Biden expects Ukraine to be ‘a central’ item in 2+2 discussions: Spokesperson

President Joe Biden expects that when the top diplomatic and defence leaders of India and the US meet, Russias invasion of Ukraine and its impact on energy and food will be “a central” item in their discussions, according to his spokesperson Jen Psaki.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh are scheduled to meet on Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin for their 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Washington under the cloud of differences over approaches to the Russian invasion.

“President Biden believes our partnership with India is one of the most important relationships we have in the world,” Psaki said at her briefing in Washington on Friday.

Biden believes “both sides will continue our close consultations on the consequences of President Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine and mitigating the impact by addressing energy and food prices”, she said.

“We expect that to be a central one,” she stressed.

The separate official announcements on the 2+2 issued by the State and Defence Departments in Washington and by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi did not mention Ukraine being on the agenda and instead put the spotlight on the Indo-Pacific.

Biden expects that Blinken and Lloyd “will continue driving forward our work with India and our shared goals in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world”, Psaki said, recalling last month’s virtual summit Biden had with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India, Scott Morrison of Australia and Fumio Kishida of Japan.

The four countries make up the Quad, which focuses on security and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific providing the linchpin for US strategy in the region where China’s aggressive posture is increasing.

Regarding energy, Psaki said that the US, which provides 10 per cent of India’s oil imports was ready to help it reduce the 1 to 2 per cent of the supplies it gets from Russia.

She did not expand on mitigating the invasion’s effect on food prices, which have risen sharply as wheat exports from the world’s top exporter Russia and the fifth-largest exporter Ukraine have been disrupted.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that high prices and shortages of foodgrains could be a catastrophe for developing countries.

The Quad’s programme to provide Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries with India as its provider could be a model for a food relief effort.

Although India is the world’s second-largest wheat producer after China, its exports have been small, about 5.5 million tonnes last year, according to US Agriculture Department data.

But India is sitting on a huge stockpile of wheat estimated at about 100 million tonnes, far more than a safety net buffer would require, and New Delhi could step in to provide foodgrains for a programme to help vulnerable nations.

That would be a role reversal for India, which received emergency shipments of wheat from the US to avert mass starvation in the 1960s before it turned its agriculture around with US help.

Washington’s global policy focus is on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and on isolating Moscow.

But India, which has an existential dependence on Russian arms, is not ready to join the US actions against Moscow.

While strongly condemning the invasion, India has abstained from voting on UN resolutions against Russia, despite requests from the US.

In the latest vote on Thursday to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, India abstained, but it was in defiance of Moscow’s threat that it would consider abstentions “unfriendly” action that could impact bilateral relations.

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

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