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Character and content of India-US relations substantial: Indian Envoy to US Taranjit Sandhu

New Delhi: The Indian envoy to US Taranjit Singh Sandhu said that the “character and content” of Indo US relationship is very substantial and PM Modi and President Biden’s “chemistry was very much visible” during the former’s Washington visit.

Speaking to WION Diplomatic Correspondent Sidhant Sibal from Washington, Envoy Sandhu said PM’s US visit in September was a “landmark visit in terms of symbolism, atmospherics, substance” with key focus during the bilateral on Covid, trade, Afghanistan, defense. The September in-person meet between PM Modi and President Biden was the first such meet between the two leaders since the new admin took charge in Washington earlier this year.

He pointed out the increased engagements between the two sides including the visit of US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, United States’ chief of naval operations admiral Michael M Gilday’s India visit, and finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s US visit. He said, “No area of human endeavor that is untouched by this important partnership”. Both sides will soon be part annual 2+2 foreign and defense ministers meet in US towards the end of the year. He also slammed Pakistan, saying, “events in Afghanistan have only exposed them even more”. Pakistan’s support to cross border terror has been key part of India, US conversations.

Sidhant Sibal: How do you describe the visit of PM, in terms of outcome?

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: The PM’s visit was very important landmark visit in terms of symbolism, atmospherics, substance, you are aware of the background of the visit that COVID 19, you yourself was here. There were regional and global developments, and despite all this the summit took place and showed the commitment of the leadership. In this I may say very clear 7 elements of the visit–It was the first in-person bilateral summit of President Biden, first in-person meeting of Vice President Harris, first in-person Quad leaders’ summit, bilateral with Japan and Australia, focus meeting with top CEOs, return of Indian antiquities and finally the address to the UN.

Let me come to the bilateral, there were very clear 10 takeaways, first of course, in Covid-19 health care which was very much in focus, then on climate– we heard the concept of trusteeship with PM underlining about climate finance, transfer of technology, third issue was cyber, in which promoting critical infrastructure, building capacities was discussed, then there was the tech in which expanding partnership in new domains including emerging technologies, health security, space, semi-conductors, AI, 5G, 6G, future generation telecom technology, block chain etc. Then there was trade, mechanism like trade policy forum, commercial dialogue, high technology working group, economic and financing dialogue are coming into play and they will enhance trade and economic cooperation. Moreover, the movement of skilled professionals, students, investors, was a priority in the enhanced bilateral economic and technology partnership.

Sixth was defense and seventh was terrorism in which cross border terrorism, Mumbai attacks, use of terrorist proxies, working together to deny logical financial military support to terrorism, all this was covered, eight was Afghanistan, ninth was international organization in which India’s UNSC and NSG membership these all came in. Final the antiquities, in that, I want to underline, that in the joint statement, President committed to strengthen effort to combat the theft, trafficking of cultural objects, all those developments return took place under that. So what I said in the beginning, in terms of symbolism, atmospherics, substance, it was a very significant visit.

Sidhant Sibal: In terms of PM Modi, Prez Biden meet, how does it give an impetus to India-US ties?

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: It was a very important meeting both in terms of signaling, and messaging. Substance, I have mentioned. The 10 takeaways. It was a very warm and positive meeting, I just want bring to your attention, sceptics for long have been saying that once Biden administration comes there will be a change of tone, but I think the chemistry was very much to be seen by all, and I must add here that in both the meetings–bilateral and Quad, the chemistry was very visible, not only to all of us but also other leaders who were there. In this I would say, it is that trust and partnership are key. Both sides have the basic trust, and if you permit me to say, the bipartisan character of the relationship is again being shown here. I have been part of the relationship for the last 20 years and I have been underlining this, I have seen this grow. This has been very reflective, this interaction, this chemistry, and they have earlier interacted in 2014, 2016 but this clearly showed both are very committed to taking the relationship ahead.

As PM Modi said, that that this is a decade of transformative relation and he underlined 5 Ts–tradition, technology, trade, trusteeship and talent. Challenges have been international in nature; it is more imperative to work together. For example, Covid-19 surge, you have seen India and US, they have helped each other and this has been recognized by President Biden. It clearly reflected that this chemistry and this meeting will play significant role in giving indication to what is to come in the future.

Sidhant Sibal: What more is expected in the relationship. We have seen the visit of US official to India, and Indian officials to the US. More such visits in the anvil?

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: It is not wrong to say, no area of human endeavor that is untouched by this important partnership. In this, health care, IT, emerging technologies, energy, environment, education, infrastructure, knowledge partnership, supply chain etc. We have seen in joint statement; all of these have been covered. Take a look at the first six months itself, after Biden admin has takeover– there have been in person meets, the bilateral, Quad. There have been 4 virtual summits– Quad, climate, covid, G20, and four telephonic calls between PM and President and Vice President. Several other engagements, at EAM level, NSA, various cabinet ministers have been talking with their counterparts. In fact, the commerce minister had interaction with his counterpart in Italy, and as you pointed out the finance minister is in US and has had several meetings in Boston and will be coming later this evening to Washington DC.

From US side, a number of visits– secretary of state Blinken has visited, Secy Autin and Secy Kerry has visited, Deputy NSA has visited and one of the seniors most and most experienced diplomats, Deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman just recently visited India. Just between the time PM has left, we had a very substantial finance minister interaction coming in. Not only because of world bank meetings but also because of meetings at bilateral level. She is interacting with a number of key investment and business counterparts here and there will be roundtable with number of investors. We had the visit of CDS and the defense secretary, the defense policy group has met and from US to India, health dialogue has taken place, industrial security agreement has taken place, then deputy USTR has visited. As you asked what is scheduled, the economic and financial partnership dialogue will happen this week. The chief of naval staff of US is visiting India, then we have Malabar phase 2 exercises, then we have the Yudh Abhyas, the Vajra Prahar, the trade policy forum expected to happen. The 2+2 ministerial dialogue in December, and finally the commercial dialogue, the CEO forum, they all plan in coming months. So, lot of action in coming days. ​

Sidhant Sibal: Wendy Sherman in her remarks said, No interest in returning to days of a hyphenated India and Pak visit is for a narrow and specific purpose. What do u make of the comments?

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: I think the remark speak of themselves; I think it is very important to take them as they have been stated. This is also reflected in a number of similar statements from across the board from the US–from the administration, the US Congress, think tanks, media and public at large. It is very significant to understand the length and depth of this relationship between US and India. Everyone here knows, and has been speaking about the character of Pakistan. The events in Afghanistan have only exposed them even more. On the other hand, please look at the character and content of relationship with India, which is very different. There is substantial cooperation, much deeper and wider, not only in counter terrorism, take a look at joint statement on counter terrorism. But as I have indicated, the joint statement covered Mumbai, cross border terrorism, terrorist proxies, denying logistical financial military support but as I have said, look at the depth of our relationship–health care, IT, digital, emerging technologies, energy, education and knowledge partnership–that speaks for themselves.

Sidhant Sibal: In terms of Quad, where do you see the grouping? Will India host the Quad summit?

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: There are global challenges and therefore there is a requirement for like-minded partners coming together. I think QUAD is a reflection of that. There have been intensifying engagements. In 2019, the foreign ministers meet, the first virtual summit took place in March 2021, and that time President Biden had clearly indicated that he would like to hold first in-person summit by end of this year. You saw, by September the first in-person summit took place despite all the challenges, particularly of Covid. You were here and have seen the situation. Here as far as Quad is concerned, the first virtual summit laid out three practical areas of cooperation, those are very very clear and grounded areas. First was Covid-19 vaccines in which 1 billion vaccines by 2022 and mind you these will be produced in India. It is creating capacity in India and that is very much on board.

In climate change and critical technology, this summit reviewed all this and took stock of the situation and furthered deepen it. In this summit, leaders have expanded the scope to include new areas and important amongst them is space which includes exchange of satellite data, tackling climate change, sustainable uses of ocean, marine resources, and responding to challenges in shared domains. In cyber security, work force talent and secure and trustworthy digital infrastructure itself. There will be effort by all four countries to map out infrastructure needs, technical assistance and promoting sustainable infrastructure development and for the first time education has been part of the Quad initiative. There is Quad fellowship in Quad areas, and I don’t need to remind you, among the 200,000 Indian students in US 2/3 are in STEM areas. These all areas, are practical, people-oriented and underpinned by mutual respect, cooperation for global common good. As PM Modi has himself highlighted, that this is a force for global good. India is going to play a significant role in all these areas. About the annual meeting, the Quad joint statement mentions, they are committed and they will be meeting regularly.