Intro: PM Narendra Modi's recent state visit to the United States has paved the way for significant advancements in the economic and diplomatic relations between the two nations. The multiple agreements signed, particularly in the areas of defence, technology, and microchips, have fostered a growing strategic convergence and trust between India and the US. Speaking exclusively to Indiastat, former diplomat, Ashok Sajjanhar delves into the implications of these agreements, the challenges India faces, the shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region, and the prospects for deeper cooperation in countering security threats and advancing scientific collaboration. For these and more insights, read the in-depth interaction that was held by Senior Journalist Mahima Sharma only at Socio-economic Voices.....
MS: How do the multiple agreements announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's state visit, particularly in defence, technology, and microchips, contribute to strengthening economic and diplomatic ties between the US and India?
Ashok Sajjanhar: PM Modi's recent visit to the US signifies the growing strategic convergence between the two countries and also the building of trust towards better bilateral ties. We have more than 60 dialogue mechanisms spread across various areas and very wide initiatives ranging from education, cyber security, green energy and health to agriculture, high technology, space and telecom to now even the defence technology deal that has recently been signed. So the spectrum of the bilateral ties between India and the US has been very vast and has grown much bigger with this recent visit. It is significant that the US is the biggest trade partner of India with $192 billion in bilateral trade every year. And the US is one of the few countries with which India has a positive balance of trade. On account of the increasing trust, it has decided to share its high-end defence technology with India this time. A huge move, which has never happened earlier. So whether it is the new deal for defence tech or for semiconductor chips, the visit clearly signifies the fact that mutual trust between the two nations has grown immensely. And this will overall give a desired boost to India’s Atmnirbhar Abhiyaan and will further allow the exchange of technology and more resources between the two nations.
MS: Chinese State media has argued that India is trying to play both sides in the power game, while the US is furthering a broader strategy to contain Beijing. What kind of threats must India be prepared for and what kind of defence mechanism will be needed to thwart the same? Please deeply analyse this angle.
Ashok Sajjanhar: The Chinese media has its own perception of India. But the fact of the matter is that India engages with multiple nations, it has bilateral relations with so many countries - it has relations with the US, Russia, Europe, Africa, West Asia, the ASEAN, Australia and Japan. Just after the Indo-US meeting, PM Modi had a call with President Putin, and he briefed him about his visit to the US. So this is India’s way of keeping things transparent and retaining trust with its partners. In short, India has no exclusive relationships with any particular nation, it has an interest in global relationships and well-being. Even with China, India has a significant trade relationship, and we all are aware of the same. So the nations must understand that India aims at trust and friendly relations and collaborations, and strengthening of the same with multiple partners.
Now coming to the threat angle, here I focus only on the security threats that India faces from China and Pakistan. Let’s focus on this because these are significant threats. And to deal with them, India has to consistently work to boost its economy; India is already doing so, but more efforts are needed in this direction. We need to improve our infrastructure at the borders. To thwart the threat India is aiming to be Atmanirbhar in its defence sector and collaborating with nations like the US for exchange of technology - we are already doing it, so as to better secure our borders. We are also doing external balancing by strengthening our relations with the US, Japan, Australia, ROK, the Philippines and others like the Quad, IPEF etc. We are cutting down on our dependence on China by trying to bring down our imports from that country. India has even shut down certain websites and apps from China, We are not a part of the Belt and Road Initiative. So we have become selective towards China, sensing the border threats intensifying.
In addition, we have other threats like terrorism, climate change, future pandemics and more. But India is consistently working towards strengthening its preparedness in these arenas also. India is progressing at a good pace to enhance its security, stability and prosperity.
MS: Considering the interplay between geopolitical interests and strategic partnerships, how can India and the US navigate shared challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific region, while ensuring a balance between regional stability, engagement with other stakeholders, and respect for the sovereignty and interests of all nations?
Ashok Sajjanhar: As we have already learnt that China is the biggest threat not only to the US and India but also to the region and the world. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled against the Chinese 9-dash line in the South China Sea and upheld the position of the Philippines that the provisions of UNCLOS 82 need to be respected. A joint statement issued after talks between Enrique A. Manalo, the visiting Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, and his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar on 29th June 2023 - "underlined the need for peaceful settlement of disputes and for adherence to international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea in this regard." So India has maintained time and again that as far as the South China Sea is concerned, there should be freedom of navigation and overflights, a rule of law. The recent US visit and the first of the first time deals signed are a recognition of the trust that India has built. And thus, the US is only further expected to boost India’s efforts for the mutual benefit of the two nations and the global economy, in which both are major players.
MS: In light of evolving geopolitical dynamics, how can India and the US forge deeper cooperation in countering common security threats, such as terrorism, cyber warfare, and proliferation, while also addressing emerging challenges in domains like cyberspace, outer space, and information warfare?
Ashok Sajjanhar: There are two ways in which India is collaborating with other nations. One is the bilateral way like the Indo-US visit which recently happened, where a lot of agreements were made- some of which were the first time ones. The second is multilateral collaborations, which have begun for instance in the space exploration sector, the Artemis Accord and more - India and US are multilaterally collaborating. So the future of the two nation’s better economic ties would be multilateral collaborations which would also help them in various other ways, thereby pooling multiple resources from various nations towards better ties and development. This is the only way ahead to counter the threats of cyberspace breaches, outer space issues, and high chances of information warfare.
MS: With the introduction of in-country renewable H-1B visas. How can these initiatives be further strengthened and expanded to ensure long-term opportunities for skill exchange, talent retention, and fostering a vibrant Indo-US intellectual ecosystem?
Ashok Sajjanhar: A very good move, a very strong move. The easing of H1-B visa renewal for the skilled workforce of India and the opening of the 5th US consulate in India at Bangalore (Apart from the existing Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad Consulates) is going to be a great relief for all the ever-increasing number of US aspirants from India.
But what is required is to make the VISA available to students as well; and what’s required is making the process easier and smoother for them, so that a plethora of opportunities open up. Opening new consulates in India will facilitate the Indo-US movement of more skilled people in a very streamlined manner. Also, let me assert that QUAD fellowships were announced two years back. And these also need to be taken forward for better strengthening of intellectual ties between the two nations. The need of the hour is to encourage more students going to study in the US and more students coming from the US to India for higher studies - a mix of intellect and cultural exchange is needed towards better skill exchange, and talent retention and to foster a more vibrant Indo-US intellectual ecosystem. Also, I would like to assert that the spouses of the professionals going to the US from India, must be allowed to work there. These spouses have a very sound educational background and the US must tap that talent pool for a better intellectual pool. These spouses can be an asset to the US, plus also foster better ties with India.
MS: Coming back to discussing the agreements signed, the joint manufacturing agreement between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the production of F414 engines for the Tejas light-combat aircraft signifies a deeper defence and technology-sharing collaboration. How do you assess the long-term implications of this agreement on the Indo-US defence partnership?
Ashok Sajjanhar: This agreement will help in creating a high-tech defence ecosystem in India. This will be highly beneficial to India in terms of adopting, adapting and assimilation of high technology that it was never exposed to earlier. This deal will boost India’s Atmanirbhar Defence Ecosystem Plans and create more jobs as well. The joint production, the co-development, the co-designing of various defence platforms - can you imagine the kind of exposure Indian defence engineers and tech experts will be going through? It is a great defence as well as an economic boost to the defence sector in India. And when the Indian economy gets a boost, the US will automatically benefit from the same. The US never shared its defence technology with India earlier, but this time it did! And this deal is ample proof of the growing trust between the two nations; much greater trust rather, which will further bolster the Indo-US ties.
MS: The purchase of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones and the reported deal worth over $3 billion with General Atomics showcases a significant development in defence cooperation. How do you anticipate this deal influencing regional security dynamics and enhancing the military capabilities of India? And how could Russia and China read into this deal?
Ashok Sajjanhar: As I have already mentioned earlier, the US earlier never agreed to share its defence technology or anything related to it with anyone. But it has done so with India, showcasing how strong the trust between the two nations has built up in time. And this purchase of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones was always needed by all three defence forces of India. So the deal will boost its defence preparedness to a large extent, especially to secure its land borders as well as its maritime domain in a stronger manner.
As far as Russia is concerned, it is quite aware of our diversification of defence purchases and that we have been doing that to limit our dependence on one single source of supply. Russia is aware of it all and the fact that our deals with a second or third party whether it is arms or technology, nothing will be used against Russia. So they are aware that Indian acquisitions do not pose a threat to them.
In the case of China, they would surely be anxious, that now India will be better prepared to counter its threat on the borders or in the Indian Ocean. So the deal has gone as a very strong message to India’s neighbours towards the nation preparing better to ensure and protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty.
MS: The signing of the Artemis Accords and the partnership between ISRO and NASA for a joint mission to the International Space Station present opportunities for enhanced collaboration in planetary exploration and research. How do you envision these developments fostering greater scientific cooperation and space exploration advancements between the two countries?
Ashok Sajjanhar: As of June 29, 2023, twenty-seven countries and one territory have signed the accords, including ten in Europe, eight in Asia, three in North America, three in South America, two in Oceania and two in Africa. But there are very few developing nations that are a part of this accord, and India is one of them. Because the US recognises the fact that India has a huge strength in the arena of space explorations, especially peaceful space explorations. The US knows that India is a peace-loving nation and it will ensure that the space exploration it undertakes via the Artemis Accords will be done in a very transparent and peaceful manner. The US and other nations part of the Accords are well aware that India will not use the resources to use it for warfare. So this is a win-win situation for all the 27 nations who are a part of this agreement.
MS: Prime Minister Modi's visit to the United States highlighted the significant strides India is making in semiconductor manufacturing, which is considered a new beginning after 40 years. How do you anticipate the establishment and growth of the semiconductor industry in India will impact the country's economy in both the short and long term? And what opportunities and challenges do you foresee in this Sector?
Ashok Sajjanhar: As I have already mentioned earlier that whether it is the defence technology exchange or the semiconductor deal, all are a part of the deeper industrial-defence ties between India and the US. It is part of the same because the semiconductors will boost India’s defence preparedness as well and not just its IT and education sectors. So, both nations are in a win-win situation, as India will now become a bigger player in the global supply chains when its technological resources become better. India is already home to intellectuals, and now with a technological boost, it can significantly reduce its dependence on China for semi-conductors technology. The same will boost its Atmanirbhar initiative in the related sectors. The Indo-US trust factor has played a great role here too. Yes, China may create obstacles in future, but since many major players are coming to invest in India, this anxiety about China is not a matter to worry about. Because the US-headquartered Micron has come forward to invest $825 million in India. Also, an investment of $400 million by the US semiconductor company, 'Applied Materials' over the next four years in starting an Engineering Centre in Bangalore is expected to bring the much-required impetus to the country’s semiconductor dreams.
The US would not want its semiconductor chip technology to go to China at all. Thus, India is bound to be a big beneficiary and is slated to become a bigger player in this sector as the Indo-US stronger trust factor comes as a major player during this deal, thereby boosting the bilateral ties.
MS: Looking ahead, what other key areas or issues do you believe should be prioritized in the Indo-US partnership to ensure sustained growth, mutual benefits, and a shared vision for the future?
Ashok Sajjanhar: More than 200,000 Indian students study in the US (As per year 2022 data: 211,930 Indian students were recorded in the United States). There is a bigger role that these students can play in the US than just studying there; the US must tap their potential because they are already coming with a great education level for higher studies in the US. They can be a great contributor to the US economy.
Secondly, the more than 4.8 million strong Indian diaspora in the US is a big asset not just for India but also for the US. They are rich in various aspects like culture, knowledge, resources, and more. And enhancing their roles in various aspects beyond their regular jobs or businesses will also give a much-desired impetus and vibrant boost to not just the US economy but also the multilateral ties across various nations that are connected to these people for business. Thus, whenever PM Modi goes on a visit to the US, or any other nation, he has always reached out to the Indian diaspora in that nation. Because he knows the strength it has. So both India and US must tap into the added potential and continuously leverage the same from the Indian Diaspora for higher goals.
About Ashok Sajjanhar
Former Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, and has worked in diplomatic positions in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok. He negotiated for India in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations, for India-EU, India-ASEAN and the India-Thailand Free Trade Agreement. He has worked as the head of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony. He is currently the President of the Institute of Global Studies in New Delhi. Amb. Sajjanhar writes and speaks on issues relating to international relations and Indian foreign policy.
About the Interviewer
Mahima Sharma is a Senior Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in the allied media. In her span of work she has been associated with CNN-News18, ANI - Asian News International (A collaboration with Reuters), Voice of India, Hindustan Times and various other top media brands of their times. In recent times, she has diversified her work as a Digital Media Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist as well. Since March 2022, she is also an Entrepreneurship Education Mentor at Women Will - An Entrepreneurship Program by Google in Collaboration with SHEROES. Mahima can be reached at email@example.com
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this interview are the personal opinions of the interviewed protagonist. The facts & statistics, the work profile details of the protagonist and the opinions appearing in the answers do not reflect the views of Indiastat or the Journalist. Indiastat or the Journalist do not hold any responsibility or liability for the same.
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