Butterfly Effect: Has America Lost India's Trust?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The Biden administration's surprising delay in offering help to one of its closest partners amid a COVID-19 crisis threatens to undermine a vital friendship.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Indians have long memories, perhaps unsurprisingly so for one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
In 1971, as India supported Bangladesh’s movement for independence from Pakistan, Washington — allied with Islamabad at the time — sent the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal as a warning to New Delhi. That threat didn’t work and Bangladesh became a sovereign nation. But for 30 years after that, advocates of better India-U.S. ties were constantly reminded of the 1971 incident as evidence that America was not a friend, and certainly not to be trusted. It took concerted efforts from the U.S. over the past two decades, under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, yes, even Donald Trump to overcome those hesitations of history and turn India into the linchpin of Washington’s strategy to counter Beijing in Asia.
A botched response from President Joe Biden’s administration to India’s devastating COVID-19 crisis is threatening to turn the clock back to the atmosphere of distrust toward Washington that enveloped millions of ordinary Indians in the aftermath of the gunboat diplomacy of 1971.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted concerns over the situation in India, which on Sunday registered more than 350,000 fresh infections and over 2,800 deaths, continuing to break its own daily records. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris followed soon after, with Biden referencing India’s help to the U.S. early in the pandemic, when New Delhi rapidly exported drugs sought by Washington. On Monday, Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, promising help. The U.S. has now promised to lift a ban on the export of raw materials India needs to expedite its vaccine manufacturing.
But as Indians literally gasp for air amid a shortage of oxygen in overstretched hospitals, there’s a sense of hurt, even anger, at dinner tables around the country that the U.S. took so long to offer help to one of its closest friends. As the current wave of infections and deaths first hit India in late March, it appealed to the U.S. to lift a February ban on the export of ingredients needed for COVID-19 vaccines. Separately, experts pointed out that the U.S. was sitting on millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccines that are excess to the country’s needs and haven’t even been approved for use in America. Why not sell them to India, which is already using AstraZeneca shots? It would have helped America clear unnecessary inventory and earn diplomatic brownie points.
Instead, the U.S. rejected those requests — and as recently as Thursday, Department of State spokesperson Ned Price publicly defended that position. Only on Monday did the U.S. agree to share its AstraZeneca shots with developing nations. In the meantime, even India’s archenemies China and Pakistan offered help to New Delhi, as did most other major nations, from Australia and Singapore to Russia, Germany and France.
To be absolutely clear, the responsibility for India’s deadly crisis rests squarely with its government, led by Modi. No country has been spared multiple waves of the pandemic, and India had a year to prepare for its second surge in cases. Yet the world’s largest producer of vaccines did not enhance its manufacturing capacities in that period. The result? After sharing tens of millions of vaccines with other poorer nations — and I think India was absolutely right to do so — the country had the ability to vaccinate only 2.5 million Indians a day. That’s a lot compared to most nations, but given India’s adult population of 800 million, it will take nearly two years at this rate before everyone gets their second shot.
The Modi government also neglected to increase the capacity of hospitals and oxygen-producing plants, leading to the desperate shortages that are forcing families of patients to beg for help on Twitter after their elected representatives failed them.
But it’s during a crisis that one truly needs friends to step up. It took public pleas to the Biden administration from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and top U.S. think tanks before the weekend change in policy.
There’s a chance that America will be able to claw back some of its lost credibility with India through the rapid and mass-scale supply of critical medical equipment, unused vaccines and ingredients for the manufacture of fresh shots. But it’s hard not to wonder why the Biden administration took so long to wake up.
After all, as the pandemic has repeatedly shown us, the failure to curb a new strain eventually hurts everyone. The double mutant variant that’s wreaking havoc in India will almost certainly — if it hasn’t already — spread to other parts of the world. Tackling it early is in everyone’s interest. Losing public goodwill in India also hurts America. Without India — the only Asian military power that can stand up to China — Washington can’t hope to seriously challenge Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region.
Over the past four years under Trump, America lost the trust of several of its allies. The relationship with India was one that survived relatively unscathed. Not anymore.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi