategy against China. They say India, as a democracy with a rapidly growing economy, offers opportunities to work on a range of issues like climate and energy, and to boost competition with China by cooperating on technology and defense.
“We work with a partner like India to confront the common challenges that we have; we certainly recognize the challenges that China poses,” said Dean Thompson, acting assistant U.S. secretary of state for South and Central Asia. An interim security strategy the administration issued this month lists China as a priority concern and pledges to deepen a partnership with India.
India has cheered the prospects for cooperation, pointing to areas like climate change, healthcare and a limited trade deal. Both sides share concerns about China’s aggressive behavior, said an Indian official, so the Biden administration needs to choose whether human rights and other issues will take priority.
“It’s for the U.S. to decide whether it wants to engage more with India on discussing strategic, geopolitical and economic issues or pinpointing local matters which the Indian government is capable of handling itself,” another Indian official said.
The Russian surface-to-air missile system poses an early test. Former President Donald Trump strengthened ties with India and built a rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Still, before leaving office, the Trump administration urged India to drop the acquisition of the missile system, saying a 2017 U.S. law mandates sanctions for the purchase of weapons from blacklisted suppliers such as Russia.
The State Department said the U.S. is discouraging Delhi from a deal that would trigger sanctions and in recent years has made advanced defense platforms available to India. A senior administration official declined to say if the Biden administration would issue a waiver should India move forward with the deal.
The Indian government has already made an initial payment to Moscow of $800 million and the first set of equipment in the $5.5 billion deal is expected later this year. Indian government officials say New Delhi will go ahead with the Russian system because it is needed to defend the country, which has tensions with Pakistan and China.
“We found it as the best possible platform,“ said one of the Indian officials. ”We expect our friends to understand our security concerns.”
U.S.-based groups are putting pressure on Prime Minister Modi’s government and his BJP party—some of whose leaders espouse Hindu nationalism—over policies they see as discriminating against the country’s Muslim minority. Policies drawing fire include a 2019 citizenship law.
Last week, the U.S.-government-funded research group Freedom House, in its annual ranking of democracies, downgraded India to “partly free” for the first time since 1997. The report cited India’s treatment of Muslims and other minorities, the targeting of journalists and its frequent use of internet shutdowns.
The Modi government’s handling of the recent protests by farmers added to concerns. Tens of thousands have camped on roads around Delhi the past few months to protest the government’s decision to deregulate agricultural markets and remove support the farmers say they need.
In response, the government temporarily shut internet services around the protests and tried to curtail social-media activity, including by getting platforms to block accounts the government said were inflammatory.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed U.S. concerns “about crackdowns on freedom of speech,” and a senior administration official said the concerns about human rights and free speech have been raised in high-level discussions with India.
“It’s not an area that we are going to shy away from,” the official said. “It’s a priority for our foreign policy around the world, and India is no exception.”
The Indian government has said the laws will help farmers and consumers by modernizing and streamlining the agricultural supply chain.
One prominent critic in the U.S. is Meena Harris, a lawyer and the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, who was heralded by many Indians and Mr. Modi for being the first Indian-American woman to serve in the role.
In a string of social-media posts amid the protests, Meena Harris, who has no role in the Biden administration, likened Mr. Modi’s rule to fascism and called for a dialogue around “violent Hindu extremism.”
Some pro-government protesters in India burned photographs of Meena Harris in response.
Meena Harris declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Vice President Harris declined to comment.