India’s most consequential relationship with America: Former ambassador to US

He also pointed to rising tensions over US support for Pakistan’s F-16 program. He said America cannot supply Pakistan with high caliber weapons while expecting New Delhi to play a role as a security provider in the region.

Edited excerpts:

Q. As someone who has served as a career diplomat and as an ambassador to Washington, what do you think of how the relationship has changed?

I think the relationship has certainly changed significantly. We can trace that back to the nuclear tests we did in 1998. At that time, the US reacted very negatively and imposed sanctions on India. However, over time they also decided that they needed to develop a different type of relationship with India, which had demonstrated certain key capabilities and also proved to be a responsible nuclear-capable power. This was in contrast to Pakistan, which was known to be an internal and external propagator of nuclear technology. Washington decided to deal with India differently. The process started there, and the next big step in that direction was the civilian nuclear deal pushed through by the George W. Bush administration.

When we were able to do that, it really opened up a whole range of opportunities for higher technology collaboration. For example, we hardly bought armaments from America. Today we closed a deal to purchase defense equipment worth more than $20 billion. We are also talking about a partnership in defense technology cooperation, including unmanned aerial vehicle systems. We do more defense drills with each other than with any other country in the world. We have the Quad in the Pacific and the I2U2 framework in West Asia – it shows that there is a growing convergence of interests between New Delhi and Washington. The US is also India’s largest trading partner and our largest source of foreign investment. America is also home to a highly successful Indian-origin diaspora and the largest single country presence.

While we do not always have to agree on everything, the most important relationship India has today, considering our multiple trade, technological, defense and security interests, is with the US.

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Q. Some have spoken of the Ukraine war as a “stress test” for bilateral relations. If this is an accurate assessment, how did both sides behave?

A reflection of what India and America have accomplished is that past disagreements have shattered bilateral ties. Today we have a big difference related to the Russia-Ukraine war. However, both sides have found a way to manage the differences by showing an understanding of each other’s constraints. The US Secretary of State has acknowledged India’s relationship with Russia on several occasions, and the US National Security Advisor has made it clear that the US is playing long-term with India. I think this reflects the depth of the relationship and the interest of leaders on both sides in maintaining the relationships.

F. America recently unveiled a $450 million F-16 aid package to Pakistan. New Delhi has expressed concern about this, and some fear the jets could be used in combat operations against India. How serious do you think the matter is?

This has long been a concern. You may recall that around the time India and Pakistan gained independence, the US had begun forming military alliances around the world to contain the Soviet Union. India did not want to subject its foreign policy decisions to other interests, but Pakistan took advantage of this moment to join US-led military alliances. Pakistan’s leaders made it clear that the only reason they joined these alliances was to get weapons to use against India.

Since then, New Delhi has argued that American arms going to Pakistan are deployed against India. If you look at the F-16, which is the reason for some disagreement, Pakistan really only used it against India. We also saw this in 2019 in connection with the Pulwama and Balakot attacks. However, Americans argue that they still need access to Pakistan. After the American troops have left Afghanistan, they can continue their anti-terrorist activities, among other things, through their drones, which have to fly over Pakistan. Another argument is that Washington still needs at least some cooperation from Islamabad on terrorism. Finally, Pakistan is a nuclear-capable state and it makes sense from an American perspective to maintain some level of contact, also out of concern for nuclear weapons security.

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India has repeatedly made it clear that it does not accept the reasons given. Now, when US leaders occasionally say that they see the rise of India in US interests, or that they see New Delhi as a network security provider in the region, this contradicts tactical moves of providing weapons of a certain caliber to a country that faces some security challenges India could create.

Q. You mentioned the defense industry. There is a sense that defense technology cooperation has not taken off as it should have. Your take on the defense ratio?

There are problems on both sides. On the one hand, we bought more than $20 billion worth of armaments from America, which were very useful to us. Maritime reconnaissance aircraft and long-haul aircraft were particularly helpful. Where I don’t think we’ve made much progress is in defense technology partnership. The two defense ecosystems do not have much experience of working together and need to get to know each other better. There can also be a mismatch in expectations between what we want and what Americans can deliver. The US system is also complicated: sometimes the government is willing to share technology but the private sector is not, and vice versa. Both sides must do more. In India, there is a feeling that the Russians, the Israelis and the French have been more willing than the United States when it comes to defense technology partnerships.

Q. How do American companies view the opportunities in India as inflation ravages economies and the world slumps in growth?

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It is clear that the US industry is certainly looking to India with great interest. This had previously received some boost during the Trump administration, which had a very controversial approach towards China on trade and economic issues. The disruption of the pandemic followed. After that, we heard more and more about the need for secure supply chains and the need for onshore or “friendshore” production. If you look at semiconductors, there is an enormous amount of effort to reconstruct where production takes place. Given that, one can clearly see that there is tremendous interest among US companies today to look at opportunities in India. They are all looking for “China Plus” opportunities. Although it is clear that they are not withdrawing from China, they would prefer not to make any new investments in China. So the US companies I speak to want to do more and more in India.

Q. Much has been said about the Indo-Pacific economic framework. Is there a real opportunity for India here, or is it, as some have argued, a poor substitute for a substantive trade deal?

I think IPEF is a good opportunity for India. In the past there has been hesitation on trade deals because we felt that many FTAs ​​that we had made had not worked for us. In other agreements with developed countries, we have had problems with labor and environmental conditions. There was talk of a mini-trade deal during the Trump administration, and nothing came of it because of vested interests on both sides that were blocking progress. One can argue that perhaps the issue should be approached differently. Instead of entering into a trade agreement from the beginning, we can talk about dividing up production and setting norms instead of negotiating norms and standards after they have been set. This is how we get norms that we feel comfortable with. Once these discussions take place and we have established a framework for cooperation, we can discuss trade agreements.

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