As he wraps up his stint in New Delhi ahead of the Joe Biden Administration taking charge, US Ambassador to India Kenneth I. Juster spoke to The Indian Express in an exclusive interview:
Ambassador, as you saw the scenes of protests and the siege of the Capitol Hill from thousands of kilometres away, what were your thoughts? What does it mean for the US as the world’s oldest democracy and the signals it gives to the world?
It was very sad to see the news coming out of Washington, D.C. when we woke up on Thursday morning. While protests in our country are part of our democracy, it is unacceptable for there to be violence associated with them, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol was a horrific scene. This is not America at its best. Lawlessness and rioting in the United States – or in any country – is always unacceptable. It has no place in any democracy.
What is that one thing that you’re proud of after spending three years in India as the U.S. Ambassador?
It’s hard to say just one thing that I’m most proud of. I guess it is the continued progress in the overall relationship between our two countries. When I came here, I discussed in my inaugural address the various opportunities I saw for this relationship across a range of sectors. As I reflect back on my time here, I think we have accomplished a great deal in each of those areas. What I am most proud of is that I have been involved in this relationship for twenty years in various capacities, and I’ve seen it progress significantly from year to year. As I said in my speech [on Tuesday], the past four years have been a time of further ambition and achievement. And I believe that I’m leaving this partnership in a very strong position for the next Administration. As I said previously, I believe the U.S.-India strategic partnership is strong, positive, and on an upward trajectory.
You mentioned it in your speech how the two countries coordinated to respond to China’s aggression across the border. What is – if you could take us through, early May onwards, the events that we have seen: what was the thinking in Washington?
I’m not in a position to get into details or specifics on this matter. If you have further questions on this matter, you should speak with the Government of India. Suffice it to say that our two countries have worked cooperatively on a range of issues over the last several years, and that cooperation has continued.
How has defence and security partnership between India and the U.S. been operationalised during these seven or eight months?
They provide a foundation for cooperation, but I’m not going to get into any details relating to things we may or may not have been doing with the Government of India. That’s for the Government of India to disclose or discuss, if they so wish.
So, in the defence and security relationship, what is the highlight of your three-year term?
Institutionalizing the 2+2 Ministerial, which has truly served as an action-forcing event, is a key highlight. At each Ministerial, we have signed a pivotal defence agreement that has advanced our defence cooperation. As I have indicated, that has really taken the defence partnership to a new level. And we think that’s a very positive development for both of our countries.
India has had to procure equipment for winter deployment along the LAC. Did the US extend assistance [in this regard]?
Again, my answer would be the same.
In your speech, you expressed concerns on trade and investment, where you talked about “frustration and friction.” What is it that you thought was possible and could not be materialized in, during your three years?
Well, during my three years, trade and investment have continued to grow in a positive direction. As one of my colleagues used to say, it has never been better. But I have still felt that, given the size of our respective economies, there’s more potential to fulfill. I would think that trade and investment would really take off strategically if we could have a broader comprehensive trade agreement that would ensure market access for both countries. We are the number one market for India, and I would think that they’d want to lock in that benefit. Even as we adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic and try to learn the lessons that lead some countries to say that they want to reduce globalization so that they’re not simply getting in the cheapest goods from anywhere in the world, we still need to work with other countries in the international trade environment. I think we would want to work especially with trusted, like-minded partners, and that’s how I would characterize both India and the United States.
Do you think there was some point during these three years – say for example before President Trump visited India in February last year, a time the two sides were close to agreeing, and it could not take place?
We’ve had regular discussions between the Ministry of Commerce here and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, and we’ve tried to come up with different formulations of how we could enhance market access for each side. But we were never able to reach (an) agreement, which is why the deal did not close. Each side may have their perspective on why that occurred. We felt we were being flexible in looking for ways to try to meet our statutory requirements under the Generalized System of Preferences for increased market access. But, for one reason or another, we never were able to reduce that access to paper in a way that we felt was sufficient for our needs.
So what was the low-hanging fruit that you could have achieved, if not an ambitious trade deal?
We discussed a range of particular products. I’m not going to get into the details of the internal negotiations. But it was my view that even reaching a small deal would send a very positive signal to the marketplace that India was open for more business and would reassure U.S. companies that were looking to invest more money in India. And, regrettably, despite our best and persistent efforts, we were unable to conclude a deal.
When you were here, India conducted the air strikes in Balakot. If you could tell us the kind of cooperation, if there was any, between India and the US in those weeks or months?
I appreciate your efforts, but it is not my role to talk about operational cooperation between the United States and India on any particular matter, whether we were involved, whether we were not involved, or if we were involved, to what degree. Those are issues for the Government of India to discuss, should they choose to do so.
We have developed a very strong defence cooperation relationship, and we continued to sign important agreements, engage in joint exercises, and conduct exchanges. We think this enhances our ability to deal with new issues as they arise. But, when that happens, it is something for the governments to discuss between themselves.
At any point were you concerned that the situation might escalate between India and Pakistan?
Whenever there’s a potential conflict or an actual engagement, we are always concerned that something could escalate. And all parties are hoping that there can be restraint shown and the situation can de-escalate. That’s been our perspective with the border disputes with China – that people should to try to resolve the issues peacefully. Now, on terrorism issues, it’s also understood that countries may need to take some responsive action when that occurs. If that’s the case, you’re hoping it would be proportionate to that incident.
During your time, Article 370 was revoked and you had the opportunity to even go there (Jammu and Kashmir) a few months later. If you could share the impressions of your visit, at that point of time when you went there and saw the situation. And looking back, what is memorable about that visit?
I did not feel that it was appropriate at that time to discus my trip publicly, and I still believe that. I can broadly tell you that it was important and valuable to have that opportunity to travel there. It was understood that we would not walk around on our own. We were part of a group.
But the Embassy has tried, with regard to the situation in Kashmir, to gather information from all concerned parties – Kashmiris, political people across the spectrum, and the Government of India’s perspective. Collectively, this information feeds into our own understanding and analysis of the situation. And then, if we have concerns, we express them privately with the Government of India. We have expressed publicly that we hope for a restoration of full access to the Internet, and for the realization of the economic benefits that have been discussed by all parties. That is our hope.
Do you think that hope has been realized? Is India moving in that direction?
I have not been up to Kashmir since that visit in January 2020. I cannot give you an assessment on the ground. I think there’s still a way to go to realize the type of economic development that has been discussed. How much progress has been made? I am not able to give you a thorough answer.
One diplomatic incident took place between India and the U.S. during that period of time, when President Trump talked about mediation on Kashmir and he said that Prime Minister Modi approached him for mediation, which was denied later by the Indian government. How did you manage, how did things play out at that point of time?
Again, I’m not going to get into private conversations with the Indian Government. This was an issue that came from the White House, and I am not going to comment on how they may have communicated with the Indian government on that.
The other issue I wanted to ask you was the issue of Russia, which you very clearly spelt out. How it can compromise technology, platforms, systems, which the U.S. is providing to India. The Russian equipment continues to be bought by the Indian side. But India has its dependence on Russian equipment. How do you address that concern for India?
India has had a long relationship historically with the Soviet Union and with Russia in terms of obtaining military equipment. That is a fact of life. No one is assuming that India will have to destroy that equipment. There are future procurements that India will need to make from time to time, to fill the strategic needs it might have. These procurements will likely involve sophisticated technology. As I have indicated previously, sophisticated technology has software that can often “talk” to other equipment. It is ideal to have inter-operable equipment. At some point, the level of sophistication of the various types of equipment that India may be purchasing could create a problem if the equipment is from two countries that don’t see eye to eye and could lead to compromising technological know-how. That’s just a fact of life and technology. Maybe there will be technology fixes to that challenge, but maybe there will not be. This is something about which technical experts need to consult with each other.
What I have been saying is that, as India makes purchases of individual pieces of equipment, it may also need to have a broader strategic vision as to where it is going with its overall systems. Because one piece of equipment may not integrate with another and, in fact, may create a vulnerability for the suppliers that could ultimately limit what you can purchase. India may want to purchase equipment that will enhance interoperability and lead to the next level of more sophisticated equipment, as opposed to procuring a piece of equipment that could artificially constrain what else it can purchase. These are decisions for the Government of India. I recognise that from India’s perspective, there are also benefits to having equipment from diverse suppliers. So, there may need to be trade-offs among these various objectives. That is a potential issue down the road.
Do you think this issue might linger with the next administration also?
I think this is a technical issue and the experts who work on these matters are going to remain in government from Administration to Administration. Policy people may desire to see if there are ways to “fix” these technical issues or get around them, but at some point I think it is going to be a problem based on what I understand from the people who have expertise in this area.
The other issue I wanted to touch upon is that of human rights in India — protests against the CAA and NRC last year. Then there were riots in Delhi. Was it a very considered view that this is India’s internal affairs and that the U.S. should stay out of it?
Human rights are an important concern for the United States. We publish an annual Human Rights Report, which goes into the issues and concerns that we have around the world. And, by the way, I should add that the United States has its own issues, and people protest in our country. You see that on television, with concerns expressed about particular situations in the United States. But, at the same time, as the Ambassador, I feel that, if I have a particular concern, the best way to address it is through a private conversations with my Indian counterparts, just as they have private conversations with us on issues of concern to them. I do not think that it is appropriate for the Ambassador to be discussing publicly in India what we talk about in private government channels.
Talking about the personal relationship between PM Modi and President Trump, how would you analyse Modi’s relationship with Trump vis-a-vis Modi’s relationship with President Obama?
In all candour, I did not closely follow Prime Minister Modi’s relationship with President Obama. Prime Minister Modi is an extremely charismatic and personable leader. He is able to strike up a good personal relationship with his counterparts, including President Obama and President Trump. From a distance, I saw this with President Obama during the Republic Day events, and also I saw it with President Trump. I have seen it in my own interactions with the Prime Minister. He is extremely personable and thoughtful, and strikes a very comfortable relationship that obviously helps the broader bilateral relationship. Countries are made up of human beings and if we have a warm feeling toward those with whom we are dealing, it helps in addressing issues of concern, solving problems, and doing things together.
One of the accomplishments of your tenure has been energy cooperation. If you could give us a sense of how it developed.
India has significant energy needs. The United States is in a position to address these across the board. We have had discussions on all different aspects of the energy sector. We do a great deal of exporting in the energy sector from what had been low levels. India is the number one export destination for U.S. coal, our number four destination for crude oil, and our number seven destination for liquefied natural gas. But, the latter two were virtually zero when the Trump Administration began. Now exports are at significant levels. This helps India diversify and secure its energy supply.
We also do a lot in the renewable sector. We have helped integrate renewable power into the energy grid, worked on the use by distribution utilities of smart meters, worked on the large-scale rooftop solar power projects, and worked on energy storage together. We have held a lot of technical discussions and recently formed a Hydrogen Task Force to see how we could use resources from renewable energy and fossil fuel sources to produce hydrogen. The Strategic Energy Dialogue has been across the board and has been a real high point and achievement for this Administration–something that I think will have a significant impact going forward.
So, every US Ambassador has had at least one sleepless night in Delhi. Which one was yours?
Oh, I’m not a good sleeper in general, so I had a number of sleepless nights. But there have, in fact, been a few low points. When the Pulwama terrorist incident occurred in February 2019, that was hard for me. It was tragic, both what happened to those killed, and what could happen after that. This past summer, when we had some unrest in the United States and the Gandhi Statue outside the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C. was desecrated, that was a low point. Then, when Indian troops were killed in Galwan Valley in June 2020 — for the first time in 45 years there had been casualties due to Chinese attacks. Each of these incidents was tragic on its own, but especially the terrorist attack and the attacks in Galwan Valley because they also raised concern about what they could lead to.
If you were to tell two things to your successor – one pep talk and one note of caution – what would you say?
Well, our relationship with India is so broad and covers so many areas that, inevitably, there are going to be issues where we do not see eye-to-eye or where we have to work through disagreements, and my successor simply needs to persevere and work through that. But, as I’ve said, when we step back and look at where we have been in this relationship, the progress is extraordinary. That has occurred because of the focus on moving forward, on addressing problems in a constructive way, and on having a vision for where we want to go. That would be my advice — have a vision, aspire high, and be prepared to work through difficult issues without being discouraged.
With regard to a note of caution – again, do not get discouraged with particular issues. I think this relationship is going to be critical to the Indo-Pacific region and the world more broadly. The United States supports India’s rise as a global power, and a strong and democratic India in this region is an important pillar in the world. We need to continue to work with India not just on a bilateral basis, but on issues in the region and the world more broadly – to continue to see where we have a convergence of our thinking. If problems arise, address them.
Frankly, if there is one thing I do, it is to try to be a straight-shooter and problem solver, perhaps due to my background as a lawyer. I always will be as direct and try to be as constructive as I can be. I think this is what I would advise. People recognize the importance of good relationships and, hopefully, that leads to trust and getting things done.
What do you think will be, for the next administration, your successor, one of the big challenges: China or Pakistan?
I think the world is too complex to have one big challenge. A major shift is occurring in international affairs these days. It is the rise of China. We have a vision for the Indo-Pacific region in which we want it to be free, open and inclusive. We need, if necessary, to develop a consensus so that the countries in the region feel comfortable about how the rise of China is occurring.
Another point is that changes can be caused by issues we do not even see coming, such as the pandemic. It has affected health and economies throughout the world. In these types of situations, you need to be able to rely on trusted, like-minded countries to build cooperation.
What was so impressive during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic was how effectively and constructively we worked with the Government of India – on repatriation flights, on exchanging medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, and on having a dialogue on various issues, such as aviation issues. We continued our Strategic Energy Dialogue. We had commercial dialogues. We discussed issues related to what’s an essential business activity, and how we were able to keep back-office operations going in India for the support of the financial sector of the United States. In many ways, the crisis elevated our cooperation. Now we’re working together on the development and production of vaccines. This goes back to my earlier point about continuing to push forward on a whole range of issues and be able to respond to new challenges that arise in an increasingly constructive way. The type of relationship that I have with my counterparts is very different than it was in 2001. We have built up a series of experiences that give us trust and confidence and enable us to solve problems together.
So health sector cooperation emerged as an important area.
The health sector cooperation has been a long-standing area of cooperation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were focused on antimicrobial resistance, on dealing with diseases such as tuberculosis, on working with ways that we can address environmental concerns that affect our health. With the onset of the pandemic, our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention played a key role with Indian counterparts across a range of areas, including contact tracing, infection prevention and control, and diagnostic issues. Our U.S. Agency for International Development stepped up with new funding to help front-line workers for COVID-19 and other health care workers and facilities. All of this has a positive impact on our people-to-people relationship, which truly is the foundation and springboard for our relationship.
During your tenure, Quad cooperation evolved. How did that happen?
First, I want to emphasize what you stated in your question, which is that in October of last year the Secretary of State made two trips to this region. One for a Quad Ministerial in early October in Tokyo, and then he came back to India for the 2+2 Ministerial in late October.
These were both in-person meetings. In addition to the huge amount of travel that had to take place, the two trips, in and of itself, are indicative of the type of strategic partnership that we have built.
The Quad is a concept that, I believe, first originated with the Tsunami of 2004, but in 2007 the Quad was suspended. One of the goals we had, as a government, was to try to reinstitute the Quad because we felt it was an effective way to address regional issues, whether it be regional connectivity, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or cybersecurity.
And when you have four countries, it takes a good amount of process for this type of coordination. We worked at the expert level in having discussions and that finally led to a Ministerial in September of 2019 at the UN General Assembly. We have now had a second Ministerial, and I believe we will have annual Ministerials, so it’s a process that has taken time. All of the countries involved became increasingly comfortable that the Quad could be an effective unit, constructively and positively working on the issues to which I referred, as well as other challenges that may arise.
The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced that. We had our Deputy Secretary and India’s Foreign Secretary participate in periodic phone calls with Quad members and with others as well. The Quad can be a flexible entity that could, on different issues, work with other countries also. It goes back to the broader development of the Indo-Pacfic and the concept of like-minded countries trying to make it a free, open, and inclusive region.
There was a concern that in the Trump Administration, the US’ reputation for being a destination for jobs, for education has been adversely affected. How do you respond to that perception, and how do you see the road forward?
I honestly do not think it has been adversely affected. The fact is that the H-1B program is a global program. It’s been in existence, I believe, since 1990. The number of visas issued is 65,000, plus another 20,000 for people who have Master’s degrees. That has not changed at all. Indians, despite the fact that it’s a global program, have been able to garner about 70 percent of the H-1B visas. That hasn’t changed either. And there’s no lack of applications. The program has continued to be oversubscribed.
There has been an effort to ensure that the positions being filled are high-quality jobs, not low-quality jobs. And that the visas are going to companies that are involved in real work. There has been a suspension of the H-1B program because of COVID-19, but this is a challenge that countries all over the world are facing. With tremendous domestic unemployment, you have to give priority, at the outset, to restore the employment situation in your own domestic population.
But I do not envision that suspension going on indefinitely. The H-1B program has been very beneficial to both countries and it’s been a huge boom for India. As I said, Indians receive about 70 percent of the H-1B visas. That ratio has not changed. The number of people going to the United States has not changed. And the interest in the program has not changed.
Now, about Afghanistan — do you think India’s engagement with Taliban has been one of the big achievements by the US; repeated visits by Ambassador Khalilzad?
I think that the decisions that the Indian government makes about Afghanistan are in its own self-interest. I do not think that they are doing things in Afghanistan because it is solely at the urging of the United States.
The United States is having to draw down our operations in Afghanistan because, after 19 years, we simply cannot continue to sustain the same expenditure of blood and treasure in that country. As we draw down, other countries in the region are going to have to choose, in all likelihood, to increase their engagement with Afghanistan. And I think a natural part of that engagement is going to be to deal with the reality of the forces on the ground there and those with whom you will have to interact. That’s a decision for the Government of India, as to, whether and how to do that. It’s not because the United States is telling them to do it.
When you look in hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?
I saw my time here as Ambassador as an enormous opportunity to have a positive impact at the very highest levels across the range of issues in the relationship. Therefore, and I think my team at the Embassy can confirm this, I decided that we should run as fast and as hard as we could during my time here. I feel that we have done that. We have been very aspirational, and we have pursued every opening and issue we thought was there.
I’ve also tried to travel around India. Not just to get to meet the very diverse people throughout India in order to get a feel for the country. But also because the United States has interests throughout the country. Whether it’s businesses that are operating in certain States; whether it’s programs we are conducting in conjunction with schools or medical facilities; whether it’s exchange students who came to the United States, and we meet with our alumni, or whether it’s cultural programs to which we contribute through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. We are very much integrated in different parts of Indian society, and I have tried to avail myself of all of those opportunities.
For me, it’s been a tremendous experience of expanding my own horizons in areas in which I may not have been as involved, in previous parts of my life, but that are important to this Mission and to this bilateral relationship.
So what will you miss most about this country?
There are many things. As I’ve said before, India is the most fascinating country in the world. It’s many countries rolled-up into one. There’s a tremendous vibrancy and energy in India. You feel it when you walk through Old Delhi or visit other cities. So, I will miss the warmth and generosity of the people of India and how they treated me, as the U.S. Ambassador. I truly do understand the strength of the people-to-people relationship because I felt it every day. There’s a special feeling in India when you’re interacting with the people.
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