At the end of May, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar wrapped up a five-day visit to the United States—the first cabinet-level visit from India to the Biden administration. There are five key takeaways from this visit, which came just as India starts to emerge from a devastating second wave of COVID-19.
First, India is tapping into the newfound synergy in its relationship with the United States at both the bilateral and multilateral levels to manage its immediate pandemic-related challenges. The pandemic laid bare the weaknesses of multilateral institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, and highlighted how nationalism around vaccines and medical supplies hampered global recovery. However, multilateral cooperation remains critical in the fight against COVID-19. Upon Minister Jaishankar’s arrival in New York, he discussed global vaccine solutions with the UN Secretary General, which include the need to strengthen vaccine supply chains to increase their production and to ensure their fair distribution. The deadly second wave of the virus caught India tragically off-guard. Dangerously large gatherings, a sluggish vaccination drive, together with lack of institutional foresight and few restrictions in place helped the virus mutate, overburdening the country’s health infrastructure and paving the way for a COVID disaster. Since then the world’s “pharmacy” and its largest vaccine producer has feverishly attempted to secure oxygen supplies, ramp up production of vaccines at home, and procure vaccines from abroad in a bid to vaccinate its massive population. India also aims to channel the Quad framework with the United States, Japan, and Australia to work on vaccine production, in addition to maritime security, climate change, emerging technology, supply chains, and connectivity. The EAM’s U.S. visit followed his participation in the G7 meeting in London, where the G7 Foreign ministers also underscored the need to ensure equitable global access to COVID vaccines.
EAM Jaishankar’s visit sought to cement U.S.-India pandemic diplomacy ties across multiple frontiers, both to ensure that the United States continues to assist its “natural ally” in containing the virus and to amalgamate health diplomacy into the wider agenda of the relationship.
Second, the trip illustrated that U.S.-India relations have developed great resilience against administration changes and gaffes, and showed the effort that goes into developing this strong relationship. U.S. government, businesses, and society have mobilized tremendous support to bolster India’s battle against COVID-19 in recent weeks, overriding the Biden administration’s initial reluctance to expend resources elsewhere when it needed to vaccinate its own citizens. EAM Jaishankar’s visit sought to cement U.S.-India pandemic diplomacy ties across multiple frontiers, both to ensure that the United States continues to assist its “natural ally” in containing the virus and to amalgamate health diplomacy into the wider agenda of the relationship. In addition to holding meetings with relevant stakeholders that have championed support for India in Washington, the EAM met with a range of U.S. business leaders in an effort to strengthen medical supply chains in India and focus on technology and healthcare partnerships between U.S. and Indian private sectors. With U.S. Trade representative, Ambassador Katherine Tai, Jaishankar also discussed U.S. support at the World Trade Organization for the India-South Africa proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. Following the EAM’s trip, the White House announced its Global Vaccine Sharing initiative, which would allocate 80 million doses to countries hit by the pandemic, including India.
Third, the visit showed that U.S.-India security ties have not taken a back seat, despite the enormity and urgency of challenges posed by the pandemic. Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific were central to Minister Jaishankar’s discussions with NSA Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken. As the United States prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan and moves towards committing its resources to the strategic Indo-Pacific theater, New Delhi has significant stakes in how this transition unfolds. On one hand, a resurgent Taliban could have ravaging consequences for the stability of Afghanistan, where India is one of the biggest partners in the country’s reconstruction efforts. On the other hand, as China continues to gain a foothold in South Asia, India is keen to expand ties with the United States and other partners who seek to counterbalance China in the Indo-Pacific through a multi-pronged approach. This visit also saw what former Pentagon official Peter Lavoy described as an “unusual meeting” between India’s Foreign Minister and the U.S. Director for National Defense— unusual because the two sides have not disclosed such a meeting before. Arguably, this meeting follows the trajectory of expanding U.S.-India defense and security ties, with reports emerging that the two countries put to use the recently-signed Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement to share intelligence during the India-China Himalayan standoff. The trip also revealed that team Biden is set to continue convening with India through the 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers format, established during the Trump administration.
Fourth, while preparing for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration is yet to articulate a broader strategy for engagement in South Asia. S. Jaishankar’s U.S. trip signals that India’s position in Washington’s strategic calculus has fundamentally shifted beyond South Asia and arguably towards long-term U.S. thinking in the broader Indo-Pacific. Situating the EAM’s visit, which included meetings with a wide spectrum of U.S. officials, within the larger context, where a range of officials from both sides have frequently and consistently liaised with each other through the first six months of the Biden administration, is telling of India’s increasingly central place in U.S. foreign policy thinking on the Indo-Pacific.
Most meetings during EAM Jaishankar’s visit signaled that New Delhi aims to put its weight behind securing equitable global vaccine access and strengthening medical supply chains, which are debates that will define the post-pandemic world order.
Finally, EAM Jaishankar’s visit to the United States signaled that COVID-battered India’s aspirations to shape “big debates of our times” remain intact. The latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India left a disastrous human toll and critical lessons for Indian policymakers. India went from supplying vaccines and critical medical supplies globally to receiving oxygen concentrators and other medical assistance from its friends and partners. Domestically, India is anticipating a third wave of COVID-19; the situation could spiral out of control again if Indian policymakers repeat mistakes from earlier this year. India will need to ensure high vaccination coverage over the next months, and ease restrictions cautiously. In the realm of foreign policy, India has displayed a willingness to continue working on climate change and security issues—including Myanmar, Afghanistan, and the Indo-Pacific—through its position on the UN Security Council and its bilateral ties with the United States. India had brought health diplomacy to the center stage of its foreign policy before the second wave hit its cities. Most meetings during EAM Jaishankar’s visit signaled that New Delhi aims to put its weight behind securing equitable global vaccine access and strengthening medical supply chains, which are debates that will define the post-pandemic world order.
Image 1: Saul Loeb via Getty Images
Image 2: Saul Loeb via Getty Images