“Howdy, Modi”: US-India Relations and the China Threat with Former Indian Ambassador to the US Arun Singh

Siliconeer | NEW INDIAN AMBASSADOR MEETS PRESIDENT

In this episode, we talk with former Indian Ambassador Arun Singh to dissect the current US-India relationship. We assess the relationship under the Trump Administration and the Modi Government, and what the relationship may look like if a Biden Administration is inaugurated in January. We also cover the deepening rift between India and China in the aftermath of the skirmishes at the border Sino-Indian border at Ladakh, how India may try to counter China’s growing sphere of influence in South and Southeast Asia, and whether the rift means a closer US-India relationship. We also touch briefly on how Pakistan fits into the bilateral relationship, and whether any diplomatic complications may arise due to events in Kashmir.

A’ndre Gonawela: Welcome to The Burn Bag Podcast. My name is A’ndre Gonawela.

Ryan Rosenthal: I’m Ryan Rosenthal. 

Gonawela: Today we’re joined by Former Indian Ambassador to the United States Arun Singh. Ambassador Singh has had a 37 year long career in the Indian Foreign Service. In addition to serving as Ambassador to the United States, he also served as Ambassador to Israel and France. Ambassador Singh was heavily involved in fostering the strengthening of the U.S.-India and India-Israel relationships. And he was also very much extensively involved in addressing Indian foreign policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, especially in the post 9/11 period. Additionally, the Ambassador has served in the former Soviet Union and Russia, Japan, and the United Nations. So I think it’s safe to say that the Ambassador truly has global experience and expertise. Ambassador, we’re so honored to have you here with us today, especially as you call in all the way from Delhi. We really appreciate the accommodation at a time difference as well. And we’re excited to have you on for what’s going to be a great conversation.

Ambassador Singh: Thank you, Andre and Ryan, and I’m delighted to be with you on this podcast. 

Rosenthal: Ambassador, thanks so much for coming on. I echo Andre’s sentiments. You certainly have a quite extraordinary resume, so we’re very excited to have this conversation. So let’s dive right in and talk about the overall state of India – U.S. relations. The United States and India have had an interesting relationship since Indian independence in 1947. While the two countries weren’t necessarily the closest during the Cold War, with India appearing at least in some respects to be more Soviet leaning at times. I think it’s safe to say that U.S. – India relations have grown since the turn of the century and especially in the last decade. So could you give us a brief description of what relations between the United States and India have looked like and what they look like now? Are we seeing the U.S. and India closer at this point than ever before?

Ambassador Singh: Thank you, Ryan. Yes. I also believe that we’re closest at this point. And the reason for that is that since 2000, the relationship has grown steadily through four different presidents. The new phase started under President Bill Clinton in 2000 when he made a visit to India, which was very successful, it was taken forward in a meaningful way by President George Bush, a Republican, when he did a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Because before that cooperation and civil nuclear areas within India was not allowed. High technology partnership with India was not permitted by the United States. And that naturally constrained the relationship. So President Bush took the very, very meaningful decision to cut the gordian knot, do this agreement with India and remove the old set of technology denial regimes but related to India. As a result of that, you know, before 2008, when the civil nuclear cooperation agreement was done, India hardly bought any defense supplies from the United States. By now, India has already bought $20 billion worth of defense supplies from the United States. And not only just purchases. Now, both countries have a defense trade and technology agreement under which they are looking at partnering in new areas of defense technology. The United States does more military exercises with India than with any country outside NATO. India also does more military exercises with the United States than with any other country in the world. And they’re also now bring, tri-service exercises and not just tri-service. They also do multilateral exercises together. For example, there is the whole Malabar series of exercises where India, Japan and the United States come together. And there, the United States aside from agreements trade, economic areas also have worked out a logistics support agreement between them. Whereby the militaries of the two countries get support each other, use each other’s facilities on a case by case basis with approval, which supports their activities and operations, especially on the high seas.

They have done a communication compatibility and security agreement, which enables them to share information and share higher levels of technology related to communication. They have done an industrial security agreement, enabling the companies in the two countries to partner with each other in defense. And they’re now working on a basic exchange and cooperation agreement, BECA, which will allow sharing of geo-spatial information. Then all of this will really deepen the partnership further. President Obama advanced the partnership on the sort of foundation that had been laid both by the Democratic President Clinton, Republican President, George Bush. He was the only US president to have visited India twice in his tenure. He articulated support for India’s permanent membership of UN Security Council. He supported India’s participation in different multilateral export control regimes, including the nuclear suppliers group way. They couldn’t succeed because of China’s objection and blocking of that process. But also the Wassenaar arrangement, the Australia group, and he declared India a major defense spot. President Trump took that even further by declaring India to be at strategic trade authorization level one, which is the level of technology releases a lot by the United States or its allies and partners and he authorized high level technology releases for India, including for defense. So as you can see, step-by-step despite different presidents, despite presidents from different parties, there is a bipartisan consensus in the United States, to advancing the India relationship. Now I have studied this relationship, uh, deeply over decades, uh, try to analyze the historical compulsion and trends. And I’ve found that over time, four factors have influenced the relationship. First, what is the U.S. global priority at any point of time and within that priority, therefore, where does it see the relationship with India. Second, within the framework of US global priority, what is the nature of its relationship with Pakistan? Because that then impacts the U.S. – India relationship. Third in a similar framework, what is the nature of U.S. relationship with China, but that then also impacts on the relationship with India, and finally, what is the strength in the bilateral relationship?

So if you look at these four factors, you can explain the relationship at any time. When India was a British colony, United States had strongly supported India’s independence. And it pushed the British initially to provide independence to India, but it didn’t go far enough because it did not want to disrupt the Wartime Alliance with  Britain in the framework of World War II. So there was some disappointment in India. After India’s independence in 1947, the United States, as part of the Cold War, wanted to build the system of military alliances and India took the clear position that having just become independent, it did not want to become a part of military alliances. It wanted the independence of its own decision making, and Pakistan stepped in at that time to offer a military basis and an alliance relationship to the U.S., and as a result, the United States started supplying military equipment, to Pakistan, which then Pakistan used in its wars with India. And that clearly had a net negative impact in India. Similarly in 1971, when the United States reached out to China, very often, it factored in China’s approaches and concerns in its approach to India. And that again had some impact on the relationship. But I think today the global situation is very different. United States values its relationship with India. The trade between the two countries has grown seven times in the last 20 years. There’s major investment by companies in both countries. In the last five years, Indian companies have invested more than $20 billion in the United States creating more than a hundred thousand jobs directly. And then of course there is the indirect job creation impact that has happened. And with the new challenge from China, that both India and the United States are facing because with the economic rise of China, with the accretion of military strength of China, that new found assertiveness of China. We are seeing that in East China sea, in South China sea, in the Taiwan straits on the borders with India.

So there is a convergence of interests between India and the United States not to contain China, but more to deal with the consequences of a rising China. And I think that it has brought the two countries much closer together. And you’d have seen that on October the sixth, the Foreign Ministers of what is now called the quad countries, India, U.S., Japan and Australia had an in-person meeting, which is very unusual in times of COVID-19, in person meeting in Tokyo. And it was only the second meeting of this grouping ever at the Foreign Minister level, and the first time outside the framework of the United Nations. So that was a clear signal that both countries attach importance to the relationship, attach importance to the commonality of the challenge they face in the framework of the Indo-Pacific.

And later this month, it has been indicated that India and the United States would have what is called a two plus two meeting, a meeting of the Foreign and Defense Ministers of the two countries. And again, an in person meeting, signaling the value they attach to the relationship and the convergence both of the diplomatic and defense part of the relationship. So to answer your question, I would say that the India U.S. relationship today is clearly much stronger than it has ever been, that is driven by the strength of the economic trade investment partnership. It is driven by the convergence of interests and by the growing size of the Indian origin diaspora in the United States today. The size of that diaspora is estimated to be more than 4 million, about 1.8 million are estimated to be eligible to vote.

Therefore, clearly this diaspora is important part of the political system in the United States. You would have seen that both the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign, have made very specific efforts to reach out to this community in the U.S. and they’re a very important part of the economic ecosystem. In the U.S. including in Silicon Valley, reports have suggested that the highest median income ethnic group in the U.S. today is the Indian-American community, the highest in terms of levels of education. One third of startups in Silicon Valley, by foreigners, are by persons of Indian origin. And if you look at CEOs of some of the major U.S. technology companies, Microsoft, Google, Adobe, IBM, MasterCard, they are persons of Indian origin. So I think this is all a reflection of how, not just at the level of the state, but also at the level of the economy, at the people to people level, there is a deep and growing interlinkage between the two countries,

Gonawela: Certainly. And you made a good point about how the India relationship appears to be bipartisan, right? Like we’ve had successive Democratic and Republican Presidents, both prioritize and strengthen relationship. And this relationship has only gotten stronger in successive administrations. When we look at it more closely, like with the Trump administration, for example, we have seen sort of foreign policy towards other regions and other countries sort of veer off into different directions, than say the Obama administration. Has there been anything particular about the Trump administration’s focus on India that has made it fundamentally different than the Obama administration, or would you have foreseen the Clinton administration, perhaps doing the same thing? And on top of that, do you see it changing at all under a potential Biden administration as opposed to a continued Trump administration, or do you sort of see a Biden administration just building off of this progress and taking it in the same trajectory at the same sort of pace

Ambassador Singh: We have to give credit to President Clinton for starting the process for the new relationship. You may recall that in 1998, India had conducted a series of nuclear tests and from India’s perspective, that was a completely justified action that India had taken in view of security concerns with China already being a declared nuclear weapon state, and Pakistan, having a clandestine nuclear weapons program, including through support, from China, and also that they had stolen technology from the Netherlands, they had cooperated with North Korea. So that was the kind of security challenge that India faced. Based on its own perspective, its own policies, its own concerns related to non-proliferation as the U.S. had defined it, U.S. had imposed sanctions on it. And that was in 1998, but by 2000 President Clinton decided that a new relationship had to be built with him.

And he made this historic visit, talking of identifying new areas accomplished. And President Bush really broke the log jam for the relationship that I mentioned through the civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Now under President Trump, he clearly also saw the value in the relationship with India. And you recall that in February, this year, he made a visit to India. Although this is a, you know, the presidential election year, he spent a couple of days in India. He went to Ahmedabad where he was welcomed by a record crowd of 100,000 people in that stadium. He visited Agra, the Taj Mahal. And then he had very important discussions, in Delhi. Also in September last year, he had joined the Indian Prime Minister in Houston for a rally of 50,000 persons of Indian origin in the United States, where both he and the Prime Minister together address that audience.

So I think there was a clear sense that at the societal level policy level, state to state level, the relationship is important. President Trump wants to advance it further. One area where people have concern in India is the first related to H-1B visas. Because an important dimension of the partnership is built on technology cooperation. It’s built on technology services, IT services, provided by skilled Indians, highly qualified Indians who come to the U.S. and on that there have been restrictions. I’ve seen of late, fresh visas till December was suspended. And some companies have managed to get an exception. And also the U.S. has removed GSP benefits, for India, which is available to many developing countries because on that, under that tariff free imports allow a certain category of goods. And from India, most of those supplies were from labor intensive, category of goods, people working in low technology sectors. They have been negatively impacted by that. 

So there have been some sort of negative orientations despite the broad overall positive relationship. And as far as Vice president Biden is concerned. I recall that way back in 2001, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had written a letter to President George Bush asking for sanctions against India to be removed. In 2006, as a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had given an interview to India abroad where he had said that his dream was that by 2020, the two strongest partnerships in the world would be between India and the United States. And when President Bush was doing the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, it also needed ratification in the Senate. And Vice President Biden had worked with the then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Lugar, to advance the process through the Senate. 

As Vice President, he had visited India in 2013 and speaking at the Mumbai Stock Exchange, he said that he believes that the India-US relationship would be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. And on 15th August this year, which is India’s independence day, Vice President Biden, and Senator Harris both issued a special message to the Indian American community and to the people of India. Also recorded a video statements and where Vice President Biden said that he was fully supportive of India on its security concerns, on its border, and the challenge of cross border terrorism. So I would believe that if it were to be Trump 2.0 the relationship would continue in a positive trajectory, of course there are some areas of concern on trade and visas that both would need to address. And if it were to be a Biden 1.0 presidency, the relationship again, would advance in a positive trajectory in new areas of cooperation, in technology, in defense, in climate change and other areas wouldn’t be explored and worked out by the two countries, because many people who are very important part of the Biden campaign were there also in the Obama administration. And they had worked very hard in advancing the India – U.S. relationship. So I’m confident that whoever wins the election in the U.S. in November this year, the India – U.S. relationship would continue to advance, in a significant positive direction,

Rosenthal: Certainly Ambassador. I mean, you are laying out very important ideas and statements that will be certainly relevant regardless of who is elected President in the United States. And I think, regardless of who’s President, one issue in particular, that will be important, so I guess one country, uh, that there’s a common, um, issue area over is that of China. You know, you had mentioned China. For our listeners, China, of course, is a very important country to both the United States and to India. Just so our listeners know on May 5th, 2020, there were clashes at the India-China border, in the Ladakh region where 20 Indian soldiers were killed and around 30 to 40 Chinese soldiers were killed. So this was indeed likely the most significant escalation between these two powers since the skirmishes in 1967. And before that, the 1962 Sino – Indian war. Ambassador, could you briefly describe why this skirmish happened and whether the Indian and Chinese governments are any closer to resolving the dispute than they were in the immediate aftermath of the initial clash in May?

Ambassador Singh: So unfortunately, the border between India and China is several thousand kilometers long,  is not a resolved and agreed border between the two countries. And in a sense, the border had earlier been worked out by the British presence in India, the government in Tibet, and the government in China. But after India became independent and once the Communist Party came to power in 1949, after some time took the position that they did not fully recognize the earlier border that had been worked out. So there, so there is a difference of perspective related to that. And from India’s position, of course, the border is clear. It has been, worked out and needs to be observed. And the Chinese don’t accept that. It was this difference that led to the conflict in 1962. Since then, there has been no major conflict between the two countries.

There was an incident in 1967, there was an incident in 1975. And after that again there have been instances where there was a transgression from the Chinese side. India took sort of preventive measures, but there were no incidents of violence and deaths between the two countries. And as you refer to unfortunately this year, there was some one instance, but despite all this, the two governments have been in dialogue with each other, especially since the 1980s to try and work out some framework of understanding. One, if they can try and resolve the border issue. Pending that, at least have a framework for interaction along the border, so that it doesn’t escalate into a conflict. They had worked out an agreement on peace and tranquility along the Line of Control way back in 1993. By 1996, they had worked out some confidence building measures to be observed along the line of control.

Then at the high level of a Special Representatives of the Prime Minister, they started a process of discussions on resolving the boundary issue way back in 2003. In 2005, they agreed on political parameters for resolving the bond breach. After that, while discussions have continued, the report suggests that there has not been major progress. Because the general assessment seems to be that as Chinese economic and military strength has grown, they are trying to see if they can assert their preferred positions all around. And that’s not just in India. You have seen that in the East China sea, they have asserted their position on the Senkaku Islands in the context of Japan. In South China sea in the context of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and they’ve sought after the Philippines. They have sought to assert their position, unilaterally to get ahold of some island features. They have militarized many of these islands, contrary to the promise they had made during the visit by President Xi to the U.S. in 2015, when in a White House ceremony, along with president Obama, he had said that China would not militarize those islands.

So they’ve not observed their own commitments and words related to that. So they have certainly tried to see if they can leverage the growing strength to enhance their positions on the ground. And I think as a result of that, from time to time, there have been instances of transgression. India has had to take very firm, clear positions that unilaterally attempting to change the situation on the ground is not acceptable. And while doing that, basically try and avoid any kind of an escalation or a conflict. So I think what happened this year, again from reports, indicates that there were unilateral transgressions by the Chinese. They were at a level that one has not seen before, much higher than any other incident since 1962, a major mobilization of Chinese troops there, and some other areas of the Line of Control. India eventually took action to respond to that so that its positions are preserved.

And therefore there is also now a mobilization of an Indian presence,  in areas opposite the Chinese presence. But the two governments are in dialogue. The foreign Ministers have met, the Defense Ministers have met, our National Security Advisor has had a conversation with his counterpart and Core Commanders have had several meetings at the local level to try and resolve the issue and work out a disengagement so that India’s position is preserved. Those discussions are ongoing now. So far, they have not led to an acceptable, concrete, resolution. But in the past also when there have been other major incidents, of course, not of this scale, sometimes it has taken several months and in some cases, a couple of years before the issue has been resolved. So I think both countries are working on it. And the way I see it, from reports coming out, India’s effort is to be non-escalatory, but firm in its response, convey resolve, and preserve its position. And so I’m sure they’ll continue working on this.

Gonawela: Certainly, I think when we’re looking at China’s expansion, one of the bigger, if not the biggest aspect of China’s expansion, aside from the military factors, is the economic aspect of this. Certainly China has been making inroads in South Asia through the One Belt One Road and other economic initiatives. And I think one of the more interesting cases of this policy is Sri Lanka located right below India for those of you who don’t know. Chinese investments in that country have been deep. And the country’s government is sort of the case in point of what critics have often called the “Debt Trap Policy”, a situation that has led to China acquiring a 99 year lease on the Hambantota Port in South of Sri Lanka. Certainly in the acquisition of such a port may portend a security risk in the future. Has India worked toward shoring up its influence in Sri Lanka and the broader Southeast Asian region?  Narendra Modi, of course, the Prime Minister has had this Neighborhood First policy, has that been at all effective in quelling Chinese interests in this region?

Ambassador Singh: So as a result of, enhanced Chinese economic strength and military potential, you see a growing Chinese presence, not just in South Asia and you see it in East Asia, Southeast Asia, we spoke about that. You refer to Sri Lanka and what they’ve done to Hambantota Port, giving loans which became debt inducing and Sri Lanka was not able to pay back, then taking over a 99 year lease. Which is again, you know, ironic that the Chinese were very upset when Hong Kong was on the 99 year lease to the British, but now they’ve taken Hambantota Port on a 99 year lease. And that has potential to be something of security concern to India, but they’re working on a boat project in Myanmar. They have supplied defense equipment putting submarines to Bangladesh, which is a neighbor of India. They are trying to build a new relationship and linkage with Nepal.

At one state, they tried to get hold of an Island in the Maldives, which then was reversed when there was the new government in Maldives. But then they have a military facility now in Djibouti, they’re also building the so called China – Pakistan economic corridor,  which is also debt inducing in many of its aspect, to enhance Pakistan’s dependence on China. It is being built through sovereign Indian territory, which is under the illegal occupation of Pakistan at the moment. So that again causes a concern. But it’s not just that. You’re seeing in Africa, a growing Chinese presence in many countries that have been debt-inducing in some countries there have been reaction. The Belt and Road initiative has reached to Europe. And China has leases on couple of ports in Europe, including in Greece. It has established a one plus 17 mechanisms for interaction between the Chinese leader and countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which has essentially split the European Union. And then you saw that in the context of COVID, China resorted to what was called the Wolf Warrior diplomacy that you give assistance to some countries, and then put pressure on the leadership and representatives of those countries to come out and convey appreciation for what China had provided. And that asked them not to be very demanding in terms of more information on how the virus had originated from Wuhan.

So this is sort of a unilateral and almost abrasive assertiveness that China has adopted all around the world. Given what it finds is it’s a new found strength. There’s some reaction as you have seen, the U.S. has not come out with a clear and repeatedly articulated position, that the policy that the U.S. had followed since 1971, that increasing integration of China into the international mainstream would lead to a sort of liberalization in China, would lead to moderation in China, has not worked. And that the U.S. is now dealing with an authoritarian government, which is a technological rival, technological peer, and the norms of U.S. society now need to be preserved, so there is a reaction. 

Even in Europe, which had so far looked at China more from the economic lens and more from the lens of trade opportunity, leaving the strategic aspect to be handled essentially by the U.S. they are now talking of China of course being an economic partner, negotiating partner, but also a systemic rival. And there is a recognition that China poses some challenges to the norms of democracy, human rights, that diverge from Europe. So European countries have come out with very strong positions now against what China has done in Hong Kong, what it is doing in Sindh.

Rosenthal: So in the United States, a strong China policy of course, is a bipartisan issue, right? We’ve seen the Trump administration over the past few years be very strong on China with the Trade Wars and this idea of economic de-coupling, right? Which at least to me seems like it’s already occurring with the actions taken. And so this cutback of economic ties and economic reliance, is an important question. It’s not just United States, right? India has banned Chinese mobile apps such as TikTok, and WeChat, among many others. Do you see India engaging in decoupling or significant drawback of economic relations or even just diplomatic relations or other areas of relations besides economic?

Ambassador Singh: My sense is that a full or a complete decoupling is unlikely to happen, either at the global level or even for India. But some balancing or rebalancing is necessary. And as the world found, when it was impacted by COVID that there has been an undue dependence on China in many critical areas, including for, health-related supplies, PPE equipment for masks, in some cases for the raw materials for medicines. And therefore there is more and more talk of building trade relationships with trusted partners, building a more resilient and secure supply chain relationship. So based on that, some reordering of supply chains is happening. In India’s case, the trade relationship with China had become very unbalanced. The trade was of the order of about $90 billion, but India had a trade deficit of more than $60 billion with China.

And while India was getting some very important, supplies from China, including in telecom power equipment, there was a sense that China had been imposing nontraditional barriers on Indian suppliers in the IT sector, in the pharmaceutical sector, leading to this distorted picture. So with the impact of COVID, and also with what’s happened now, along the border, there is a feeling in India that a better balance has to be introduced to this relationship and any security concerns that India has with the technology interlinkage with China needs to be addressed. And it was because of this, that large number of apps have been banned, including TikTok, WeChat, Weibo, many others because as you know, in today’s world, data has become a major issue. There’s issues related to privacy of data, there’s issue related to technology and profits being generated through use of data.

There are concerns related to cybersecurity, because that can be used to disrupt security, economic activity, defense related activity of any country. Therefore given all that, there was a sense that as far as the China technology intellect was concerned, a better balance and more security oriented dimension needed to be brought in. So that is the step that has been taken. And I think the effort would be to balance out a little more the trade relationship with China, balance out a little more, the reciprocal investment opportunity, lessen dependence on China for technology,  especially in critical areas, lessen dependence on China for funding of startups, and therefore provide new opportunities for Indian companies, Indian entrepreneurs, as there is a global reordering of supply chains taking place. 

So that is the effort that will happen, although a complete decoupling, either by India or at the global level is unlikely. And you would have seen reports that despite their own concerns, it’s not that the U.S. or European companies are just rushing for the doors away from China. Many of them are continuing with their activity, but of course, when people are looking at fresh investments, then the new, security related challenges, new dissidents in the political relationship will impact on the investment decisions that companies make.

Gonawela: So now, when we sort of look at the China question in the frame of U.S. – India relations, I think oftentimes when people talk about Indian foreign policy with regard to the United States, we talk about it in this lens of alignment with the US versus autonomy in terms of geopolitical independence. So autonomy versus alignment, do severing relations between India and China indicate an inevitable shift in Indian foreign policy towards alignment towards the US. And do you think that there’s the opportunity for the two countries to formulate a more formal security relationship? Is this possible, do you think?

Ambassador Singh: Autonomy of decision making is very important for India. It has deep rooted support among the Indian people and among the political class in India, because you have to recall that for several centuries, India had been a colony and when it became independent in 1947, the idea was that India needed to bring its own voice, its own message in the international context, given its civilization, given its history, given the size of the country, its economic strengths, its capacities. It was very well placed to be an  independent voice in international affairs. And so that’s why when the world moved towards a two block system towards the military alliance system, after the Cold War, after the Second World War, India opted for Non-Alignment, and was one of the leaders in the Non-Alignment movement. And with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the world moved first towards a unipolar world now a multipolar world, India’s approaches to build relationships based on convergence, but to maintain the autonomy of its decision making. 

So as you mentioned, going ahead, especially with the kind of changes that are happening in the international context, India and the U.S. will certainly do more together. They will cooperate more, but I think it could be based on a measure of strategic autonomy for India. And that is a better path to follow because if you just look at geography, India, the U.S. are placed really on two different parts of the world, virtually on the opposite side. Both countries have a different historical experience. Their interests will not always converge. And again, you see from the practice of the United States, very often the decision it takes are decisions that are in its own interest and it is guided by its own interest. Sometimes it expects its allies and partners to follow unquestionably the decision that the United States states. Now that’s not always possible and you see that today, even the European countries, strong partners of the United States are not fully aligned with the U.S. on what U.S. is doing, in the context of Iran. And recently when the United States went to the UN Security Council for snap backup sanctions, 13 out of 15 countries in the UN Security Council, including its allies, UK, France, and Germany did not agree with it. 

So there will be occasions when India may not agree with the decisions that the U.S. takes and as the two of them build the relationship, it is as important for the United States to give India the space, to take the decisions based on what it feels is right and then what it feels to be in its own interest. Similarly, I think in India, policy makers have to acknowledge that what India sees in its interests may not always align with how the U.S. perceives it, as India will need to give space to the United States, not to be fully in lockstep with any policy that India may want to take.

While allowing space for this, they have to look at areas of convergence, and in the areas of convergence, do more together. In today’s global context. It is clearly the Indo-Pacific, which provides that area of convergence. So the two countries are doing more together in the framework of the Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific. That is the reason why they’ve also now got into the quad arrangement with Australia and Japan. And they’re looking at other areas of cooperation in this framework. So to answer your point in one sentence, I would say it is better to maintain autonomy rather than a search, a formal Alliance for the longer term health and durability of the India – U.S. relationship. 

Rosenthal: Absolutely. And I think this building ever relationship is key and of course, giving India the space, to kind of maintain its own security, but as well as you know, this cooperation that we’ve been talking about. A country in particular that I wanted to hit on, because we mentioned the Indo Pacific, is Afghanistan. The United States announced very recently that they would withdraw from Afghanistan. It was initially a draw down to 2,500, announced by the U.S. National Security Advisor. And then President Trump recently tweeted that it would be a complete withdrawal by Christmas. And so what is this, what are the implications, for India in this policy? Of course, Pakistan has been a long supporter of Afghanistan. And so if the U.S. fully pulls out of Afghanistan, does this have any impact on the U.S. –  India relationship, or does it have any impact on India’s own security?

Ambassador Singh: I would not say that Pakistan has been a supporter of Afghanistan. Pakistan has been a supporter of violence and terrorism in Afghanistan. It has supported certain groups. It has fomented militant jihad against the established government in Afghanistan. They did that in the eighties, including after 9/11. You know, after 9/11, for example, why is it that today, the U.S. is walking back from Afghanistan without a full resolution of the challenge there? It is because Pakistan gave a safe haven to the Taliban, maintained them, supported them, financed them, equipped them, and they enabled them to fight back against the United States. 

And unfortunately because the United States needed Pakistan for moving supplies into Afghanistan, for its soldiers who were there, they were unable to put pressure on Pakistan beyond the point, because the alternative routes through Iran, all through Russia and the Central Asian countries, were not possible or not efficient for the United States.

So the United States was in a bit of a bind there. And again, I think in India, people have to recognize that even in the context of Afghanistan, the U.S. will take decisions as it perceives to be in its interests or based on its own political compulsions. After 9/11, the U.S. went into Afghanistan because it wanted to take action against Al Qaeda. It recognized that the Taliban would never give up on Al Qaeda at that time. And therefore it needed to physically go into Afghanistan in pursuit of its own interests. Today, with all more than 18 years of conflict, their U.S. presence, the U.S. political system and society is not ready to sustain this effort anymore. And therefore the U.S. wants to pull out its troops. President Trump wants to do that, Vice President Biden when he was the Vice President, also advocated on a draw-down on troops for the same reason.

And I think people in India have to acknowledge that it’s a compulsion of U.S. politics and U.S. society. For India, the concern is that if the U.S. draws down or moves out without resolving the issue, then all the effort that has been made for the past 20 years, efforts in terms of blood, money, treasure, may get wasted. We would not want Afghanistan to once again revert to insecurity and violence, which enabled terrorist groups to find the safe haven in that country, which falls the challenge to the US, to other countries and to India. So India’s advocacy has been that the U.S should orient its efforts towards providing stability in Afghanistan, to providing enduring security, and institutional governance in Afghanistan. And therefore, let us see the current dialogue that is going on, between the Afghan government and the Taliban, how much progress it makes. How does the Taliban behave if it feels that the U.S. is definitely leaving by Christmas. Does it feel that it will not get the upper hand and therefore its willingness to work out the necessary compromises may vanish, or is it really committed to dialogue and working out a new governance framework in Afghanistan that is acceptable to all. So that is something we will all need to watch. But India’s concern clearly would be that nothing should be done that destabilizes the situation in Afghanistan and leads to recurrence of violence and terrorists.

Gonawela: And as we talk about this border clash between India and China, the seemingly perennial and longstanding issue of this disputed border between India and Pakistan is within the region of Jammu and Kashmir,  long central to the relations and the conflicts between India and Pakistan. Recent developments in the region on the Indian side have been somewhat controversial to say the least. Without getting into the weeds of the domestic issue, do you believe that the United States should help mediate or assist with the Kashmir issue? 

Ambassador Singh: India took decisions related to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the erstwhile state, in August last year, which were entirely, in the framework of its domestic policies and its domestic competence. And uh, no other country really in a position to challenge what it has done. And that has been India’s position and the state was converted into two union territories based on the requirements there, and further efforts have been made. Now although, Pakistan has tried to criticize India for this, the fact remains in the areas of the state of Jammu and Kashmir that have been under illegal occupation of Pakistan since 1947. In many of those areas, Pakistan has also brought about administrative changes, for which it has no legal or jurisdictional basis. And recently you’re hearing of, you know, uh, they will make Gilgit Baltistan area into the fifth province of Pakistan.

So at one level they are criticizing India and at another level, they are making changes for which they have no authority. So they have no standing to do that. Again in 1963, Pakistan did an agreement with China ceding some areas of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which was under their legal control of China and with no jurisdictional right over that area, how can Pakistan cede that territory? There is a bit of not applying the same yardsticks when Pakistan and China talk about this issue, but putting that aside for the moment, I strongly believe that the U.S. should not get involved in any way in any kind of mediation. The U.S. did try mediation in the 1950s and 1960s. It did not work because both India and Pakistan have very clear and firm positions.

The issue can be resolved only when the two countries are able, politically and otherwise, to work out something that is acceptable to both. In the period, 2004 to 2006, 2007, a very determined effort was made under President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to advance the process of some kind of cooperation and the framework of Jammu and Kashmir, some progress was made, but it couldn’t be fully realized once President Musharraf was weakened in Pakistan and eventually removed from power. If the U.S. tries to mediate, first any third party brings its own interests to bear on any issue. And once they start doing that, I think eventually they will end up displeasing both India and Pakistan, and as the U.S. is building its new relationship with India, it does not make sense for the U S to get involved in an issue which should only negatively impact its relationship with India.

So India’s position has been very, very clear for several decades that it will not accept any third party role on the Jammu and Kashmir issue. That’s a position that India has taken since the 1960s having found its experience with third party role at mediation in the 1950s, 1960s, to be very, very unproductive. And in 1972, a formal agreement had been worked out between India and Pakistan called the Simla agreement, but after the 1971 conflict between them, and in that agreement, it is clearly stated that both India and Pakistan will resolve all differences between them through bilateral means. From India’s point of view that is a firm commitment and that’s the process that should be fought.

Gonawela: There’s some very interesting insights. Just one final question as we sort of look at the overall arc of this interview, many of the topics we’ve covered and just some of your last statements. In terms of the U.S. –  India relationship, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing this relationship over the next decade or the next over the 2020s? What could be potential setbacks, per se?

Ambassador Singh: So I would say that the two countries are inevitably going to have a closer partnership. I think the way the world’s situation is evolving, there will be more convergence of interests and they will do more together. One challenge would be to keep expectations under control. As we develop a closer partnership, both countries have to allow the space for the other to take decisions which may not always harmonize with each other’s interests. 

So India has to understand that the U.S. will take some decisions in its own interests, which may not be fully in sync with India’s interest. As for example, as it is happening in Afghanistan today. U.S. has to understand that India has certain policy preferences related to Russia or related to Iran, which may not be fully in sync with the policy choices that the U.S. has made. Recognizing the geographical and historical differences between the two countries that space must be provided. So the political systems of the two countries are able to provide the space, I think step-by-step the relationship would consolidated. But if they’re not able to provide the space, and if there’s criticism, for example, in the U.S. some legal provision, sanctions, if India buys S-400 from Russia. Now, some kind of a measure related to that, which India is taking based on its own security concentrations would have a negative impact on the relations. So I think that would be one. The second dimension would be that as we develop a closer economic and technology partnership, I think from the U.S. perspective an allowance will need to be made for the fact that India is a large country, 1.3 billion people, large numbers living at very, very low levels of income. And there is a need for India to be able to take policies so that the economic benefits reach out to the large numbers, because India is a democracy. People go out and vote, and the people do not see the benefits of economic partnerships, economic policies are reaching out to them and they will not vote for the government.

So again, this is something that needs to be factored in. If that is not done, you hear talk about not recognizing some countries are developing countries, not aligning some benefits to them. Recently, the generalized scheme of preference benefits to India, were taken away by the U.S. the restrictions on the H-1B visas for people coming from India, because this is a very important dimension of the new relationship being built between these two countries. So those could be some of the challenges. I would see that as one can see from the vantage point of today, these are the potential challenges. But, the global situation changes dramatically. New challenges will emerge, but if the leadership and policy makers of the two countries are able to address these issues with understanding, empathy, with longer term orientation, I think we can resolve them.

Rosenthal: And on that note, Ambassador Singh, I want to thank you very, very much for a fantastic conversation. Your analyses and insights have been invaluable. I know our listeners will appreciate the breadth and the depth of this conversation, as well as your perspective, right. We have many American voices and perspectives on this podcast. So it’s quite nice to have a different perspective, the Indian perspective on this podcast. So again, thank you very much Ambassador. We appreciate you taking the time today. 

Ambassador Singh: Thank you Ryan, thank you, A’ndre. I enjoyed talking to both of you.


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