Cost of Trusting America

[Biden taking his Covid shot]

The Modi government sent an SOS to the Biden White House almost three weeks back. Adar Poonawala of the Serum Institute — the largest producer of vaccines in the world with global sales of 1.5 billion doses of vaccines for every malady ranging from Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps and Rubella, with high-tech production capacity of 500 containers per minute, pleaded with the US President via Twitter to release raw materials for making the Astra-Zeneca Covid vaccine. All that has happened in response so far is that Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and all the other Administration biggies have clucked in sympathy and expressed their “solidarity” with India and Indians. Much good that will do India or the 350,000 Indians daily detected as virus stricken and the almost 3,000 Indians dying all over the country every day.

Even as the US government sits on its hands it has, according to newsreports, stockpiled covid vaccines in government depots, in other words, it is hoarding, over 100 million doses — which it isn’t releasing for use abroad just in case there’s a surge need for them within America. It is rushing oxgen concentrators, ventilators and similar stuff but not the 37 raw materials the ‘Economist’ has identifed as needed by India — and the Serum Institute in particular — to bulk produce the vaccine. The reason for this blockage is that Biden has invoked the Defence Poduction Act for vaccine manufacture, which means the needed raw materials can only be deployed as priority to speedily meet domestic production requirements, and cannot be diverted to India or any other country.

Meanwhile, Pfizer and other vaccine producers, espying huge profit, want the US government to go the World Trade Organization route to fix vaccine prices and to protect intellectual property rights. What this means in practice is that Serum Institute will be starved of the raw materials and the vaccine production will soon grind to a stop at its facility in Pune once the current stock of ingredients runs out. Biden can short circuit this lengthy WTO negotiating process, but won’t for the simple reason that he does not want to rub the wealthy pharma industry, intent on making money, the wrong way.

Where does that leave our dear leader, Narendra Modi, who has worn his love for America on his sleeve? He has advisers around him, like External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, who won’t hesitate to push India into the US camp whatever the opportunity or occasion, and at whatever cost to the country. Washington may be thinking along the same lines and may extort, say, an Indian military role in Afghanistan or seek activation, as some have speculated, of the Logistics Support Agreement to embark US Special Forces from Indian bases for operations against the Afghan Taliban after September 11 when the American military presence in that country is formally zeroed out. This would be in exchange for release of covid vaccine raw materials.

The reason such a deal is very possible is because of the realist, transactional, nature of US foreign policy and the unvarying American attitude to the world which, I for one, have long admired, and which I have held up for GOI-MEA to emulate. There’s no place here for sentiment, for emotions, for fellow feeling — there’s just the unvarnished fact of the National Interest, and nothing else, and any and all means are usable to further it. Realizing the national interest by this reckoning is a zero sum game, and as Biden sees it, reduced stocks of raw material could come back to bite him politically were the pandemic to skyrocket again in the US requiring heightened emergency production of vaccines at home. Biden is covering all contingencies that could potentially impact the US and get him in hot water.

This sort of thinking is entirely foreign — pun intended — to GOI, which begins planning for a any catastrope after it has occurred, in the case of the Covid pandemic only after several thousand people had met their doom. And then the bureaucratism and the centre-states tussles take over. Consider the rough sequence of the pandemic reaction by the Government. After the first complete country-wide lockdown, India was among the few countries that seemed to have contained the virus. It led to Modi’s shipping the vaccines in stock to all over the developing world per World Health Organization guidelines. It resulted in Modi and India winning a lot of friends and encomiums. But, more dangerously, it triggered the complacency that is always just below the surface where the Indian government is concerned and which is the bane of the Indian system. No sooner was there the barest glimmer of success then Modi and the entire top ranks of GOI were cock-a-hoop and short of publicly high-fiving everybody in sight, radiating self-satisfaction.

And then the real Covid Tsunami hit which the GOI had neither foreseen nor prepared for. Worse, the state carried on as if nothing was amiss — with literally millions milling in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad and election campaigns proceeding at pace in West Bengal and elsewhere — perfect mediums for the rapid spread of the virus throughout the length and breadth of the nation.

Confronted wiith an unfolding disaster Modi did the first thing he could think of — call on the United States for immediate help, confident that American planes would, without hesitation, be winging loads of the raw material to the Serum Institute and other production facilities. Hopefully, the Prime Minister now knows better that America makes haste only when its tail is in the wringer, not when India’s is. Washington is already talking about the response timeframe of months, not days, leave alone weeks — for the main items — the raw materials to be officially released and airlifted. By then, who knows what the human toll in India will be? And how much good it will do?

At a minimum, Modi should heed what this analyst has been warning for decades in his books and other writings — that to construct an Indian foreign policy edifice on the strategic partnership with the US is to build on a foundation of quick sand, where Indian contingencies are involved. But it is also to setup an automatic positive response-cum-pressure system India will be subjected to anytime Washington calls on Delhi for any assistance or help which, if they aren’t immediately complied with, will instantly trigger punitive US actions.

Assuming Jaishankar knows this, it is unlikely he has communicated any reservations — “Time to rethink our US policy”-kind of advice to the Prime Minister. But Modi should rely on his own political instincts and not bank on foreign countries to pull India out of the mess it peridocally gets itself into. Atm-nirbharta is so far mainly a mantra endlessly repeated without anybody in government or outside of it having the faintest idea of what it means. Modi should start by making the country self-sufficient in base pharma materials and chemical industrial necessities and incentivise their manufacture at home to ensure India does not again have to have its begging bowl out.

In the current crisis, GOI and its agencies, including the military, are filled with officials with scant knowledge of the US and how the American system actually works, in the main because, like all Third World officious types, they can’t get beyond the lure of America if not for themselves than for their children — green cards by hook or crook! — and hence, by habit, don pink-coloured glasses when viewing the US, including its invariably tardy reactions to life or death issues facing other countries.

The antidote to this raging Yankeeitis — and this, I admit, is derived solely from my personal experience — is exposure to America at an early age — in my case at the undergrad level. One then begins to understand the “belly of the beast”. But equally I began to appreciate just why the realpolitik the US unapologetically practices with weak states and strong alike is absolutely the right thing to do in a perennially unsettled and disorderly world. Having heard and interacted with American strategic realm heavyweights in graduate seminars at UCLA and in the larger California Arms Cntrol Seminar in the early to mid 1970s — and over 50 years since then, what has always impressed was their crystal-cut clarity of thinking, their precision when processing information and data, analytically dissecting situations and policies, and when proposing just as clear-headed solutions, which may not always be right but serves the US interest of the moment.

The world doesn’t change all that fast. Trust no big power to do the right thing by India, keep distance from all major states, do not sign any agreement that India is not ready to violate, and use the policy space that is thus created to maximize the benefits — are principles the Modi government and the MEA and military more generally should fruitfully follow, certainly when dealing with America.

Then there will be absolutely no reason for Delhi to trust in the US or be disappointed in case it does something unexpected, or even adverse, and less reason for Washington to be disappointed by anything India does in its own, singular, National Interest.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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22 Responses to Cost of Trusting America

  1. BHASKAR says:

    Seems now the Biden administration has reacted favorably. Do you sense a somewhat hard stance from our end to that effect in very recent past?

      • BHASKAR says:

        Well some gossip is doing the rounds that our NSA might have mentioned something to counterpart wrt some raw materials related to PFizer vaccine which some Indian firm possesses … Speculation though …

      • Sankar says:

        There could be a pointer here by MKB:
        “…The big question is whether the US is relenting on the vaccine front with a view to cutting a deal with India on Afghanistan….”
        Read on:
        “US could seek ‘expeditionary’ base deal with India
        Speculation is rising US may seek a mission-based deal with India as it prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan”-
        https://asiatimes.com/2021/04/us-could-seek-expeditionary-base-deal-with-india/
        In my understanding, the US is caught wrong-footed in Afghanistan, is Jaishankar capable of extracting something quid pro quo? Could you please give us your assessment on the strategic aspect India getting militarily involved there.

  2. Amit says:

    Professor, from your comments, it seems like India is a big zero when it comes to handling pressure from the US. However, if I look back at some Indian responses to US pressure, it does not seem like it’s zero, maybe a 40, though it could go up to 60-65. Don’t think it can go beyond that yet till it develops its economy further.

    For example, India has pushed back on the S-400. I used to read negative articles in the Russian Times about Indian pusillanimity about 1.5 years back, not anymore. India has created laws on data location, inventory for online retail and IPR in Pharma which favour India against intense US pressure. In an international conference with US, European and Korean diplomats, Mr. Jaishankar pushed back directly against Lindsey Graham on the issue of who would resolve the Kashmir issue. Even on the Indo Pacific, the US seems to have aligned somewhat with India’s Shanghri La speech direction of focus on free and open sea lanes rather than being focused solely on China. India still wishes to include Russia in the Quad mix, something the US can’t imagine (work in progress admittedly). On human rights too, India has not buckled (e.g., the Jaypal incident). Even on the alliance with the US, India’s views are very clear – no alliance please.

    Yet, India has acquiesced to the US on Iran and Venezuela without getting much in return. On CAATSA, India has been very quiet on counter measures it could take – it could signal more strongly here (Turkey did it more clearly, so did Israel with Obama on Iran). The situation in Afghanistan seems a little muddy, but perhaps some strong signalling may have helped India’s position better. But such red line signalling does not seem to be in India’s strategic culture. However, agree with you here that India should do more. Not just with the US, but also with China. Mark some red lines, cross their red lines if they cross India’s.

  3. vivek says:

    its total 300 million vaccine stockpile US has, also indian companies can raw material from somewhere else or infact try to produce in india , i believe US is not the only producer for those in world

  4. DEBANJAN BANERJEE says:

    Another hard-hitting work by Mr. Karnad. I remember last year around this time when the lockdown was in full swing, I had mentioned to you that China is strategically better placed to deepen her engagement and influence in South Asia.

    1 ) We have failed to provide much needed vaccines to the people in Bangladesh and Nepal and this will be the beginning of China providing much needed vaccines to them. Just today China is going to organize a South Asian nations’ conference for vaccines that involves all the SAARC countries except India and Bhutan.
    2) This is the start as China will cooperate with these countries to set up vaccine manufacturing as well as vaccine storage facilities. This will be detrimental towards Indian hegemony in the long run.

    So do you believe that with these moves China has ensured that India’s monopoly over vaccines in South Asia gets slowly eroded over time. ?

  5. Soumitra says:

    Dear Sir,
    An absolute fan of your analysis. What do you think of this?It suggests that contracts made by Trump admin with vaccine manufacturers prevents US to donate hoarded vials to other countries.
    https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/04/why-the-us-still-cant-donate-covid-19-vaccines-to-countries-in-need
    And here’s workaround to this problem
    https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-03-18/us-will-loan-millions-of-astrazeneca-doses-to-mexico-canada?context=amp&__twitter_impression=true
    Would like to know your views on this. Wishing you a good health.
    Thanks!!!

  6. Vikrant says:

    The question that needs to be asked: is this a justifiable reaction to a virus that’s killing three per million people in India, which doesn’t affect the young and healthy and only affects the old with comorbidities or already exiting illness. Last year’s lockdown has already gutted the economy, the current one is going to topple the remaining edifice. We’re creating economic hardships for the current and future generations, which will be/is mainly affecting the working and middle class’s. Media induced panic and hysteria has put the population in fear, which has resulted in the spineless leadership prescribing civilization-destroying measures(lockdown) because it doesn’t want to be called names by the incompetent, corrupt and opportunistic Media and the Opposition.

    There are five stages of infections of this virus: Asymptomatic, mild, medium, severe and fatal. 80% lie in the Asymptomatic type while less than 1% of infections results in the fatality. Lockdown also has an adverse effect of prolonging the realisation of herd immunity. And yet we have continued to choose this economy-destroying path.

    Modi swims in the liberal water, and therefore, at his core he’s a liberal. Which explains his impotency with respect to America. When the Big Tech, NED and all the other regime change operatives were/are undermining Indian democracy he chose to do nothing. Rather than ban the Big Tech to establish digital sovereignty, and expel the NGO’s to establish national sovereignty; he instead caved and gave them free hand to do whatever they want. The incompetency and illiteracy of GOI regarding power politics was astonishing to watch. It’d not be surprising to know that no one in the GOI understands fifth generation warfare, let alone prosecute it. Moreover, his attachment to capitalism is also negating any hope of India becoming industrialize nation- which requires ruthless state intervation and massive state funding.

    Aligning with the US was always a bad decision. It is too big and powerful to be anyone’s friend. If you get close to it, then, economically you become its captive market; militarily you’re disarmed and reduced to a consumer of its MIC; and civilizationally, a pawn that can either be fiddle with according to its wishes or sacrificed to achieve its larger goal. Russia, on the other hand, is big enough to partner with to achieve our interests but not so big enough to overpower us. And yet we’re tilting towards US and cutting ourselves in the process.

  7. Tony says:

    This article should be framed by indian diplomats but alas if only horses can fly , nothing will change the armed forces of union of India are culpable in the biological warfare cum genocide unfolding in country.

  8. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    A Modi fan forwarded this nonsense to me on WhatsApp;

    👇From a friend and recently retired CEO in corporate America.
    US – India Covid situation
    Some updates as of 12 noon California time :
    I just got done with a zoom call with US Secretary of State – Blinken along with 135 US CEOs – Biden and Modi had a call this morning and the US army and the US state department are coordinating medication , aid and equipment – UPS and United / Delta have already volunteered flights to take equipment to India Amazon is coordinating ventilators distribution . The US government is fully in support . Google , IBM , JP Morgan, FedEx Walmart , Coke , J&J , Pfizer are all aware that the impact in India will impact the world- both on health and economic Biggest concern – india wants everything coordinated through the PMO – US wants to work with various institutions in India as they believe lot of aid will be locked up in Delhi and not get to the states as speed is critical . US is also sending several military mobile hospitals for ICUs .
    The US bureaucracy took time to get mobilized but I can assure you that a massive massive massive effort and Dollars are being shipped today – as we speak !
    US govt health stock of Astra Zeneca vaccines are being shipped along with all raw material to make vaccines in India . Extra stock of Oxygen equipment are being diverted from war field hospitals to India. Google is helping india with tracking Covid in India. Lockheed Martin sending helicopters and cargo flights to move equipment to small towns in India. Many firms have offered their empty offices in India to be used as vaccine centers.
    America wants to show it has the money , equipment and most important the heart to come to to India’s help during this unbelievable crisis. Bottom line I have never seen such a public private coordination before – the might , brain power and financial resources of the US government is now fully in motion and unleashed on India.
    It’s now all about coordination efficiency and speed of execution. Covid has to be stopped in it’s tracks or the india variant will spread through the world by end May
    Quick update from me – some of this may not get picked up in the press.

    My response;

    Only a chutiyaa like Modi and his andhh Bhakts like you can celebrate the “bheekh” given by US. This is reflected in the crap, which you have sent me.

  9. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Good Morning Professor Karnad,

    I would highly appreciate your views on the following;

    https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202104/1222213.shtml

    Excerpts from the aforesaid link;

    China-Vietnam trade reached over 133 billion dollars in 2020, up 13.8 percent year-on-year, according to data on the Chinese Ministry of Commerce website.

    Earlier on Sunday, Wei met and held talks with Vietnamese defense chief Phan Van Giang and the two witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding on strengthening international military cooperation between the national defense ministries of China and Vietnam.

    China-Vietnam annual trade is more than Indo-Chinese trade. I have been to Vietnam and noticed loads of Chinese operating businesses over there.

    While Indian establishment slept. Chinese government has consolidated its ties with Vietnam.

    Stay safe Sir, from the Corona pandemic.

    Looking forward to meet you in person, when flights resume between China and India and I will be able to visit India.

  10. Vikrant says:

    The question that needs to be asked: is this a justifiable reaction to a virus that’s killing three per million people in India, which doesn’t affect the young and healthy and only affects the old with comorbidities or already exiting illness. Last year’s lockdown has already gutted the economy, the current one is going to topple the remaining edifice. We’re creating economic hardships for the current and future generations, which will be/is mainly affecting the working and middle class’s. Media induced panic and hysteria has put the population in fear, which has resulted in the spineless leadership prescribing civilization-destroying measures(lockdown) because it doesn’t want to be called names by the incompetent, corrupt and opportunistic Media and the Opposition.
    There are five stages of infections of this virus: Asymptomatic, mild, medium, severe and fatal. 80% lie in the Asymptomatic type while less than 1% of infections results in the fatality. Lockdown also has an adverse effect of prolonging the realisation of herd immunity. And yet we have continued to choose this economy-destroying path.

    Modi swims in the liberal water, and therefore, at his core he’s a liberal. Which explains his impotency with respect to America. When the Big Tech, NED and all the other regime change operatives were/are undermining Indian democracy he chose to do nothing. Rather than ban the Big Tech to establish digital sovereignty, and expel the NGO’s to establish national sovereignty; he instead caved and gave them free hand to do whatever they want. The incompetency and illiteracy of GOI regarding power politics was astonishing to watch. It’d not be surprising to know that no one in the GOI understands fifth generation warfare, let alone prosecute it. Moreover, his attachment to capitalism is also negating any hope of India becoming industrialize nation- which requires ruthless state intervation and massive state funding.

    Aligning with the US was always a bad decision. It is too big and powerful to be anyone’s friend. If you get close to it, then, economically you become its captive market; militarily you’re disarmed and reduced to a consumer of its MIC; and civilizationally, a pawn that can either be fiddle with according to its wishes or sacrificed to achieve its larger goal. Russia, on the other hand, is big enough to partner with to achieve our interests but not so big enough to overpower us. And yet we’re tilting towards US and bleeding ourselves in the process

  11. Itanium says:

    I am sure US too will have enormous strategic cost if it chooses not to help India. I don’t think they will refuse. It is probably the case of some junior officials sticking to their mandates and parroting the current policy.

    The change in tone from their top leaders (and other countries offering full help) itself proves really how important India is.

    India:
    #1 for US is a huge defence and agricultural customer
    #2 for Middle East it is a massive oil customer
    #3 for Europe it is a prime industrial customer
    #4 for China is a big buyer of consumer products.
    #5 for Australia/Canada buyer of raw materials.

    There is a strategic cost for anyone and everyone to refuse India the help it needs at this point in time. You can contrast this with Brazil and absolute lack of attention given to them during its COVID wave.

    Long story short it is not as easy a matter for countries to give India the short end of the stick without incurring monumental trading cost for itself, as you are suggesting.

  12. Gopalan says:

    India will not do any of this, because our economy is now to be entirely owned by International Finance/USA. Haven’t you been paying attention to all the privatizations happening in the country, Mr Karnad? The local capitalists are mere front-men for foreign interests. So it’s no longer about ”trusting” America. It’s about making sure foreign capital doesn’t pack up and leave when the whim strikes. And that tends to be extremely coordinated you’ll notice-as it’s happened in other countries.
    Likely the US intends to sell India their vaccines as finished products and derail Indian manufacturing, after requiring India gift vaccines to the region for free as some sort of “Quad” diplomacy gambit.
    I feel you tend to ignore the economic side to things. You’ll agree that all American calculations -defense or not- boils down to making money(profit). What the US is, is a War Economy after all.

  13. Deepak says:

    looks like biden with suspected age related illness is working for some big boss and not for american interests. us needs india to counter china but if he is ignoring india means he dont care about american interests.with globe becoming village due to technology, pandemic dont end unless it ends in heavily populated countries like india,us etc.it is foolish for any country to rejoice covid going out of control in india.

  14. shishir mohan says:

    No ,no one wore US friendship on their sleeves…..!!!!

  15. shishir mohan says:

    The only thing you could see was US friendship….. any way ,biden is a cheap gangster with his demented side kick kamla…. both are behaving like school ground bullies,they will be the cause of undoing of many a relationship with other countries…..

  16. Arindam Bora says:

    Mr. Karnad Sir, it has been widely reported that SII is facing a shortage of raw materials for the manufacture of the the Covovax vaccine not the Oxford-AstraZeneca/Covishield vaccine. In fact here is media report https://www.livemint.com/news/india/raw-materials-are-needed-for-covovax-serum-tells-us-govt-11619804369271.html
    The US is acting funny. It is pulling off a “pyase ko khana, bhukhe ko pani” stunt.
    Of course the current fiasco seems to have somewhat vindicated what you have been saying about the US all these years. Sir, this is Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge yet but the people of India too are to blame for this calamity. They/We became too complacent and maybe even boastful (that we have defeated COVID) way too soon.
    Sir, do you live in Delhi? It is currently probably the worst place to be in the country. Take Care.

  17. Vivek says:

    This is trust which is keeping modi govt NOT to test agni 6 with mirv?

  18. DEBANJAN BANERJEE says:

    Dear Mr Karnad I hope you are doing fine in these extreme conditions in Delhi. I did mention last year that the Chinese will try to take a prominent role in South Asia by sending much needed vaccines as well as other economic aid to the countries of SOuth Asia and will try to ensure that in future they wean themselves off from Indian dependence. This is exactly what is happening now as all South Asian countries except us and Bhutan try out the modalities of a Bharat-mukt SAARC. Experts like Happymon Jacob seems to be supporting my position. I would love your views on the same. Do you believe China and non-Indian South Asian countries can form a Bharat-mukt SAARC ?

    Thanks and regards with best wishes
    Debanjan

  19. blogofharsh says:

    Sir
    On a different note, the raw materials SII requested were for another vaccine and not for Covishield. Here’s the link of Adar Poonawalla admitting the same to the news anchor

    https://mobile.twitter.com/CNBCTV18News/status/1384821803877474309

    https://www.livemint.com/news/india/raw-materials-are-needed-for-covovax-serum-tells-us-govt-11619804369271.html

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