Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
Sometime in 1995, an overnight flight to London carried a group of bright young things from the USA – newly minted Rhodes Scholars traveling to Oxford University to begin their graduate studies. One of them, Eric Garcetti, armed with a BA in Political Science and Urban Planning along with an MA in International affairs, both from Columbia University in NYC, attempted to strike up a conversation with a fellow student Amy Wakeland. She was “great and pretty” as he remembered in a recount in The Los Angeles Times two decades later. Since that meeting, Eric and Amy, married since 2009, acquired degrees from Oxford and The London School of Economics between them, a home full with a daughter and foster children. Eric logged eight years as Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, among many other accomplishments. “None of this would be possible without Amy Wakeland”, as Mayor Garcetti keeps reminding us.
His next assignment as the Ambassador of the United States to India will start with another long flight, and might be as transformative.
Last administration saw a mixed bag of goodies for the bi-lateral relationship. India signed long-standing defense agreements with Washington and ramped up defense purchases from the US to more than $20 billion cumulative by 2020. India declined to join the One Belt One Road initiative of China, thereby starting a global process that is increasingly cascading to, and bolstering of, other nations’ visible ire against China’s vice grip. India was instrumental in furthering the cause of the freedom of navigation in Indo-Pacific waters with active participation the Quad – an alliance of the US, Australia, Japan and India. Trump administration’s recently declassified Indo-Pacific strategic framework reveals that it sought to make America “India’s preferred partner on security issues,” to encourage India to “act as a counterbalance to China,” and to expand New Delhi’s “economic, defense and diplomatic cooperation with other U.S. allies and partners in the region.” Commendable goals.
There were setbacks too. In 2019 the U.S. scrapped duty-free access for India under the Generalized System of Preferences. Despite multiple rounds of negotiations, a much-awaited trade deal failed to materialize. At the same time, India has taken a protectionist turn, raising tariffs on dozens of goods and quitting negotiations to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement.
Overall, great progress on strategic and defense alliances, while trade deliberations were marred by posturing.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris arrived in the scene with new promises and lingering challenges. Mr. Biden is reported to have ancestral connection to Mumbai, and has been a long-standing friend of India in the US Congress. As Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was instrumental in passing the US-India Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement during 2007-8. As a catalyst in George W. Bush’s reset of relationship with India, Senator Biden announced his dream that by “2020 the two closest nations in the world will be India and United States.” VP Harris does come with an added set of expectations by virtue of her ancestry. US corporates have always been salivating at the promise of 300 million middle-class consumers with a rule of law, especially when it comes to IP.
Let’s first start by saying we have a long way to go, but we are on the right track.
The Biden administration engaged in a flurry of activity around U.S.-India relations right off the bat. Biden and Modi have spoken twice on the phone. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and climate envoy John Kerry both visited India in the first 100 days. The two pillars of India’s external affairs machinery, Foreign Minister Jaishankar and NSA Doval spoke with U.S. peers repeatedly. Biden Administration has over 50 Indian Americans in senior positions, including the new head of South Asia desk Sumona Guha, and an Indian American VP; it is safe to presume that Indian sensibilities are well represented. In recent weeks the US diverted its own order for vaccine raw materials to India and sent over USD 100 MM in medical oxygen, ventilators, pharmaceuticals, PPE, and supplies to help India push back against the pandemic. At the Earth Day Leaders’ Climate Summit hosted by Biden, Modi announced a “India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030.” It brings the climate diplomacy to the forefront of U.S.-India discussions, and commits both countries to collaborate on shared targets.
There are immediate thorns, not counting unease about stalled negotiations over a trade pact. India’s Digital Services Tax (DST) has earned rebuke from the US Trade Representative, whose January 2021 report found that “India’s DST is discriminatory, unreasonable, and burdens or restricts US commerce, and thus, is actionable under Section 301” of retaliatory, and punitive, taxation. In May USTR Tai announced that she intends to issue a list of imports subject to 25% ad-valorem tariffs by mid-June, though none materialized. India is slated to take delivery of S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems from Russia later this year, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin raised the matter with his counterpart during India visit, further raising fear that US might impose sanctions on India, just like it did to Turkey late last year.
As Ambassador Garcetti flies the long haul, he might want to read “Has China Won?” by Kishore Madhubani, a Singaporean diplomat and scholar who was once President of the UN Security Council. Madhubani is a China apologist, but he poses a plausible hypothesis the winner of this ensuing civilizational struggle will be determined by differentiated self-preservation capacity built over hundreds and even thousands of years. Governance structures and values with respect to individual freedoms and relative supremacy of social and political stability have been tested in China through numerous murderous regimes, brutal foreign occupations, disastrous domestic policies that starved millions, uprisings and banal proclamations that cost equally as many lives. This was true no matter who was at the helm, and continues to be so. Still China persevered. In its most recent incarnation China elevated over half a billion people from extreme poverty and emerged as an alternative to a single-superpower doctrine. None of that needed nuisances like democracy, right to free speech, self-determination, independent judiciary and a functioning opposition. Wow!!!
To counter, US needs a successful ally who is as rooted in democratic values. That, my friend, is India.
Much of Garcetti’s time will be spent – I suppose – in everyday negotiations. I recommend the two countries reaching a truce – US should drop threat of a sanction for S-400, an integral part of India’s defense against China. In response, India should drop DST. The biggest challenge – and opportunity – is to bring up the relationship to a level that together can counter Wolf Warriors leaping out of the Dragon’s breath of fire. One way to do that is to create an “Indo Pacific Treaty Council” (“IPTO”) modeled on NATO, with an equivalent of Article 5. Current Quad members can coopt other willing democracies in the region immediately – Singapore, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka and Taiwan come to mind – and many more subsequently. This will take time, but I am confident US will find no more willing partner than India of today.
Garcetti must not underestimate challenges to his mandate either. Voices on both sides call for weakening, not strengthening, of the bond. Reasonable people on both sides have legitimate concerns, but we have to remind ourselves that as well-functioning democracies, both sides have historically dealt with internal issues with aplomb. Judiciary is slow, at times painfully, but the Lady is reasonably even-handed. Above all, institutions on both sides are adept at course correction. Garcetti’s mandate is not to be a savior, not that I have any reason to doubt he appreciates as much.
I admit I am biased. I am proud to be both an Indian and an American; nothing I would want more in geopolitical chess than to see a worthy, and able, the partnership between the oldest democracy and the largest democracy. As a coalition builder of substance, Ambassador-Designate Garcetti is about to embark on an assignment that might be the most impactful, and most challenging, one yet.
Sleep well on the flight this time Mr. Garcetti and Mrs. Wakeland as you’re about to start afresh in a foreign land, again. New Delhi will not be cooler than Los Angeles at this time of the year, but you will find Roosevelt House a whole lot more forgiving than Getty House. Wish only the best.
[Photo courtesy: Twitter]