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Samir Saran on India-US relations: “There is a more pragmatic assessment of each other today”

The head of a Delhi-based think tank on China, America, Russia and climate change.

By Emily Tamkin and Valeria Cardi

It is no secret that Washington is bullish about the idea of fostering closer ties with India in an effort to counter China. But tighter ties takes two. Is Washington, DC’s enthusiasm matched in New Delhi?

“We know that we don’t share a typical Atlantic-style relationship. It’s a more Asian relationship, more grays than black and whites in our relationship,” Samir Saran, the president of the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank in New Delhi, told me.

Dating back to the Cold War, India has maintained a formal policy of non-alignment. In reality, though, the Soviet Union, which supported India in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War and provided the vast majority of its defence equipment, earned India’s support and sympathy. The US, meanwhile, was seen as an untrustworthy and unreliable actor; nor did it help that America was close to India’s neighbour and foe, Pakistan.

In recent years, however, relations between India and the US have improved. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one is arguably a rising China, which America is seeking to counter and contain by working with other countries, and with India in particular. Pakistan, meanwhile, cooperates closely with China.

A year after the US president Joe Biden’s election, and with China at the top of America’s foreign policy agenda, I turned to Saran to ask how, exactly, policymakers in New Delhi perceive US overtures, particularly given the fact that, historically, America has been seen as a less than reliable partner.

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“I think much of what you sometimes may hear in Delhi or in DC could possibly be remnants of the 20th century, people holding on to positions of the past, people who have written books on India’s behaviour or American attitudes to the past, wanting to still be relevant in the 21st century,” he said. “I think there is a more pragmatic assessment of each other today.”

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Still, he added, “I’m not saying that we trust the Americans all the time.”

One area in which America and India have traditionally not seen eye to eye is in India’s immediate neighbourhood, including Afghanistan. “I think the Americans had to leave [Afghanistan],” Saran told me. “Could they have left better? I think all of us would agree, yes. It was a bit of a messy withdrawal. I don’t think any amount of spin can change that.” He also noted that India could have been consulted, though added that Delhi has always seen America maintain a certain distance from India on Afghanistan. “And in that sense, it’s not surprising. It’s not that we’ve been let down heartbroken because America did not consult us.” In other words, the events of this summer were not enough to deter India from cooperating with the US.

Relatedly, if China is bringing India and the US together, some have wondered if Russia might tear them apart.

“Russia punches above its weight in terms of global affairs,” said Saran. “Russia is going to remain a relevant voice. And we do not want a situation where we paint Putin into the Chinese corner. I think that would be disastrous for us. So we will have to find ways in which we can accommodate Russia.

“I think that is now visible to all in DC, we have not let that come in the way of being more bold, more ambitious, more forward-looking with our American partners.”

This is, broadly speaking, true, though there are some in Washington who feel differently: for example, John Bolton, former president Donald Trump’s national security adviser, penned an op-ed in the Hill on 10 November in which he argued that India’s purchase of S-400 air defence systems from Russia “raises serious obstacles to closer politico-military relations between Washington and New Delhi”. Saran, unsurprisingly, sees it differently, painting a picture in which India can help the US by developing economic ties with Russia, thus moving Moscow away from Beijing.

Even issues as weighty as US-China or India-Russia relations, however, seem small next to the existential issue of our age: climate change. India is already battling air pollution and will be profoundly impacted by the climate crisis. Is there a sense there that America is not doing enough?

India, he told me, has been a strong proponent of climate justice, equity, and action. And this is an area where the US and India can “work together and create a new framework that would catalyse trillions of dollars of green capital to flow into green projects”. He didn’t mean aid or grants, he stressed. “We are talking about commercial capital from banks… We are talking about creating a whole new green financial ecosystem.”

And what about the gap between India’s rhetoric and, say, the reality of air pollution in Delhi? How does that gap close?

“​​The gap closes like it was closed in New York and London, by more advanced, cleaner, greener systems,” he said. “We are going to have to go through that decade of pain.”

The painful period would hurt less if it was accelerated, he acknowledged. Still, some element of what India will go through to get to the other, better, greener side will require discomfort. The same could perhaps be said of the US-India relationship itself.

[See also: Can the United States work with India to counter China?]

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