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

New DelhiWritten By: Sidhant SibalUpdated: Oct 13, 2021, 02:46 PM IST

Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Indian envoy to the US Photograph:(WION)

Story highlights

India's envoy to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu spoke with Wion's Sidhant Sibal. He pointed out that though skeptics claimed earlier that with Biden at the helm, tone towards India will change, the relations between India and the US have been comprehensive

The Indian envoy to the United States Taranjit Singh Sandhu in an interaction with Wion's Principal Diplomatic Correspondent Sidhant Sibal said that the "character and content" of Indo US relationship is very substantial. He added that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden's "chemistry was very much visible" during the former's Washington visit.

Envoy Sandhu said that PM Modi's US visit in September was "landmark visit in terms of symbolism, atmospherics, substance". Key focus during the bilateral was on Covid, trade, Afghanistan, defense.

In-person meet between Biden and Modi was first such meeting after the new administration took charge in Washington earlier this year.

Sandhu pointed out the increased engagements between the 2 sides including the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, United States' Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M Gilday 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. 
Sandhu 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.

Wion: How do u describe the visit of PM. In terms of outcome?

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: Let's start off with PM's visit, It was a very important landmark visit in terms of symbolism, atmospherics, substance. You are aware of the background of the visit, COVID-19. You yourself were here. 

There were regional and global developments, and despite all this the summit took place and showed commitment of the leadership. 

In this, I may say very clearly 7 elements of the visit--It was the first in-person bilateral summit with President Biden, first in-person meeting with Vice President Harris, first in-person Quad leaders' summit, bilateralS with Japan and Australia, focus meeting with top CEOs, return of Indian antiquities and finally the address to the United Nations (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 climate finance, transfer of technology. 3rd issue was cyber in which promoting critical infrastructure, building capacities was discussed. Then there was the tech talk in which (there was discussion about) expanding partnership in new domains including emerging technologies, health security, space, semi-conductors, AI, 5G, 6G, future generation telecom technology, blockchain 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 and not to forget, that movement of skilled professionals, students, investors. This was priority in the enhanced bilateral economic and technology partnership. 6th was defense and 7th 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. 

8th was Afghanistan, 9th was international organisations in which India's UNSC and NSG membership, these all came in. 

Finally the antiquities. In that, I want to underline, that in the joint statement and President committed to strengthening effort to combat the theft, trafficking of cultural objects. Return took place under that. So what I said in the beginning, in terms of symbolism, atmospherics, substance, it was a very significant visit. 

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

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: Sidhant, It was a very important meeting both in terms of signalling, and messaging. Substance, I have mentioned. The 10 takeaways. 

It was a very warm and positive meeting, I just want bring to your attention, skeptics 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 is the 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 last 20 years and I have been underlining this, I have seen this grow. This has been very reflective, this interaction, this chemistry, and mind you, they have earlier interacted in 2014, 2016 but this clearly showed both are very committed to taking the relationship ahead. As PM Modi himself said, 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 himself. Clearly reflected that this chemistry and this meeting will play significant role in giving indication to what is to come in future. 

Wion: What more is expected in the relationship. We have seen visit of US official to India, and Indian officials to US. More such visits on 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, healthcare, IT, emerging technologies, energy, environment, education, infrastructure, knowledge partnership, supply chain etc are involved. 

We have seen in joint statement; all of these have been covered. Take a look at first 6 months itself, after Biden administration took over, there have been in-person meets, the bilateral, Quad. There have been 4 virtual summits-- Quad, climate, COVID, G20 and there were 4 telephonic calls between PM and president and vice president. 

Several other engagements, at EAM level, NSA, various cabinet ministers have been talking with their counterpart. 

In fact, the commerce minister had interaction with his counterpart in Italy, and as you pointed out the finance minister is very much in US and has had several meetings in Boston and will be coming later this evening to Washington DC. From US side, number of visits-- Secretary of State Blinken has visited,(Defence) Secy Austin and Secy Kerry have visited. Deputy NSA has visited and one of the seniormost 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-level interaction coming in. Not only because of World Bank meetings, but also because of meetings at bilateral level. She is interacting with 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. ​

Wion: 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 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 have 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 to u, 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. 

Wion: In terms of Quad, where do u see the grouping? Will India host the Quad summit?

Taranjit Singh Sandhu: See Sidhant, as I indicated earlier that they are global challenges and they are therefore requirement of like-minded partners coming together. 

I think, Quad is a reflection of that. There have been intensifying engagements. In 2019, the foreign ministers meet, 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 the COVID. You were here and have seen the situation. 

Here, as far as Quad is concerned, the first virtual summit laid out 3 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 further 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, workforce talent and secure and trustworthy digital infrastructure itself. There will be effort by all 4 countries to map out infrastructure needs, technical assistance and promoting sustainable infrastructure development and not to forget-- 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 itself mentions, they are committed and they will be meeting regularly.