2024 is year of consolidation, focus & results in India-US ties: Richard R Verma | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

2024 is year of consolidation, focus & results in India-US ties: Richard R Verma

Feb 28, 2024 08:39 PM IST

Richard R Verma, a former US ambassador to India, is the Deputy Secretary of State (management and resources), the highest rank attained by any Indian-American

Richard R Verma is a familiar figure in Delhi. A former US ambassador to India during the second Barack Obama presidency, Verma is now the Deputy Secretary of State (management and resources), the highest rank attained by any Indian-American in America’s diplomatic arm.

Richard R Verma, Deputy Secretary of State (management and resources) . (X)
Richard R Verma, Deputy Secretary of State (management and resources) . (X)

Verma was a top Democratic staffer in the US Congress when Joe Biden was the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s and worked in the private sector in Mastercard and The Asian Group after his ambassadorial stint.

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After returning from his first trip to South Asia as deputy secretary, Verma spoke to HT in Washington DC about his visit, the evolution of India-US relations, divergences and institutional issues, and the global geopolitical climate. Edited excerpts:

You left the US administration in 2017 after serving as the ambassador to India, and returned to the Joe Biden administration last year and just had your first visit to South Asia. What’s changed and what’s not changed in these six to seven years?

From a global perspective, a lot has changed. I have been in this job for a year now, and I have been all over the world. I have travelled to probably 31 countries and 37 embassies and consulates. It’s a challenging time in the world with the war in Ukraine, the war in the Middle East, and the broader set of challenges we are facing in our competition with China. The global landscape, in many ways, has gotten very challenging, complicated, and quite fragmented. There is a lot of stress on the international system and on international architecture and on international institutions. That’s the challenging, I would say, somewhat negative view of the world.

But I came away from my trip to South Asia actually quite inspired and quite encouraged because this bilateral relationship between the US and India has only gotten stronger and more advanced and more involved and more in-depth. And there are areas of cooperation, I think of iCET for example, on critical and emerging technologies that we kind of talked around before. But we are now deeply engaged in a pathway of cooperation that we really didn’t have because in a way the technology didn’t exist.

So were we talking about quantum computing in 2016 and 2017? Not really. Were we talking about artificial intelligence? Yes, but not in the way it impacts policy. Were we talking about protecting our critical mineral supply chains in the way we do today? No. Did we have electric vehicles and the need to preserve the materials that go into those batteries the way we do today? No.

So a lot has changed. But it’s only deepened the area of cooperation between these two big countries that can really, if they come together, shape the course of world events. They can shape the course of our democratic progress together. So I came away super energised about the pace, the scale, and the scope of our cooperation.

In the intervening years, you did a PhD. And while arguing for deeper India-US ties, your fundamental argument was that the relationship has underperformed, there is operational distance, the US doesn’t consider India among its closest partners let alone allies, that the relationship is fragile and lacks resilience, that shocks are hard for the relationship to absorb, and that differences in one sphere often feed into another sphere. Now I do recognise that you wrote that as a private citizen and now you represent the US government. But given that backdrop, have the two countries really overcome the hesitations of history?

What I was really talking about was a lost generation of cooperation. I was talking about the 1963 to 2000 period — and that’s a fairly big chunk of time — where we didn’t have deep ties. It was only in the year 2000 where we started this kind of rebirth and re-emergence and then that took time to develop. And so yes, of course, the relationship in the year 2000 or 2005 or even 2010 was still young, fragile. If you had a disagreement in one area, it kind of froze our progress in other areas. I don’t see that today.

I think about our progress at the WTO, a place where we used to be stuck. I was very happy to talk to both our US Trade Representative and talk to the Indian minister of commerce, who have resolved six major trade disputes in the last couple of years. We have more discussions to continue. But I see a different tone that has been attached to it, a more bilateral tone where we approach each other as equals and we can actually see each other’s points of view. We might still disagree, but we can continue to have progress in other areas.

The other takeaway from my academic research is the need to continue to build personal relationships, government relationships, business-to-business, all kinds of ties. Because in this era of very complicated issues, you need this web and this network of actors holding the relationship together through what can be often turbulent periods. And I think we have seen that.

So I am actually again quite encouraged. I don’t think what I wrote is inconsistent. It was a reflection on how to assess relationships that have emerged from this historical period of distance and now what do we do to actually translate it into action? And I think we are seeing the action. So $20 billion in bilateral trade to $200 billion in bilateral trade; a few thousand students studying here to 270,000 students; a couple of hundred thousand visas issued to a million visas issued to Indian nationals travelling to the US; zero defence exercises to the most defence exercises with any other country; zero defence trade to co-production and co-development.

What I don’t want this to be is just rhetorical where people talk about how we are doing things. I think people ought to hold leaders on both sides for actual progress. And I can show people actual progress. Now, the government cannot take credit for all of that progress. I think we can open the doors, and we can set the policy, but I give the vast majority of the credit to the people who actually do the research, do the innovation, take the risk, make the difficult journey, and do that in the hopes of solving some complicated problem of making a better life. And millions of people have done that on both sides.

You have seen the Narendra Modi government from 2014, in Delhi as ambassador, from the private sector, and now in government. What has been the easiest thing to work with the Modi government on that has been a pleasant surprise maybe, and what has been the toughest thing to work with it on?

Look, the great thing about our two systems is we have these big, noisy democracies. We are not going to agree on everything. But I have had incredible progress and experience in working with the Indian government on our issues related to defence cooperation, for example, to go and witness those military exercises from Alaska to the state of Washington to India to the Indian Ocean. You see the great promise between our two militaries. There was a day even 10, 11 years ago when we couldn’t use the word interoperability because that would send everybody kind of panicked about these two militaries couldn’t possibly ever cooperate together. But the fact is we share information together, we train together, and we are preparing in the event of a humanitarian crisis or other crises. We made enormous progress there.

On climate change and clean energy, I give this example of the Paris Climate Agreement and the incredible symbol that sent to the world about what happens when these two countries can come together. I look at the renewable commitments that we both made, both super ambitious. We are both a little behind where we want to be. It will take our work together. It will take technology and innovation to help us meet those targets. I look at our education linkages.

Do we agree on every possible area? Of course not. And that’s why we sit down at the table and develop these relationships and try to sort out those issues. But I wouldn’t say we have grades in this area and are terrible in this area. We pursue objectives. These are, in many cases, overlapping objectives, especially when it comes to the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region. And on that, we have had great convergence and great success.

One of the things that you mentioned in your academic work is India and the US have seen these periods of proximity followed by periods of distance. And then you talk about the historical legacy, 1971 for instance. Do you sense in India that there is a fundamental shift today where it is both willing to deepen ties with the US and politically own the US relationship with pride? Or do you still see the “strategic autonomy” discourse holding India back from owning the US relationship?

I think there is great pride in Washington and New Delhi on the progress we have made. And I see that when the two leaders meet, when the two heads of state meet, I see it when our secretary of state and the foreign minister meet. I have seen it in the recent meetings I had. So I don’t see anyone trying to hold back.

I also see an India that prides itself on independence and on reshaping international institutions and having a greater seat at the table. And look, that comes with greater sets of responsibilities.

And I think you would hopefully agree that the US has been strongly supportive of India’s aims in reshaping that international architecture and having a bigger say and having a bigger role in not only the Indo-Pacific but globally. So we would welcome that and perhaps that is why these last eight or nine or 10 years, we have really come into some degree of greater alignment. We still have friction points based on some of our historical relationships. But that doesn’t overshadow, I think, the gains that have been made.

You were there in Delhi when Chinese assertiveness at the border began. Doklam happened in 2017. And then we saw, in 2020, the Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh. Two questions. One, were you surprised? And two, in the backdrop of the Indian defence secretary saying he hopes to see the US stand with India in this case, is the US standing with India?

The US-India relationship stands on its own. And it stands on its own to send a very strong signal about the power of democracy, about the free and open Indo-Pacific, about the rules-based order, about inclusive societies where minority rights are protected. These are the kinds of principles and ideas that we stand for and that we will uphold. So this isn’t about any third country. When I think about this relationship, I think about it in bilateral terms, and I think about then what we can do to strengthen international architecture.

Are there forces that are trying to push back and trying to upend that rules-based order? Absolutely. Whether that’s countries or individuals or movements, we have to stand up against those. And each of us will take our own path that I think fits what’s right for our people and for our societies. I would just leave it at that.

Let me challenge you a little bit on that. I understand that the relationship has a broad base. But why is there a public reluctance to acknowledge what is a clear privately shared concern?

Well, we have publicly shared our concern about those countries and those forces that play by a different set of rules, that are frankly not living up to the rules-based order, that don’t live up to the principles enshrined in the law of the sea or UN convention. And that’s what we have to stand up for. We don’t have to stand against any particular country.

I think we have to reinforce that democratic architecture and those democratic principles that have been binding us together, frankly for a lot longer than 77 years. Our people have really been pursuing this quest, this kind of post-colonial sense of justice and fairness and equality. And the fact that we can now kind of be aligned together where we can in the international system I think is really, really important.

A related question. India watches the Russia-China relationship, and external affairs minister S Jaishankar recently indicated that he does not think a power like Russia is going to be subservient to any other power. From your perch here, you have great visibility into that relationship. Are you worried about how that relationship is evolving and what it means for security dynamics in Asia?

I think there’s always a concern about what Russia has provided to China militarily, what China has provided to Russia militarily to allow Russia to carry out some of its aims in Ukraine, what Russia has provided to China that has allowed it to increase its capabilities. So obviously that is a security relationship that is of significant concern and one that we watch closely. And this is why we have to prepare as well, and it’s why we have our military capabilities, our economic capabilities, our diplomatic capabilities. But yeah, the short answer is yes, it is concerning.

Let me move to some of the divergences. Is there a disjunct between the political values of the Democratic Party in the US and of the BJP in India? And given that both these parties are going to be pretty dominant in their respective polities, do you see this as a problem, a political issue where your base isn’t aligned?

Look, we have just been talking about the progress that we have made. So I can go back again to the year 2000 when President (Bill) Clinton made a historic visit to India. I can go back to the period of 2014 forward where President Obama, I would say objectively speaking, made transformational gains in the relationship with his Indian counterparts. And I would look at the last three years of the Biden administration with again, very, very significant gains. If you look over this last 24-year period, you have had two different parties in India, you have had two different parties in the US. The gains have continued.

And that’s what I would say to you. I think they transcend any one particular party or person. I have been proud to be associated with two different administrations and then frankly, when I was working in the Senate as a Senate staffer, to be able to support the civil nuclear accord and to see the role that then-Senator Biden played as ranking member and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee guiding that agreement through the Senate. So I have now had a kind of very bird’s eye view on this relationship and frankly been privileged to play a role in it for well over 20 years now. And I don’t think I see that kind of divergence that you are referring to.

On the controversy around the Department of Justice indictment and the Pannu case, in your comments in India, you talked about how India has set up this investigation committee and you expect it to share its findings. Two questions. One, can you give us a sense of whether India has shared the composition of the committee and the nature of the findings so far? And two, when the US has repeatedly said that it seeks accountability, what exactly does that mean?

Yeah, and here because this is an active investigation, there is not a lot that I can talk about. And I guess I would refer you to the Indian authorities, but they have set up this accountability mechanism. There is a group on the Indian side looking into it. We have provided the information that we have. We will continue to provide additional details as necessary. And now we will await to hear from the Indian side on that measure of accountability, which is important. And I will probably just leave it at that given the sensitivity of the ongoing nature of the investigation.

You also visited Sri Lanka and the Maldives during your visit, and it’s interesting to see how India and the US are working closely in some parts of South Asia. But I want to talk about Bangladesh and Myanmar, two countries that are key to the entire Indo-Pacific strategy. That’s where the Act East policy begins for India. And it is in these countries that you seem to have differences.

The Indo-Pacific strategy has been incredibly important and has been embraced by key players in the region. I don’t see the difference of view. Part of the core principles of the Indo-Pacific strategy is to stand up for democracy, for human rights, and for the rule of law. To the extent we have different approaches with one or two countries in the region, I think that’s going to be normal. India is obviously there and present and has a border that we don’t share. But I don’t see us necessarily out of alignment that somehow puts the strategy in a different place. I think when we have concerns, we certainly raise them in Bangladesh, but otherwise, we have an important relationship there. And obviously, in Myanmar, there is a very, very difficult situation and lots of concerns about the direction that the military regime has taken and the plight of civilians and the plight of ordinary people trying to live and work peacefully.

Let me move to the diaspora. You are an Indian-American and deeply rooted in the community. And it’s been interesting to see the diaspora represented across all strands of US politics. But have the divisions within the Indian American diaspora, primarily because of differences over Indian politics, affected the coherence, unity, the role of the diaspora, and does it end up affecting the bilateral relationship as well?

I am just so glad you asked that question because one of the privileges I have had is to really travel all over the US and meet with members of the diaspora. I am just so grateful for the role that they have played in the US and all facets of our life, whether it’s in public service or in social work or in education or in the military or in medicine or technology, obviously in every facet of American life. And I am always just so really inspired by the work that they have done.

I frankly don’t see those divisions, and if they are there, it’s not something that I would really spend a lot of time being concerned about. I think what I want to do is make sure that other people coming up — new, first and second-generation folks to this country like I was — are given an opportunity to succeed or be heard, and have an equal chance on an equal footing. I think that’s what I owe the diaspora at this point.

And they have an incredibly important role to play in our bilateral relationship, but they have an incredibly important role to play here at home. And again, for my dad to show up here with nothing, and for his son to go back as the ambassador and now be the deputy secretary at the State Department, that is only made possible by a lot of support and a lot of help. And again, I want to make sure I am there to provide that voice and that support and help to people who are now following behind us and also working hard to have an impact, however, that may be.

Do you think that the Indian immigration to the US story has peaked because of the anti-immigrant strain, which is so dominant in your politics on the other side, the legislative roadblocks that you have on immigration reform, and the fact that there are other options that Indians too have now? So do you think the kind of migration flows that we saw after the 1960s with your father and then with the tech professionals in the 2000s is over?

No, I don’t think so. We issued a record number of visas last year in India, the highest that we have ever issued. We see the demand to travel here, to study here has never been higher. Is there competition? Absolutely. Is that a good thing? Of course, it is. And Indians have choices. American citizens have choices, and that’s the world we want people to live in. But is there a set of values and connections that bring us together? A hundred percent. So I don’t think it’s an accident that we have this kind of huge interest in both directions, and I think that will continue.

One of the structural/institutional recommendations in your PhD was taking India out of the South and Central Asia bureau at the State Department and putting it in the East Asia and Pacific Bureau. How’s that going?

Gosh, to be an academic! Let me say this. I think what held our policy back during that period of, let’s say, when we weren’t aligned was this need for counterbalancing. And I think, again, I can go into the detailed history of that, and it was really in 1998-99, where President Clinton convened the National Security Council and said that this policy doesn’t make any sense anymore. What he basically said is it’s time to disentangle this notion of trying to balance, we need an independent, strong relationship with India, which exactly returns us back to where we started the journey with President Eisenhower and President Kennedy. And so we took that pause and kind of resumed it, and that’s how it’s been ever since.

Are there some structural changes or refinements that we should continue to think about? Sure. Is there a reason why our military commands have different alignments than our bureaus? That’s what all of us inside the Beltway get to debate. I don’t think anyone else is interested in questions as arcane, but we will continue to refine the structure. But that was my larger point in that academic piece.

In terms of institutional structures, there is a perception in Delhi that when you have a strong NSC, the relationship is more vibrant, and for some reason the State Department is seen as somewhat behind the curve in the relationship compared to the NSC. Would you like to say anything about that? Is that true?

Look, I love the fact that Jake Sullivan and Jon Finer and the President of the United States are huge enthusiasts for the US-India relationship. But so is the Secretary of State who has been working on this relationship again for probably 25 to 30 years. So that is a great thing to see. So what you describe is not something that I have seen.

There have been books written about NSC-DOD (Department of Defence)-State Department dynamics over the years, which again, I don’t need to bore you about. But at this period of time, in this relationship, we have enormously close alignment, especially now with my friend Kurt Campbell here as the deputy Secretary for policy and someone who has been the Asia coordinator. What a great time I think for the Indo-Pacific and for US-India relations in particular.

As we wrap up, if I can just zoom out a little bit, there were three big external engagements during the Biden administration in the last three years, Afghanistan, where whatever the official explanation, the US exit was on unfavourable terms. You had Ukraine where the US administration supported and continues to support Ukraine, what the world sees is that the Americans don’t have the staying power, maybe because of your divisions. And then Israel, where you supported Israel, but your ability to shape Israel’s war and restrain Israel, again to the outside world, seems limited. Against this backdrop, how should the world read American positions, America’s staying power, America’s commitment in your divided polity?

You should look at the US continuing to be a leader in the world. And I look at the 20 years of blood and treasure that was put into Afghanistan and into a very, very difficult situation. I think of the now two-plus years that we have put into supporting the people of Ukraine from unlawful Russian invasion and kidnapping and targeting of civilians. And I think of our support for Israel after October 7th and now our support for alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and also our strong support for a two-state solution to bring enduring peace and security to the Middle East.

So look this is not a country that can afford to sit on the sidelines and the world, as Secretary of State and President say, does not organise itself.

But we also know that partnerships and alliances and new architectures are also incredibly important and that this is not something that we can do by ourselves or should do by ourselves, and that the American people really expect other countries to also participate. So again, how that participation of other countries comes about is really up to those other countries.

But I bring us back to where we started on the importance of this relationship and the signal it sends to the global community to deter, to advance, to empower, to support — deter bad actors, support aspiring folks coming up through the ranks, to lift people out of poverty. And the impact that we can have globally.

We have a set of challenges now. We know that pandemics can hit us globally. We should be working on global health security together. We know of the impact of climate change in the US and Asia; the US and India, two of the three largest emitters, can have a huge impact on climate change.

We know of the incredible empowerment and liberation but also the risk that comes from this cyber domain that we all live in. We can be working together to help set the standards and improve security. And we know of the promise of these emerging technologies and the need to protect them and maintain them and have trusted supply chains. And that is an area that we can be working on. I can go on through the list, but when I look at the challenges we face, we are so strongly positioned to take those challenges on together.

It is 2024, an election year in both countries. What’s the one thing that those who care about the relationship should focus on this year?

That’s a great question. Look, I think in many ways it is maintaining this pace of progress. It is maintaining the significant momentum that we have. And I have seen that thus far, that commitment from both sides. And I believe that we will continue, but I think that’s what we should be focused on. There will be a lot of noise in the system and I think those of us working on the relationship need to continue to do so and do so with even more energy and enthusiasm in the weeks and months ahead.

So the year of consolidation?

I think the year of consolidation, the year of focus, the year of results for people on both sides.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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