2+2 will show India-US ties healthy, moving forward: Top US official
Donald Lu spoke about the state of India-US ties in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the agenda for the 2+2 dialogue, as well as developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
As the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu is the top US diplomat in the state department focused on the region. A former US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Albania, he has also served in the US embassy in New Delhi on two separate occasions. In a wide-ranging conversation with HT on Friday in Washington DC, Lu spoke about the state of India-United States ties in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the bilateral agenda for the upcoming 2+2 dialogue, as well as developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
You have just returned from a trip to South Asia. How do you see US-India ties in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
We travelled to India for the foreign office consultations, which is an annual set of meetings between the ministry of external affairs and the state department, led by the Indian foreign secretary and our under-secretary of state for political affairs. Now, it happens that our under-secretary of political affairs (Victoria Nuland) is one of our main Russia experts in the state department and really critical to our policy on this Ukraine-Russia crisis. So my main takeaway is that our relationship is really important, both to India and the US. And we are really pleased that we could offer our leading Russia expert to have serious and deep conversations with her Indian counterparts during this important moment in history.
When you were in Delhi, President (Joe) Biden spoke about India’s position as being somewhat shaky on the issue. What do you think are the key divergences in the positions taken by US and India on this crisis, and what would you like Delhi to do?
So, it is no secret that we come at the Ukraine crisis from different perspectives, and that’s all the more reason that we, as strategic partners, should have good communication and good discussions at every level to both explain our positions, but also to look for places of convergence where we can work together. Both the United States and India are in favour of a ceasefire and of a diplomatic resolution of this crisis. We have urged India to use its leverage to support a peaceful resolution. Similarly, both the US and India are supporting humanitarian assistance for the Ukrainian people. That’s, I think, a real place for potential coordination and collaboration.
Allow me to follow up on that. Since you were there, we have had US deputy national security adviser, Daleep Singh, visit Delhi and speak about some of the consequences India may face if it circumvents the sanctions regime. Could you give us a clear sense of what, from your perspective, is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of what India does with Russia?
Well, let me put it this way. There is the possibility that Russia will try to use many countries to evade sanctions, both American sanctions and other sanctions. And I think it’s important that we have a conversation about how that might be, so that India is very clear in its mind what some of these tactics are. But what I really want to say is it’s important for us, the United States, to show that our relationship with India is going to be the more valuable relationship, and for India to see value in working with us.
In Delhi, under-secretary Nuland spoke about how this could be an opportunity for India and the US to deepen their defence cooperation, to help India offset the defence dependence it has on Russia. Could you give us a sense of that? What is it that you are willing to offer?
We know that many countries, including India, have a defence supply relationship with Russia. We shared our assessment that it may be difficult in the coming months and years for countries to get reliable military supplies from Russia. Sanctions are going to affect these purchases, financial sanctions. We think that many components for Russian military systems will be unavailable. Plus Russia will be rebuilding some of its own military stock files because we understand they have expended so many of their resources in this conflict. The US supports many partners in identifying military resources around the world, and we are ready to work with India.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited Delhi soon after you departed. India has made it clear that they can’t be diplomatic status quo in ties with Beijing as long as there is military status quo at the border. What do you make of China’s military assertiveness at the border, coupled with diplomatic outreach at this juncture?
We are glad that India is talking with China. We support a diplomatic resolution of the disputed border. Having said that, we see little evidence that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is negotiating in goodwill. We have condemned Chinese aggression in the Galwan valley in 2020 and provided support to India to reinforce its ability to deter Chinese aggression. The best way to guarantee peace along the Line of Actual Control is for India to be strong and capable of defending its territorial integrity from PRC aggression.
What do you think of India’s role as a Quad partner in Indo-Pacific, especially in the security realm?
So, on Wednesday, I spent two hours with my Quad partners, including India, in a virtual discussion. And I would say not only is India a great Quad partner, they are a leader in many aspects of Quad cooperation. They are leading in the design of the Quad humanitarian relief and disaster response capability. They are leading in Covid-19 vaccine production for the world. And they are leading in our Quad coordination on higher education.
The 2+2 is scheduled for April 11. This is the first bilateral meeting in this format since the Joe Biden administration took over. What is its significance, and what’s on the agenda?
As you know, the 2+2 is our annual meeting between our ministers of external affairs and defence. I believe this will be the second visit by minister Rajnath Singh to Washington as defence minister. We are looking forward to partner with him and minister (S) Jaishankar to advance our diplomatic and security cooperation. I am hoping we will be able to announce some new initiatives and concrete progress on space cooperation, higher education collaboration, building our collective defence capabilities, coordination on maritime domain awareness, and cultural property protection.
Will Ukraine be a key point of discussion?
I am sure we will talk about many parts of the world, including Ukraine.
Eric Garcetti’s nomination appears to have run into trouble as the next US ambassador to India. Is it a cause of concern that, at this critical juncture, the US doesn’t have an ambassador in Delhi? How should India read its absence?
I have had the pleasure of being Senate-confirmed three times. What I can say is it takes time for US ambassadors, particularly to important countries like India to get confirmed by the US Senate. And, we were really looking forward to welcoming the President’s nominee and supporting the transition when he is confirmed.
How do you assess the health of India’s electoral democracy and health of India’s institutional democracy?
As American diplomats, I think it’s important for us to be humble about our democracy. We in the United States have faced real challenges here at home and are continuing to improve our own democracy. I have had the pleasure of working all over the world. I can say, honestly, India is the most democratic place I have served. And it’s a strong democracy not because of politicians or parties. It’s a strong democracy because of political traditions, strong democratic institutions like its independent judiciary, its free press and its robust civil society. And, of course, because the people of India, who participate robustly in India’s democracy and civil society, are committed to the principle of democracy. India certainly has areas to work on, just like all of us, but I am a believer in the strength of Indian democracy.
A final question on India. Will the differences over Russia’s invasion and the response to it between Delhi and Washington change the relationships for the worse, or will India-US relations continue to remain robust?
I look forward to the annual 2+2 here in Washington. I think we will see evidence that our relationship is very healthy and moving forward.
Let me move to the rest of the region and start with Pakistan. Imran Khan seems to suggest that you had a conversation with the Pakistani ambassador in the US and told him that if Imran Khan survives the no-confidence motion, Pakistan is in trouble and the US won’t forgive Pakistan. Any response?
We are following developments in Pakistan and we respect and support Pakistan’s constitutional process and the rule of law.
Did you have such a conversation?
That’s all I have for you on that question.
Sri Lanka has just imposed an emergency and is going through an unprecedented economic crisis. What is your reading of the roots of the crisis and what is the US doing to help? You visited Colombo recently too.
And just this week, I presented a proposal to the US Export Import Bank to fund a multimillion dollar loan to Sri Lanka to improve its infrastructure. All of Sri Lanka’s friends need to be offering our support now, as they go through some difficult economic challenges. We support the courageous decision of government to work with the IMF on a debt sustainability programme. The government has certainly taken some questionable loans from the PRC in the past, but we are hoping that, going forward, we can support a diversification of sources of credit and investment. India, the United States, Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia, all of us could be big parts of that diversification.
Is the Sri Lankan experience a lesson on the need to be careful of what many may call China’s predatory economic practices for other countries?
I think there are many places in the world where people could draw lessons about the way that Chinese do business. I would just say it would be success in my mind as an American diplomat, if China would begin to do business like the rest of the world does and begin to operate by the same rules and expectations. And I hope that we are helping in that process.
You visited Bangladesh where the US’s ties with the government in Dhaka appeared to be somewhat fragile, especially due to sanctions on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). US also didn’t invite Bangladesh for the democracy summit. Does this approach run the risk of alienating what many consider a strong regime battling Islamism?
We had very constructive discussions in Bangladesh about our economic partnership, our 50 years of cooperation on development and institution-building, and our concerns about the Rapid Action Battalion. And I would note that there have been no reports over the last four months of extra-judicial killings or forced disappearances in Bangladesh. That progress is real and its tangible, and we hope it continues and that the government will hold those accused of extra-judicial killings accountable under the law. If it does, it will help us to deepen our economic and security partnership. We continue work closely with the Bangladesh national police on counterterrorism and counter-trafficking.
On Afghanistan, we saw China host a recent meeting. Both China and Russia seem to be at least a step closer to recognising the Taliban regime. You have UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) which seems to be working quite closely with the Taliban regime. Are you concerned that the door is opening up internationally for legitimising the Taliban regime, even when it’s not fulfilling the commitments that that it’s meant to?
We are big supporters of the UN in Afghanistan. They have done amazing work to prevent a more serious humanitarian crisis in the country. The international community is united in pushing the Taliban to fulfil its counterterrorism commitments, respect for the rights of its citizens, including women, girls, and minorities, and to assemble a government that is truly representative of the diversity and strength of the people of Afghanistan.