'It has been a fascinating journey for India-US ties'

It has been a fascinating journey for India-US ties, best is yet to come: Taranjit Singh Sandhu

Taranjit Singh Sandhu. Credit: Twitter

Taranjit Singh Sandhu has been a part of the story of India-US relations and has seen at close quarters the ties between the two ‘natural partners’ grow. Over his 32-year-long career in diplomacy, he served at the Embassy of India in Washington D.C. as a First Secretary (Political) from 1997 to 2000 and then again as Deputy Chief of Mission from 2013 to 2017. He returned to Washington D.C. earlier this year and took over as India’s ambassador to the US on February 3 – just days before President Donald Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad and New Delhi. With Trump now on his way out and President-elect Joe Biden set to take over the Oval Office on January 20, the ace diplomat is ‘certain’ that India-US relations will continue to scale new heights. He tells DH's Anirban Bhaumik why he is certain that relations between the two democracies will continue to scale new heights. Excerpts:

Q. Can you please give us an overview of the India-US relations? How did the relations between the two nations progress in the past years and how do you see the prospects of the relations over the next four years?

A. India-US relations have grown steadily over the years. There is bipartisan support for strong India-US ties in the US. It also has cross-party support in India. We have made significant progress under each US administration. I have been part of this journey in the last two and half decades. 

It might be an oft-repeated phrase, but it’s true and at the core of this relationship: we are “natural partners”. Our relationship is based on shared values – democracy, rule of law and pluralism. Over the years, there has been increasing convergence in bilateral, regional and global issues. There has also been significant momentum in the high-level of political interaction in the last two decades. 

There are certain factors which I would like to highlight here: It is a people-driven and people-centric partnership. The Indian-American community, nearing around 4 million, has been a source of strength for this relationship. Over 2 lakh Indian students in the US mostly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Management) areas has been another important bridge. Flowing from this is the strong knowledge partnership.  As societies that respect innovation and ingenuity, we have been collaborating more and more in technology and cutting-edge innovation areas. Indeed, there’s no area of human endeavour where India and the US are not working with each other. 

I am not just optimistic, but certain that the relationship can only touch new heights in the days ahead, given the true potential of what we can achieve together, not just for each other but for the world.

Q. What will be the priorities for India in its engagement with the new US administration?

A. Controlling the pandemic is of immediate relevance. We would also like to build on the pillars that facilitate economic recovery in both countries. This is the need of the hour. 

I will choose four main baskets of priorities: First, given the pandemic, cooperation in healthcare and pharma and Covid-19 management including affordable vaccine development and delivery; Second, the entire Information and Communication Technology, innovation and digital space, the salience of which has also grown with the times; Third, the energy basket, especially renewables, including solar, that will allow us to combat climate change; and the last but not the least, the education and knowledge collaboration.  Every basket is important and has a lot to offer. Each one of these is critical not just for India or the US, but for all of humanity.  These are, of course, all in addition to our partnership in strategic sectors including in the Indo-Pacific. 

Given our membership in UNSC from January 2021, we would also like to see more cooperation in the multilateral sphere. 

Q. How do you view the prospects of India-US cooperation in the healthcare sector, particularly in containing the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak as well as for preparing the two nations and the world better to deal with future pandemics?

A. As you are aware, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reiterated the need for a vaccine that is “accessible and affordable” for the world. Indian pharma capabilities are now well recognized around the world, including in the US. The past several months have proved the mettle of the Indian pharmaceutical industry. The scale and speed in vaccine manufacturing and delivery that India can offer will be the key to ensuring universal public health. We have said that we are willing to leverage our domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity and engage with friends and partners for early delivery of vaccines not only in India but also in low and middle-income countries, especially in Africa. From the initial days of the Covid-19 outbreak, Indian and US scientists and institutions have been actively engaged in the exchange of information. There are currently five vaccine candidates which are under joint collaboration between India and the US.   

The significant part is, we are building on a solid foundation. India has a long-standing partnership with the US in the area of health and scientific research.  We have closely collaborated in combating diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer, HIV and eye diseases. Under the India-US Vaccine Action Program, National Institute of Health and the Indian Department of Biotechnology and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) have been collaborating for the last 33 years. We have done a phenomenal job together, and there is a lot more to be done: in pharma, basic research, vaccines, diagnostics, devices, telemedicine and hospital administration.

Q. There are concerns that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Atmanirbhar Bharat” may be at odds with President-elect Joe Biden’s “Make-in-All-of-America” and come in the way of further expanding India-US bilateral trade and investment relations. What is your view? 

A. As PM Modi said, Atmanirbhar Bharat is about transforming India from a passive market to an active manufacturing hub at the heart of the global value chain. We, of course, remain engaged with the world, an aspect that our American friends appreciate.  

Through building capacities at home, India will contribute to the global markets and also mitigate disruptions. As such, there is no contradiction between an India that is building its domestic economic capacities, and an India that is looking to play a bigger role in global business, trade and innovation. We have said, ‘Make in India; Make for the World’. Our FDI figures during the pandemic, which has almost doubled year-on-year, should be a good benchmark, as regards what the world sees in India. And the US has been a significant source country for our FDI.

As regards the trade and economic partnership, today the US is our largest trading partner. Our bilateral trade, which touched $150 billion in 2019, has witnessed double-digit growth in the last 10 years. India’s exports in goods and services in 2019 stood at the US $88 billion showing a year-on-year increase of 4.8 per cent while imports from the US stood at around US $61 billion showing a year-on-year increase of 3.6 per cent. 

India’s trade and economic ties will continue to grow with the US. You would remember that India-US relationship has had a history of breakthrough and game changing achievements. It is in the inherent nature of this relationship. I am optimistic that there is nothing we cannot achieve together if we sit across the table and discuss. 

Q. How do you think India and the United States can cooperate to enhance supply chain resilience after the pandemic and support global economic recovery?

A. Reconfiguration of global supply chains has been underway before the pandemic. This shift towards de-risking and diversifying supply chains was accelerated by the pandemic. India is among the countries looking to benefit from this global shift. India’s democratic credentials, skilled workforce, relatively low labour cost, low tax rates and large domestic market give it an edge. Not to forget India’s strong digital infrastructure, vibrant ecommerce market, robust startup ecosystem, and fintech opportunity. The government has endeavoured to put in place an enabling and investor-friendly FDI policy and has undertaken series of tax and labour related reforms. Investor confidence in India is reflected in US $35.7 billion that India received between April and August this year.

The US is an important partner in India’s growth. India and the US have a robust economic partnership, with bilateral trade touching US $150 billion and US $60 billion in two-way investments. This partnership has remained steadfast in face of the pandemic. We have excellent science and technology collaboration, including in therapeutics and vaccine development. India proved itself a reliable partner. During the last few months, several US companies have invested in India’s tech and retail sectors. In near future, India and the US could identify certain priority sectors for supply chain collaboration and at the same time work with like-minded countries to achieve supply chain resilience. 

Q. Indian Information Technology (IT) professionals have been contributing to the competitiveness of the US economy. High-skilled professionals from India played a key role in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in the US. Will issues concerning the Indian-American community continue to get priority in India’s engagement with the new US Administration?

A. The people-to-people linkages and trade and economic cooperation, especially in technology and innovation sectors, are important dimensions of the India-US strategic partnership. High skilled Indian professionals bring important skill sets to the US and add to the technological and competitive edge of the US companies. They have also been a critical component of the workforce that is at the forefront of providing Covid-19-related assistance in key sectors, including health, information technology and financial services. With technology gaining prominence in the present situation and in the post Covid-19 world, the value addition brought in by the Indian IT professionals along with STEM graduates will play a critical role. They are actively involved in the innovation process including in our joint fight against Covid-19. 

The US has always welcomed talent from abroad and we are hopeful our professionals will continue to be welcomed in the USA in the future.

Q. How do you view the prospects of India-US defence cooperation and the strategic convergence in Indo-Pacific?

A. The India-US defence and strategic partnership is a critical component of the relationship. The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) mechanism, launched during President Barack Obama’s tenure, has been working well. The aim of the DTTI Group is to bring sustained leadership focus to the bilateral defence trade relationship and create opportunities for co-production and co-development of defence equipment. 

We have built on defence ties over the last two decades: whether it is the designation of India as a ‘Major Defence Partner’ by the US and the accordance of Strategic Trade Authorization -1 Status by the US Department of Commerce or the signing of LEMOA, COMCASA, Industrial Security Annex and now BECA or the 2+ 2 Ministerial mechanism.  We have consistently crafted new milestones and moved ahead. Our defence trade stands at US $21 billion in a short span. We are now collaborating in new domains like joint R&D, innovation, and experimenting in new domains of cooperation.

In the last decade, our maritime surveillance capability has increased with the acquisition of the P-8i from the US. We continue to work closely to ensure a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

The US platforms like Chinooks have helped us operate at high altitudes. The C-17 (Boeing) and C-130 (Lockheed Martin) transport aircraft have helped us move relief material – medicines and medical equipment – and evacuate Indian nationals.

There’s increasing military-to-military cooperation as well. The first tri-service exercise between the two countries, Tiger Triumph, was held last year. It is now on the calendar of the two countries. The Indian and the US Navies are cooperating both in bilateral and plurilateral format. The recently-concluded Exercise Malabar with US, Japan and Australia has been yet another important development.  

Q. President-elect Joe Biden’s recent statements signalled his intention to steer the United States away from unilateralist nationalism that many believe defined the foreign policy of the outgoing administration. The United States is likely to rejoin the Paris Climate Change agreement and the World Health Organization. How do you view it? India has been reaffirming its commitment to multilateralism but has also been stressing on reforms in multilateral institutions. How do you see the prospects of India-US cooperation in multilateral fora and in reforming the multilateral institutions?

A. We look forward to working closely with the US and all other friends and partners in the multilateral fora.  Our United Nations Security Council membership from January 2021 will be an important phase. As India has always held, we need to see reform of the multilateral institutions to reflect the realities of today. The democratization of world order can no longer remain elusive. Today’s challenges and today’s aspirations cannot be met using structures built upon and built by yesterday’s realities. It was the Obama-Biden Administration that first recognized India’s legitimate aspiration to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council

The United States understands that India is a responsible, trusted and resilient partner for the world.  We need to grow, but we have also chosen a green path to growth. Be it Jal Jeevan Mission or Ujjwala Scheme or SATAT, all these show our commitment to green growth and our commitment to humanity at large. We are also the only G-20 nation which has been able to achieve targets set out under Paris Agreement. We have also been a leader in more ways than one: International Solar Alliance and Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure are just a few recent examples. We will continue to work with the US in combating common challenges and reforming the multilateral system. 

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the interactions between President-elect Biden and Prime Minister Modi? 

A. In line with our democratic ethos, Prime Minister Modi was one of the early world leaders to congratulate President-elect Biden through a tweet.  The Prime Minister was also one of the early world leaders to have a congratulatory phone call with President-elect. 

You would remember Prime Minister Modi’s historic address to Joint Session of the Congress in 2016. The then Vice President Biden co-chaired the session. I was Deputy Ambassador in Washington D.C. then. I have seen myself his strong support for India-US relations. 

When Prime Minister Modi visited the US in September 2014, Vice President Biden had hosted a lunch for him. He had always been supportive of stronger US-India ties – both as a Senator and as the VP. This is evident from the Op-Ed he wrote in October and the special address he gave on August 15.  

On the India-US relation Biden said in his Op-Ed: “Fifteen years ago, I was leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve the historic Civil Nuclear Deal between our nations and advance our technology sharing and defense cooperation. At the time, I said if the United States and India became closer friends, then the world will be a safer place. Seven years ago, as Vice President, I told business leaders in Mumbai that the US-India partnership was the defining relationship of the 21st Century.”

“The Obama-Biden years were some of the best we've ever had between our two countries.  A Biden-Harris Administration will build on that great progress and do even more. We can and should be natural allies.”

As I always say, India-US relations has so far been a fascinating journey indeed but the best is yet to come!