SEOUL, South Korea — When President Joe Biden meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders from Japan and Australia this week, it could get awkward.
India is rebuffing Biden’s efforts to join the U.S. and its allies in isolating Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. The world’s biggest democracy continues to buy cheap Russian oil to fuel its growing economy and to fortify its large military with Russian-made weapons and parts. It has refrained from condemning Moscow.
The Biden administration is furiously lobbying India behind the scenes. But don’t expect the president to call out Modi publicly when they meet this week.
U.S. diplomacy has become delicate with India — a vexing holdout over its relationship with Russia but also a cornerstone of Washington’s attempts to compete with China. Navigating that balance, experts say, is tricky.
As part of his swing through Asia, Biden is expected to meet with Modi in Tokyo, likely one-on-one. He is scheduled to speak with the Indian prime minister on Tuesday during a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, a group that consists of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.
The Quad has been focused on countering China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region, but tension has emerged among the four partners over how to respond after Russia invaded Ukraine. Japan and Australia are aligned with American goals when it comes to the Kremlin, creating some division with India as the group tries to present a united front.
“The Biden administration is really trying to manage the relationship and not criticize India, but it is a concern,” said Manjari Chatterjee Miller, the senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank. “They can’t afford to alienate India at this point.”
India’s oil imports from Russia, while important, are relatively small, and Modi has deflected criticism, accusing European allies more reliant on Russian fuel of hypocrisy.
The bigger issue is where India gets its military equipment — about 70% to 80% of it was purchased from Russia. Even if India stopped buying Russian hardware, it would depend for years on Moscow to provide software upgrades, replacement parts and expertise.
“Behind closed doors, the U.S. is pressing pretty hard and the Indian side is signaling that they will wean themselves from Russian weapons, but they can’t do it now,” said Michael Green, an Asia specialist who served in the George W. Bush administration. “They’re too dependent.”
That dependence, along with some domestic political support for Russia, has led Modi to hold back on strong criticism of Russia’s attack of Ukraine. The country, for example, abstained from a United Nations resolution to condemn the invasion, which was approved in March by a 141-5 vote.
“There is clearly some sympathy in the (Indian) media and the political classes” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Green said. “To some extent, this is portrayed as the West versus Putin.”
The kinship with Russia dates to the Cold War era. India relied on the Soviet Union for help in its clashes with neighboring Pakistan, which received arms from Washington. The U.S. drew further distance from India in the 1990s, when it sanctioned the country as it developed its nuclear program.
The two countries have since become closer as they confront the growing clout of China. America has increasingly seen India as part of a broader “Indo-Pacific” alliance that has superseded its Asia-Pacific focus. Despite the importance placed on the country, the Biden administration still does not have a Senate-confirmed ambassador to India. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination is stalled in the Senate because of allegations of sexual harassment against a former top Garcetti aide.
Modi shares American concerns over China, which has become a bigger threat to India since the two countries began engaging in skirmishes along a shared border in recent years. But India sees Russia as part of that equation, too. New Delhi is concerned that antagonizing Russia would push Putin closer to China.
As Modi has tried to balance his ties with Russia and the U.S., he saw an advantage in getting closer to then-President Donald Trump, hugging and praising the American leader at every opportunity. He held a massive campaign-style rally when Trump came to India in 2020, Trump’s last foreign trip before the pandemic suspended most international travel.
That helped cement a perception that the two men, a pair of populists and nationalists with autocratic leanings, were kindred spirits. But some foreign policy experts doubt the relationship was anything more than one showman charming another.
“The Trump-Modi bromance was perhaps a little bit overblown,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Indians were very savvy in how to play to Trump’s ego.”
Behind the scenes, Indian leaders were wary of Trump, fearing he would unleash an unpredictable tweet storm that could set off a strategic crisis, he said.
Modi did, however, value Trump’s willingness to ignore India’s human rights abuses.
Human rights and religions freedom groups have criticized India’s Hindu-nationalist government for discriminating against people of other faiths, particularly Muslims. The oppression of Muslims has become so pervasive in India that experts say it is undermining the country’s standing as a democracy.
There was initial fear in India that Biden — who has pledged to rebuild America’s commitment to global human rights and argued that the world is in a fundamental struggle between democracy and autocracies — would criticize Modi’s government over such abuses.
So far, Biden has held back, at least publicly.
“The Modi administration has been very pleasantly surprised,” Vaishnav said. “The United States is willing to sacrifice concerns of democracy at the altar of addressing the China threat.”
Biden’s diplomatic dance with India, already vexing, has grown only more complicated with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
It has all the makings of a potentially awkward meeting in Tokyo.©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.