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NEW DELHI: The US and India need to focus on their economic relationship which was not working as well as it should, a former US official said on Tuesday, seeking increased market access and lower trade barriers between the two countries.

Speaking at CII’s annual session, Nicholas Burns, a former US undersecretary of state and currently professor in the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, said: “We have an opportunity to build a strategic relationship that can lead the world and be the democratic example of how nations should live, how they should organize themselves, how they should treat their people which is the anti thesis of China with its authoritarian tradition."

Ties between India and the US have warmed considerably in the past two decades with both countries eyeing each other as strategic partners. But trade and economic ties have been a problem area – especially under US president Donald Trump who has publically faulted India for its high tariffs and other trade barriers.

On the current frictions between the US and China, Burns said the two countries just like India and China would be competitive economically and militarily besides ideologically. “We have to assume that competition is going to continue. The trick here is not to have competition overwhelm the relationship," he said.

Chinese behavior, in cracking down on protestors in Hong Kong, its aggression towards India and other smaller neighbours like Malaysia and Vietnam, was not the kind that was expected from a world leader, Burns said. “Much of the world is not receiving well what the Chinese are doing," he said “I don’t think China will be able to make capital out of this," he added.

According to Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singapore diplomat, currently with the National University of Singapore," India is entering a “geopolitical sweet spot" because it is entering a phase with the best opportunity – courted by both the US and China as both seek to bring Asia’s third largest economy into their corner in their bilateral geopolitical contest.

“India is going to become a heavily courted country (by the US and China). So the question is as a heavily courted country where do you go?" Mahbubani said. “If Indian positions itself in the middle, it can have a geo political opportunity to play a significant balancing role (between the US and China)" Mahbubani said when asked what advice he would give to the Indian government given the elements of competition with China.

There was another opportunity for India, Mahbubani said, that had been brought about by the covid-19 pandemic.

“India has a very very important role to play in today’s world because India has a magnificent political opportunity today… countries around the world are crying out for independent moral leadership of some country to speak up…and there are very very few countries that are of the size of India, have the capacity of India, that has the trust that India has in the global system. SO I hope that India would see this to some extent as an opportunity, to some extent as a responsibility to try and create a more stable and a more secure and a more predictable world."

When asked what advice, he had for Indian business, Mahbubani said “as country India had become reluctant to join (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) RCEP" despite Indians thriving in competitive business environments abroad. “India should take a big risk now open up its economy a bit more and start to compete with the world," he said. India in November had said it would not join the RCEP – a free trade agreement in bringing together all of the Southeast Asian nations and its free trade agreement partners – Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and India. India’s major concern was that its massive trade deficit with China would be further exacerbated if Chinese goods enter the Indian market through third countries.

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