Foolish to harm India ties because of Ukraine vote: US Senator

Hours after India had abstained on a UN General Assembly vote on Ukraine, an influential Republican Senator has cautioned that it would be “foolish” to harm bilateral ties because of it.

During a Senate panel hearing on relations with India on Wednesday where India’s abstention, the fourth on a UN vote relating to Ukraine, was highlighted, Indiana Senator Todd Young said: “It would be foolish and deeply short-sighted for the United States to harm our relationship with India over what is occurring in Ukraine”.

He and other senators at the hearing stressed India’s importance to the US because of its strategic position and the size of its population and economy.

Donald Lu, the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, who was testifying at the hearing on US relations with India, said that India’s position on Ukraine has been “evolving” and that there has been a backlash in India against Russia after an Indian student was killed in Russian shelling.

He mentioned India airlifting humanitarian supplies to Ukraine and its call at the UN “for all states to abide by the UN Charter to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states”, which he said was a very clear reference to Russia’s violations.

Lu said that Washington has tried to leverage New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow “to try to call for a Russian withdraw and ceasefire” and Prime Minister Modi has “called both President Vladimir Putin and President (Volodymyr) Zelensky to call for an end to the fighting”.

He said that the US had been “relentlessly conducting very serious, high-level dialogue” with India on Ukraine.

President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials have been in touch with their Indian counterparts, and in the past 24 hours he had himself had contacted Indian officials, including Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu.

Asked by Democrat Chris Van Halen about what was External Affairs Minister S. Jaishanker’s reason for abstention when Blinken spoke to him, Lu said that he wanted to leave open possibilities of a diplomatic solution and that he was concerned about the fate of 20,000 Indians in Ukraine and was working with both Ukraine and Russia to protect them.

Several of the senators on the panel expressed concern over India’s abstention on UN votes on Ukraine.

“At a time when democracies are closing ranks to condemn Russia’s invasion (it) is troubling to say the least to see India, the world’s largest democracy, sitting on the sidelines,” said Democrat Chris Murphy, who heads the panel that held the hearing, the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism.

Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen said: “India should be on notice that this is a time when to stand up for its values.”

But Republican Senator Ted Cruz blamed the Biden administration for India’s abstention.

“Past year under the Biden administration, relations with India have worsened significantly, as was manifested, among other things in their latest abstention in the United Nations on the issue of Russia and Ukraine.”

He said that it was due to the Biden administration changing the priority of the Quad that is made up of India, the US, Japan and Australia from countering China to issues like climate change and development.

Lu took issue with that characterisation and said that at the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting in Melbourne, countering China was on the agenda along with Covid and other issues.

But he said that “one of the key ways that we will help our Indian partners to become more aligned with the world’s position towards condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine is by making sure we continue to talk about the Russia-China axis. This is critical in terms of India’s interests”.

On questions whether India would be sanctioned under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Lu said that it was still under consideration and that he did not want to “prejudge the decisions of the President or the Secretary on the waiver issue or on the sanction issue, or whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will bear on that decision”.

India’s purchase of the Russian Triumf S-400 missile defence system makes India vulnerable to sanctions under CAATSA.

Lu, however, said that it would be difficult for India to continue to buy Russian equipment because of the financial sanction imposed by the US and its allies on that country restricting its ability to receive payments.

India has already cancelled its orders for Russian MiG 29 jets, helicopters and anti-tank weapons, he said.

“Since 2011, India has reduced its arms imports from Russia by 53 per cent and increased its defence purchases from the United States and other partners, as well as increasing its own domestic production capability.

“Over the last 22 years, US defence sales to India have grown to over $20 billion, and India is considering purchasing six additional P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft for $2.1 billion,” Lu added.

Family planning and abortion rights are a major item on the Democratic Party agenda and Shaheen appeared to be belabouring under stereotypes of India when she asked Lu about “access to family planning” in India asserting that “it’s struggled to make modern contraception available countrywide to families”.

Lu did not have a ready answer for her and said he would get back to her.

Unlike in the US where abortions are still a matter of political polarisation and states are imposing restrictions on it, it is legal throughout India and is not a major political issue, while the total fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman — has fallen to two, which is below the replacement rate of 2.2, portending a population implosion.

“We need to be a little careful about being too preachy these days,” the panel’s chair, Democrat Chris Murphy noted earlier while asking about improving the health of India’s “big, thriving but still young democracy”.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do here at home to strengthen American democracy.”

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in and followed @arulouis)

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