Ex-India ambassador to US Nirupama Rao and former US ambassador to India Richard Verma talk about the rise of China and ways to get it to ‘play by the rules’, reflect on the ‘shifting’ role of US, discuss the next steps in India-US ties after the civil nuclear deal, and underline the need for job creation, inclusive economics
JYOTI MALHOTRA: We are at a very interesting point in India-US relations as well as world affairs. As you look at the political landscape across India, the US and China, what are some of the things that grab your attention?
NIRUPAMA RAO: Yes, the sands around us are shifting geo-politically and economically, including in our own region. India lives in a difficult neighbourhood and many of the alignments of the past have had to be redefined, reordered and recast in many ways, and that is where the India-US relationship comes in. If you look at the developments in the relationship over the past 17 years, you see the change in the landscape. There has been progress and that is what redefines this relationship.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: So what are the three things that have changed across the global landscape since you were ambassador?
RAO: I would say China, China and China.
RICHARD VERMA: Yes, it is an interesting time and I think we all are trying to understand what’s really happening. I can mention a few things. First would be the intersection of technology and economics and the great advancements in the field.
We have these really great innovations, but we should also talk about its impact on our workforce.
The role of the United States in the world is certainly shifting. I think we are still the superpower in the world because of the size of our economy, the size of our military. Now whether we choose to use that influence like we did in the past, I think that is an open question. We have to see how that story plays out. There is a need to focus on job creation, that’s what the masses are talking about. They are speaking of having inclusive economics.
These stories are not just American stories or Indian stories, these are global trends. In our report (United States and India: Forging an Indispensable Democratic Partnership prepared by the US think tank Center for American Progress) we try and talk about how the US-India relationship can be used to empower people and tap into their dreams and aspirations.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: You didn’t mention China.
VERMA: In many ways, the US and India position towards China has many remarkable similarities. Neither of us are looking for a conflict with China. Both of us want China to play by the rules, by the post-World War II order. We have been clear about it and the Indian government too has been clear about its position. In the past five years, the US and Indian governments have come together with a unified view of the Indo-Pacific region and understand the importance of the law of the sea, economic growth for all people, and of resolving disputes peacefully.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: Is China playing by the rules?
RAO: That’s the destination we would like to get to. I don’t think we are there yet. At the moment what we see is a China with a greatly enhanced military, defence and economic capabilities, which it can deploy far beyond its shores. You can see that manifest in our neighbourhood — all around the Indian Ocean — and that is the hard reality we have to confront.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: Are you concerned?
RAO: Well obviously (there is concern), when it involves our neighbourhood and our interests. We have permanent interests in our neighbourhoods. There will obviously be contradictions, and certainly we see that, and we have to understand how to deal with this transformation. This is where we need dialogue, relationships, cooperation and engagement with like-minded, democratic countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and some of our ASEAN neighbours. We have to be looking far beyond our traditional frames of reference. .
JYOTI MALHOTRA: Has India put all its eggs into the American basket?
VERMA: No, I don’t think that is the case at all. Both Washington and New Delhi need to focus on each other more. Indian prime ministers have referred to us as natural allies, President Barack Obama called us best partners, President Donald Trump said we were indispensable partners… Whatever framing you want to put on it, we need to live up to those aspirations not just for our own people but for global peace, prosperity and security.
RAO: What is the Indo-Pacific region meant to be? We need to have a traffic of ideas. We have to ensure security, prevent proliferation and enable peaceful settlement of disputes. We need codes of conduct. And, I think, most countries in the region have agreed that we need such a framework; we don’t have it in place as yet. And how do we bring in the Chinese? They are not part of this exercise at the moment. How do we get them to play by the rules of the game?
JYOTI MALHOTRA: On January 1, President Trump criticised Pakistan for its ‘lies and deceit’ and for providing ‘safe havens to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan’. Do you think that the US has the capacity to actually persuade or pressure Pakistan to get rid of those safe havens?
VERMA: This has been a concern for all administrations — Republicans and Democrats — and obviously a top concern of mine. The message has been delivered clearly over successive years. Both relationships are important (with India and Pakistan). I don’t think anyone wants to see a complete falling out between the US and Pakistan. At the same time, a clear message has to be conveyed (to Pakistan) about the consequences of continuing to have these safe havens.
I think we have to get to a place where we have a functioning, democratic and peaceful neighbour. And I know that is what the Indian aspirations are. It’s a very, very complicated situation where we can’t forget that there are ordinary people on each side of the debate who want peace.
RAKESH SINHA: We have seen a very guarded response from India to the Rohingya crisis. Should it have been different?
RAO: I have not been following this at the policy end, but I know that officials, when asked about it in the media, have said that there is no change on our refugee policy. We (India) have been known to welcome refugees from across the world, especially those who have been victims of violence and are in need of asylum. We did it with the Tibetans about 50 years ago, and also with the Afghans. We have people from all over the world.
When you see pictures of Rohingya children and mothers flashed across screens, you can’t close your doors on them. But if there are cases where you find instances of terror involvement, you have to take a firm line. Whether that should apply to the community as whole, that’s the question and that’s where the challenge lies for India. COOMI KAPOOR: Ambassador Verma, was your Indian ethnicity an advantage when you were serving in New Delhi?
VERMA: I remember someone in the US asking me this question when I was coming here. I said you should send somebody who can actually do the job. That is most important. If you go because you simply connect to the country ethnically, that’s not going to work.
COOMI KAPOOR: Ambassador Rao, you have served as the foreign secretary. Did you feel there was any gender discrimination in the service?
RAO: Women have never had it easy, and the foreign service is no exception to that. I joined the foreign service about two-and-a-half decades after it was started and so I didn’t have to go through the crucible of experience that women officers before me had to go through.
When I joined the foreign service, it was unthinkable for a woman to head a territorial division like, say, China or Pakistan, or be ambassador in a difficult neighbouring country. But that changed by the time I became senior enough. So it is difficult for me to answer that question. But the only instance where I was sort of exposed (to discrimination) was when I asked to go to Pakistan as a junior officer and was told that women officers would find it very difficult to serve in Islamabad if they go alone, without family.
I think I get the most satisfaction today when I see junior women officers and women who are aspiring to join the foreign service come up to me and say that they have learnt from my life story.
RAVISH TIWARI: Is it time for India to rethink its relationship with Russia? Is India junking its old and trusted relationship with the country? Also, how is the US watching India-Russia negotiations?
RAO: I don’t think India is in the habit of junking old friends. Russia has been a friend and has been by our side during very difficult times. I don’t think that is easily forgotten. When you think of Russia’s global profile today and the kind of controversies that it has been associated with… the world, and especially in the US, people are talking about it.
When it comes to diplomacy and politics, it is not a question of friends, enemies and frenemies. It is about how you deal with a particular situation. Tomorrow, if the US sanctions against Russia impact our day-to-day relationship with Russia — it’s a big defence partner — we will come under pressure because we have a good relationship with the US today. How then are we going to handle the Russia question? I think that is what we need to put our minds to.
It is not a question of abandoning friends, or making new ones. Russia is a country with which we have had a longstanding, time-tested relationship, and I don’t think we will be able to write it off just like that. Obviously, the relationship has become diluted over the years, there is no doubt about it. But there are certain aspects of it which are still important for us.
VERMA: We understand the historical relationship that India and Russia have. We also understand that there have been very troubling developments in Russia — the Russian conduct in the international system, as it relates to Ukraine, as it relates to other countries in the region. The treatment of journalists, and the corruption that takes place within Russia. Add to that the interference in the US elections, which I don’t think is a matter of opinion but a matter of fact. All this leads to a very significant downturn with Russia. There is no question about it.
We will have to weather this particular storm. But at the same time, the relationship is very important to us because we have to work together with Russia on cooperation issues and counterterrorism. We are not on the same page but we have to get through some of these difficult periods.
We are certainly in one. The signs are not great and the indicators aren’t pointing in a great direction.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: The civil nuclear deal was one of the signature initiatives between India and the US, and both of you played a role in different ways in it. What do you think can be the next signature initiative that can take the relationship forward?
VERMA: I think there are some very big and exciting things on the horizon between our two countries, particularly in defence cooperation and defence co-development. There are big-ticket items which would be very exciting, whether it is building an aircraft carrier or a new ground combat vehicle. There is a lot happening in the strategic space, and a lot more could happen in the economic space as well.
On the clean energy front, I think we can really support each other on (developing) renewables. But I don’t know if we will have that kind of (a situation) where the governments, legislatures and parliaments come together, the way it happened during the civil nuclear arrangement. I could be wrong, but I don’t think we need it. That is my view.
RAO: I think that the India-US relationship is at a very good place, and the nuclear deal boosted the relationship to a certain atmospheric level, and it has been maintained. We don’t really need another epiphany to suggest that something more can be done because the defence partnership is in itself a manifestation of how far we have come in this relationship. One of the recommendations we made in our report was to have an umbrella defence implementation agreement which would permit the transfer of technology and information sharing.
ARUN PRASHANTH SUBRAMANIAN: Do you think the India- US relationship has been largely insulated from US domestic politics — the nature of the new White House, the very divisive political debate on Capitol Hill, the coarsening of the debate on, say, immigration. How do you see that, as career diplomats? Also, most leaders today, including President Trump and the Indian Prime Minister, are very communicative on social media. Is it largely style or does it affect the larger substance of foreign policymaking?
RAO: I have never felt that foreign policy can be insulated from what happens domestically, and that applies to the India-US relationship as well. When you see the kind of groundswell of opinion being expressed about jobs and certain xenophobic trends about foreigners coming in and eating your lunch, obviously that is going to affect the larger climate, and developments on the bilateral front between the two countries. You can’t insulate yourself from that.
When it comes to India-US relations, it has been all sweet and light as far as what leaders are saying on social media is concerned. You have never had Trump say anything on social media which is jarring or negative about India. Our Prime Minister too has said the right things about the relationship. You’ve had very positive and affirmative approaches to India in the US Congress over the years. But with all that is happening, the debate about jobs and visas, will fatigue set in? You need to look at that.
VERMA: I do worry about the deep divisions in our country, there is no question about it. I sort of started working at Capitol Hill when I was 18 years old. I love American politics and what it has done to serve the people, and the model it has served for people around the world. That is the great hallmark of our system. But there is something different about our current environment, which is a deeply divided system and where people can’t seem to find the ‘middle’. It’s not just domestic, but it does impact us internationally as well.
A number of retired military professionals and diplomats had come out and said that the deep polarisation in the United States is something that we have to think about. How (such a climate) impacts our responsibility to carry out our global responsibilities is the first thing I would like to say.
The other thing that I am concerned about is redefinition of what it means to be American. I’ve not only worked in Capitol Hill but also served in the US military. I remember my mother, with her proud Indian roots, studying very diligently to get her US citizenship and coming home and proudly displaying the American flag. I was very proud of her. She was a special needs teacher, paid her taxes, wore Indian clothes and spoke with an accent. She was very American. If we lose that concept of what it means to be American I think that would be a great disservice to the spirit of our country. I think for those of us who really care about these issues, (we) must speak up and have a voice, and I certainly intend to do that.
(On social media) I guess we pay a little bit too much attention to social media. I think we have talented career professionals in our system, in the defence department, state department, and agencies of government who work hard towards this relationship each day, regardless of which political party controls that system. I think that’s where most of the work
actually gets done.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Do you think the Indian establishment has failed to check the growing influence of China in the neighbourhood?
RAO: Obviously it is a concern for any Indian specialist or policymaker, but we also have ties with our neighbourhood just by the virtue of our position in this part of the world. Whether it is traditional linkages, whether it is linkages of communication, trade, business… I think we need to understand that there is a need to leverage (the ties) a little more effectively.
I know China is at a stage of development where its resources are at its command; maybe much more than what we are able to deploy at the moment. But we have a certain weight (in the region). I think how we deploy smart diplomacy is key — not only in response to what China is doing but in a way that capitalises on our innate strengths vis-à-vis our neighbours.
RAKESH SINHA: Should India have voted differently on Jerusalem?
RAO: India had its reasons to take that position. We have had a time honoured approach on Palestine, on the travails of the Palestinian people. (India’s vote in the UN General Assembly for a resolution that criticised the US for recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel) in no way should be seen as detracting from the strategic and economic content of the relationship and understanding that we are developing with Israel. And as I said earlier, we don’t junk friends.