The Biden administration has decided to remain publicly quiet on India’s democratic backsliding, according to senior US officials, as the US intensifies efforts to keep New Delhi on its side in the rivalry with China.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pressure on religious minorities and the media is troubling, as is his party’s targeting of opposition lawmakers, said the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. But the decision to largely refrain from criticizing Modi comes as growing concerns about China make India increasingly crucial to US geopolitical and economic goals in the Indo-Pacific.
The decision on handling India is an example of how President Joe Biden’s emphasis on human rights — and his framing of a global conflict between democracies and autocracies — has run up against the strategic realities of a world where rivals such as China and Russia are vying for greater control.
So while New Delhi’s strong defense ties with Russia and its vast purchases of Russian crude have drawn scrutiny from US lawmakers after the invasion of Ukraine, the administration believes it needs India to buy that oil to keep prices low. And rising concerns about China’s growing assertiveness under Xi Jinping have helped drive the US and India even closer together, these people said.
“India is getting this free pass on account of China,” said Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi who has advised previous Indian administrations on national security issues. “The only country in Asia, in terms of size and potential, that can balance China is India.”
In a sign of the close ties, Biden is set to host Modi for a state dinner in Washington this summer. While Biden might press Modi to take a more explicit stance on Ukraine, one US official said it’s doubtful New Delhi would publicly rebuke Russia, given their close defense ties.
Asked whether the administration is reluctant to criticize Modi, John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement, “As we do with other nations around the world, we regularly engage with Indian government officials at senior levels on human rights concerns, including freedom of religion or belief.”
US officials also have frequently pointed to India’s shipments of humanitarian aid to Ukraine as well as Modi’s comments to Russian President Vladimir Putin that “today’s era is not one for war.” One official said China’s growing assertiveness has also fueled New Delhi’s commitment to the Quad strategic grouping that also includes the US, Australia and Japan.
India’s foreign ministry declined to comment. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has made no secret of his country’s decision not to pick sides regardless of what others may want, echoing India’s Cold War leadership of what was called the “non-aligned movement.”
“Whether it is the United States, Europe, Russia or Japan, we are trying to ensure that all ties, all these ties, advance without seeking exclusivity,” Jaishankar said during a visit to the Dominican Republic last month.
As India eclipses China as the world’s most populous country with more than 1.4 billion people, the Biden administration believes it’s impossible to solve pressing global challenges such as climate change without New Delhi, one official said, and the country remains a central part of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
That’s led to the relative silence on issues that the US would normally speak out about publicly, and loudly.
Most recently, India’s government banned a critical documentary about Modi released by the BBC and sent federal tax authorities to raid the British news organization’s Delhi office.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party also won a defamation case against the main political opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, that has seen him kicked out of parliament. Modi’s government has also choked local and international nongovernmental organizations of foreign funding.
Other Indian moves also run against a greater strategic alignment with Washington: In recent months, India pledged closer defense ties with Russia. Although India has sought to scale back purchases of some Russian weapons, its military has more than 250 Russian-designed fighter jets, seven Russian submarines and hundreds of Russian tanks. It has also received Russian S-400 missile defense systems despite US efforts to keep those purchases from going forward.
“President Biden would be remiss if he doesn’t raise the Russia issue and restate the importance of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and explain why that is important for the Indo-Pacific region,” said Lisa Curtis, who was the National Security Council senior director for South and Central Asia under former President Donald Trump.
“It’s no use pretending we don’t have serious differences on such a crucial issue,” said Curtis, who directs the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
The US has also moved on from concerns about India’s vast purchases of Russian crude oil even as the country rejects a Group of Seven initiative to put a cap on the price for which it’s sold.
At one meeting in Delhi between US and Indian officials following the invasion of Ukraine, a US diplomat told a senior Indian official that if their refiners weren’t buying Russian crude and putting it back on global markets, oil prices might have soared to about $180 a barrel, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
Indian officials always viewed Western criticism of their oil purchases as hypocritical, given that Indian refiners do put the product on global markets.
But India has emerged as a major market for redirected Russian oil, taking advantage of cheaper barrels to help curb inflation and spur growth. Russia is now India’s top supplier, surpassing Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and in March the average cost of Moscow’s crude landing on its shores hit the lowest level since the war in Ukraine began.
Jaishankar, the foreign minister, has often invoked broader sentiment in the so-called Global South as he defended his country’s position on Ukraine amid soaring food and energy prices that have put immense pressure on poor countries. He has waved off US concerns about India’s human rights record, saying “people are entitled to have views about us.”
It’s a strategy that has its share of critics. In an article in Foreign Affairs published May 1 titled “America’s Bad Bet on India,” former State Department adviser Ashley Tellis argued India wouldn’t join a conflict between Washington and Beijing unless India’s own security was directly threatened.
“Washington’s current expectations of India are misplaced,” he wrote.
The US’s positioning on India reflects a calculation it’s had to make several times in the past, most prominently with Saudi Arabia. After declaring during his presidential campaign that he would declare Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” Biden has had to backtrack as he seeks the kingdom’s help countering Iran and keeping oil prices low.
“I can understand governments’ reluctance to take on Modi,” said Shashi Tharoor, a senior lawmaker in the opposition Congress Party. “There’s an overriding strategic interest on the part of the West, and other countries in Southeast Asia, in staying on the right side of India.”