Home / News / World /  India’s most consequential relationship with America: Former ambassador to US

NEW DELHI: Former envoy to Washington Arun Kumar Singh has said that the US is India’s most substantive relationship. After the conclusion of external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s 11-day visit to the United States, Singh, in an interview to Mint, said that tensions between the US and China and the reordering of global supply chains have made the India opportunity attractive to businesses.

He also weighed in on emerging tensions over US’s support for Pakistan’s F-16 programme. He said America cannot supply high calibre weapons to Pakistan while expecting New Delhi to play a role as a security provider in the region.

Edited Excerpts:

Q. As someone who served as a career diplomat and as ambassador to Washington, what are your reflections on how the relationship has changed?

I think the relationship has certainly transformed significantly. We can take it back to the nuclear tests we did in 1998. At that time, the US reacted very negatively and imposed sanctions against India. However, with time, they also decided that they needed to build a different kind of relationships with India, which had shown certain key capacities and had also shown itself to be a responsible nuclear capable power. This was in contrast to Pakistan, which was known to be a, inward and outward proliferator of nuclear technology. Washington decided it would deal with India differently. The process started there and the next major step in this direction was the civil nuclear deal which was pushed through by the George W Bush Administration.

Once we were able to do that, it really opened up a whole range of possibilities for higher technology cooperation. For example, we hardly bought any defence supplies from America. Today, we have contracted to buy more than $20 billion of defence equipment. We are also talking of a partnership in defence technology collaboration, including on counter unmanned aerial vehicle systems. We do more defence exercises 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, and the largest single country presence, of Indian origin diaspora.

 Although we need not always agree on everything, the most consequential relationship India has today, taking into account an amalgam of our diverse trade, technology, defence and security interests, is with the US.

 Q. Some have talked of the Ukraine War as a “stress test" for bilateral ties. If this is an accurate assessment, how have both sides performed?

One reflection of where India and America have reached is that, in the past, disagreements used to wreck the bilateral relationship. Today, we have a major 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 compulsions. The US Secretary of State has acknowledged India’s relationship with Russia on a number of occasions and the American National Security Adviser has made clear that the US is playing the long game with India. I think this reflects the depth of the relationship and the interest from leaders on both sides in sustaining ties.

Q. America has recently undertaken a $450 million F-16 sustainment package for Pakistan. New Delhi has voiced its concerns regarding the same and some worry that these jets may be used in combat operations against India. How serious is the matter in your view?

This has been a matter of concern for a long time. You may recall that around the time that India and Pakistan had gained independence, the US had started to set up military alliances across the globe as part of an effort to contain the Soviet Union. India didn’t want to subjugate its foreign policy decision making to interests elsewhere, but Pakistan seized on that moment to join military alliances led by the US. Pakistan’s leaders made it clear that the only reason they were joining these alliances was to get weapons that they could use against India.

 Since then, New Delhi’s argument has been that American arms going to Pakistan will be deployed against India. If you look at the F-16, which is the cause of some disagreement, Pakistan has really used these only against India. We saw this also in 2019 in the context of the attacks at Pulwama and Balakot. However, the Americans argue that they still need some access to Pakistan. Once American troops left Afghanistan, one way they can continue to carry out counter-terrorism activity is through their drones which need to overfly 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 the American perspective to maintain a level of contact, including out of concerns related to security of nuclear weapons.

India has consistently made it clear that it does not accept the reasons that are being offered. If US leaders have now said, on occasion, that they see the rise of India to be in US interest, or that they see New Delhi as a net security provider in the region, it goes against tactical steps of providing weapons of a certain calibre to a country that could create some security challenges for India.

Q. You mentioned the defence industry. There is a sense that cooperation on defence technology has not taken off as it should have. Your view of the defence relationship?

There are problems on both sides. On the one hand, we have bought more than $20 billion of defence goods from America which have been very useful to us. Maritime reconnaissance aircraft and long haul aircraft have been particularly helpful. Where I think we’ve not made much progress is in the defence technology partnership. The two defence ecosystems don’t have much experience of working together and need to get to know each other more. There can also be an expectations mismatch between what we would like and what the Americans can supply. 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 need to do more work. There is a sense in India that the Russians, the Israelis and the French have so far been more forthcoming than the United States in defense technology partnerships.

 Q. As inflation ravages economies and the world enters a slump in growth, how are American businesses sizing up the India opportunity?

It’s clear that US industry is certainly looking at India with a great deal of interest. This had earlier got some fillip during the Trump administration which had a very adversarial approach to China on trade and economic issues. This was followed by the disruption caused by the pandemic. After that we began hearing more and more about the need for secure supply chains and the need to on- shore or “friend- shore" production. If you look at semiconductors, there is a huge effort to redo where production is taking place. Given this, one can see clearly that there is huge interest today among US companies to look at India opportunities. They are all looking at “China Plus" opportunities. While it is clear that they are not pulling away from China, they would rather not do fresh investments in China. As such, the US companies that I speak to want to do more and more in India.

 Q. A lot has been said about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Is there a genuine opportunity for India here or is it, as some have alleged, a poor substitute for a substantive trade agreement?

 I think IPEF is a good opportunity for India. There has been hesitation on trade agreements in the past because we assessed that many FTAs we had done had not worked out for us. With other agreements with developed countries, we had problems with the conditionalities over labour and environment. During the Trump Administration, there was talk of a mini-trade deal and nothing came of it because there were existing interests on both sides who were blocking progress. One can make the argument that perhaps the issue should be approached differently. Instead of going into a trade agreement ab initio, we can start talking about sharing production and setting norms, instead of negotiating norms and standards after they have been set. That way we get norms that we are comfortable with. Once these discussions happen and we’ve built a framework of cooperation, we can discuss trade arrangements.

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