The Doorstep: Biden's India Strategy, with Dhruva Jaishankar

July 23, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this next issue of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, and so excited today to welcome Dhruva Jaishankar to speak with us about U.S.-India relations, an important part of the world that I think needs to get more exposure.

He is the executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America (ORF). He has written extensively about Indian policy and U.S.-India relations. A recent article on economic security and diplomacy is something that I want to talk about. He is also the son of India's external affairs minister, and we want to talk about the upcoming meeting with Secretary Blinken, the increased ties between the United States and India, so many similarities between our two countries, where are we headed, and what's going on?

I would like to start off, though, looking at the QUAD. What I feel for our audience here, we try to bring issues of foreign affairs to our readers, to our listeners, as a doorstep issue—"This is going to impact your wallet and your pocket"—and I do think this idea of the QUAD—this relationship between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States—is so important and it needs to be discussed and talked about.

Can you take us, Dhruva, through how was this formed, what is the goal, and what does it look like now, because I think it has changed over the last couple of years?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for having me on. The QUAD has actually been the subject of a lot of discussion over the past few months, ever since a virtual summit was held involving the four leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.

In some ways the QUAD has had a very tortured history. It really started in some ways in 2004 after the big Indian Ocean tsunami, and these four countries kind of organically came together to help coordinate relief efforts for the tsunami. But over time, particularly 2005, 2006, and 2007, there were also shared and growing concerns amongst those countries about China, although there were different levels of concern, some of it economic, political, and security concerns as well, and that led to growing cooperation. So the first official meeting of those four countries was held in 2007. In the same year they held a very large naval exercise in the Indian Ocean region, along with Singapore. What happened very soon after that, there were changes in government in the four countries, and all of them had their own positive relations with China that they had to keep in mind, so the QUAD dissolved for a while.

In the meantime, bilateral and trilateral engagements amongst the four QUAD countries intensified and increased, and what actually happened under the Trump administration in 2017 was that the QUAD met again after ten years. Since then we have seen an elevation of the QUAD and additional elements added. The first summit held under the Biden administration this year added a few more components in addition to the security elements of it. They held another naval exercise last year, but they formed three working groups this year. The three working groups are focused on critical and emerging technologies, on vaccine diplomacy and health cooperation, and on climate change, and that has added, without overly bureaucratizing this new coalition of countries, a clear agenda, and there are expectations I think that there will be another QUAD summit by the end of this year.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Of those areas—tech, COVID-19, and climate change—what do you think is getting the most attention right now?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: I would say the vaccine diplomacy is the most immediate one, and in fact the most ambitious QUAD initiative involves the distribution of vaccines. There is already an agreement where U.S. vaccines will be manufactured in India at a large scale by the end of 2021 or early 2022. The Japanese would finance it, and Australia would help with the logistics, and this would involve distribution across the Indo-Pacific region of these vaccines. Plans for that are already underway. I believe the manufacturing is expected to start by the end of this year. If we look back and say, "What is the QUAD actually doing?" this will be the big signature effort.

But over the longer run I think the critical and emerging technology element will be the most important because it has both civilian and military applications. In some ways setting the standards of these critical and emerging technologies and cooperation here will define the economies of the future, particularly the areas of growth in the future on the economic front.

On the security front, this will have important implications for supply chain security and for securing critical infrastructure. The latest hacking incidents involving Colonial Pipeline are just a testament to the kinds of concerns that will be more at the forefront in the coming years and decades.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think it is important how you have stressed how this concept of the QUAD is shifting away from some of the earlier manifestations. I think the concern from India's perspective was that the United States was seeing India only through what can India do vis-à-vis China, instrumentalizing India as a part of U.S. strategy vis-à-vis China, which of course ignores that India may have interests that align but don't always agree.

From the other perspective, from the U.S. side, particularly going back to the doorstep questions, there has always been this unease in certain sectors of the U.S. economy that says: "Look, India is a potential competitor or is a competitor in services in a variety of areas"—of course, we have seen this tension in the U.S.-Germany relationship as well—but what you have laid out here I think is interesting because it does finally take some of this discussion of the QUAD away from the grand chessboard in the Asia Pacific basin towards these doorstep issues, which is health, ensuring that a greater number of people are protected against this and then, of course, future pandemics because this isn't going to be the last one.

The tech security question—you raised the Colonial Pipeline hack, but of course there are so many areas where we are dependent on these technologies—and then of course supply chains, which I think the last year really brought home at the doorstep level to people the extent to which China is an integral part of supply chains and then the concern that if the relationship with China gets impacted, how does that impact everything from whether or not you can get a new car because there are no semiconductor chips available for it, or you can't get personal protective equipment.

Then, of course, India's position, to be able to say, "Look, we can be part of an alternate supply chain with Japan, with Australia, and then with other partners." So I think the framing of this has changed.

What is your sense as to how that is playing out in domestic politics in either country? Do you think this creates more of a rationale where people don't—because my read before was that I think many Indians felt that the U.S. attitude was, "We're going to fight China to the last Indian," perhaps, and that from the U.S. perspective it was like the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative: "This is the United States giving away a lot of things to pursue some grand strategy, but then of course I'm going to be out of a job and the factory is going to close in my hometown, so I don't see a benefit from this." Are you seeing any kind of shift in attitudes or a sense that this is a better way to ground the QUAD?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: Right. It's great to have a diverse agenda, and obviously they reflect the priorities of the four governments at the moment.

I would say two things. On the security side I think we have seen a big shift in India, a lot of that motivated by deteriorating India-China ties. Basically in 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2020 we have seen four major India-China border standoffs. The first two resolved relatively easily and peacefully. The 2017 one, because it involved a third country, Bhutan, was actually more complicated, but 2020—and it continues to this day—is actually the most significant one. Last June it led to the first fatal clashes between India and China since the 1970s, but the most significant ones were in 1967. We had about 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers die.

That has changed the security discussion. I think there is a growing understanding and appreciation of where the U.S.-India relationship can play a role in the larger balance of power in the region. I think that has shifted. It is helped by the fact that public opinion surveys are very supportive of a closer India-U.S. relationship in India, so I think that has helped.

On the economic side I think there is a growing realization in both countries that the kind of old trade arrangements focused on manufactured goods are going to be more difficult politically now because trade has essentially flattened certainly as a percentage of gross domestic product since 2008. In some ways the pie isn't growing as much anymore. You have not seen an organic flow away from China to other manufacturing centers with a few exceptions.

So suddenly this has become a question of jobs and there is concern. The United States and India have the first and third largest current account deficits, with the United Kingdom being the second, and so both are net-importing countries, and that makes it doubly hard to make trade concessions of any kind. I think the idea of the sort of trade agreement of the kind that we saw in the 1990s and 2000s with the United States doing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is going to be a real stretch going forward.

Therefore, I think we will see more of an emphasis on services trade, on research-and-development opportunities, and on certain critical technologies where the United States could benefit from certain Indian skill sets and India can benefit from certain access to U.S. technology. Those are the areas where I think there is, at least in the next few years, true opportunities for forward progress in the U.S.-India relationship, something that would benefit both countries but not really come at the expense of domestic jobs or anything. In fact, it would actually generate more jobs and more value for both countries equally.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am so curious. You said that public opinion is supportive of an improved U.S.-India relationship. Can you talk more about that polling and that change and why?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: Yes. It's quite striking. Since the early 2000s there has been an overwhelmingly positive sentiment in the few surveys that are conducted in India about attitudes towards other countries. Consistently India ranks amongst the highest countries in terms of positive views of the United States and lowest negatives. It has ebbed and flowed, but even after the Iraq War I think India, Poland, and the Philippines were the only countries which had the highest ratings of the United States during the War on Terror. Even during the Trump years, while there was a dip, it wasn't as significant as it was in many other countries, and it still remains quite robust.

The reasons for that are unclear. We don't fully know. But I think two things seem to have played a role because there are correlations in other polls that are conducted. One is that Indians still see by and large the United States as the number-one land of opportunity. This is again not necessarily reflected in Europe or in parts of East Asia or the Middle East, where other countries, the European Union or other places, feature highly, but in India this is still a strong view.

I think that is related to the second point, which is the success of the Indian American community. You have roughly 4 million Indian Americans, who by most measures are amongst the most educated and most wealthy ethnic group in the United States. So their example and their success and the fact that all of them have relatives and friends back in India does seem to have created a favorable impression. My affiliated organization, ORF, is doing a survey which will come out soon of Indian youth, and again across the board there are very high positive views of the United States.

TATIANA SERAFIN: My favorite topic is Gen Z. I believe that they are going to drive significant global change in attitudes and in relationships. Can you give us any sneak peeks on the survey or findings? I'm particularly interested in cross-cultural connections between India and the United States.

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: I cannot speak specifically about the survey. One of my takeaways was just the view of the United States, but I think one thing is quite remarkable: The largest number of people born in any country at any time in history will quite possibly be people born in India between 2005 and 2007. That will be the cohort which will be the largest demographic in India, and by extension in the world, and given declining birthrates everywhere, including in India now, that may very well be the largest in history. This is quite significant because that cohort will now be 14 to 16 years old currently, and their worldview will be quite interesting to observe because it will determine quite a lot about India's place in the world and by extension other things as well.

I think we know a few things about them: One, they have a very strong sense of identity. I think this is something that will be an issue, whether it is their cultural identity, where they're from, some would say more nationalistic. Younger Indians tend to be, again according to most polls, more nationalistic in many ways, which is not something one might expect. They are also very digitally savvy. They are more interconnected to the world in some ways than at any time in the past, given the degree of digital penetration.

I think there will be real concerns about employment and educational opportunities, and that is something where both the Indian state will deliver, but also other countries in some ways see an opportunity in India as well. The second-largest number of foreign students around the world, after Chinese students, are Indian students today, and the top destinations for them to go are the United States, Canada, Australia, and some in the United Kingdom, and it is growing in some other places. I was talking to somebody from Lithuania who was saying, "You know, we have for the size of our country a sizable number of Indian students here," and that is changing perceptions largely for the better of India. It is at least increasing their importance.

Again, that youth bulge is playing out in very unexpected ways and will play out in some very unexpected ways, both positive and negative, going forward.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think what you have raised here speaks volumes—and Tatiana has obviously been covering this and is very interested in it—that the idea of new ways of connectivity, the combination of a greater degree of mobility plus the embrace of digital tools allows for people to move across what were previously broad geographic distances. They can maintain connections, they can maintain ties, and certainly the idea of demographic shifts within the United States leading to changes in policy I think is something that we are seeing.

The idea that you have more Americans who trace their heritage and connection back to India drives towards better relations between India and the United States, but certainly all of those levels of interconnections that we are traditionally used to seeing across the Atlantic, certainly with the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent with Germany, but now a growing community of Americans who are connected culturally but also educationally, in business terms, maintaining those connections I think speaks to this idea of the shift in the United States really towards becoming much more of an Indo-Pacific power, not simply from strategic grounds but also from demographic ones. Certainly when we had Admiral Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman discussing on The Doorstep book talk about their novel 2034: A Novel of the Next World War their deliberate choice of Indian American characters that are connected to India as part of the story that they were laying out was very much reflecting this shift.

You have talked about these connections and where we have similarities, but also maybe you can discuss where there can be points of divergence between India and the United States. Obviously, India wants a closer relationship with the United States but also wants to keep its options open, certainly vis-à-vis Russia and other powers, that India and Indian politics may have a different conception on social and political issues than where opinion is shifting in the United States. What do you see as some of the pitfalls perhaps for the U.S.-India relationship that we ought to be paying attention to?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: If you look at the three "pillars," as I think of them in the relationship—the strategic, the economic, and the people-to-people and values element of the relationship—I would say broadly there is more and more convergence in all three areas, although at different paces and different rates. However, again there are those differences.

On the strategic side, the biggest ones concern different approaches to Russia. India has a longstanding relationship with Russia dating back to the 1950s, in fact, the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1990s they continued being a major defense trade partner, and still to this day Russia is the number-one defense trade partner of India. The United States is now a good number two, but Russia still remains in the mix from India's strategic perspective and remains a priority for that reason.

I wouldn't over-stress that because I do think that beyond defense and some other strategic technologies—space and nuclear cooperation—the rest of the relationship isn't as robust. The people-to-people relationship and trade have increased a little bit but not very much. Energy relations even aren't as robust as they could be. But that is one.

A second is Iran, where again India is actually developing closer relations with Israel and the Gulf Arab states over the last few years, but there still remains an important relationship with Iran. It is actually probably going to become more important in the next couple of years because of the war in Afghanistan where India and Iran will probably be coordinating much more, partly because they have similar concerns about the Taliban there. And sometimes India has been caught in the crossfire between the United States and Iran, when sanctions have been levied. India is developing a major port in a place called Chabahar, and that has complicated the development of that port.

On the strategic side those are the two big challenges. The Russia bit may come to a head a little bit because India is acquiring a major anti-aircraft system from Russia which would put it in line for potential sanctions from the United States, so navigating that—and that involves not just the executive branch but also the U.S. Congress—will be a little bit tricky over the next couple of years. I do believe a solution can be found that will keep all parties happy, but it will be a bit complicated.

On the economic side, as I said, traditional goods trade and major trade agreements involving goods trade will be very problematic in the near future, and again, beyond the larger concerns about jobs and manufacturing there are still concerns on agriculture, on environmental and labor standards, and a bunch of other things. Again, I don't see too much progress there, although I think that can be bypassed in many ways by focusing on other areas of economic cooperation.

Finally, on the values piece, I would say the one big difference, as I alluded to earlier, was that younger Americans tend to be more small-L liberal in terms of their values. They tend to vote more Democratic, and younger Indians—obviously they have a wide variety of views on lots of things—in some ways are much more open-minded and have much greater exposure and are also much more rooted I think in identity politics, and over time I think that will create different views on a lot of social issues going forward.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do want to raise this as a journalist: Is one of the issues treatment of dissent and the press and how much free speech people are willing to accept or not accept?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: I think here there are forces moving in opposite directions. On the one hand, you have a very vibrant, raucous media environment in India. You just have to watch Indian television or read the press and you see all sorts of views reflected there. On the other hand, it's interesting, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment of the Indian Constitution are almost opposite. One consolidates absolute freedom of speech in the United States. In India legally—and this has been the case since the 1950s—there are some limitations as to what constitutes free speech. That is often open to interpretation as well.

Interestingly enough, that's another area where surveys show that Indians, including youths, are actually supportive of certain constraints of freedom of expression. That is to say I think we have a very different context in the two countries, and at times they are going to come into conflict with each other.

In some ways the place it is playing out the most is in the online sphere, where on the one hand people are used to being able to say whatever they want online, sometimes under the cloak of anonymity, and in some ways the adoption of that technology over the past 20 years or so has not kept pace with the law and legislation and regulation.

India is not alone in this. I think it is a universal problem, but it is particularly acute in India where again some of the laws that apply are pre-digital, and even some of the digital laws that came into force really came into place in the 1990s and early 2000s, when digital penetration was much lower in India. So I think we are going to be in a period of this tension here, which is how to regulate freedom of expression online.

Again, the context in the United States and the context in India is going to be very, very different, but in some ways one could look at it almost as a gradient: Freedom of speech laws in Germany are not the same as in the United States; South Korea is not the same as Germany; India is not the same as South Korea. The tech companies have tried to adopt community guidelines for the world. That has been Facebook's approach, and that is again coming up against some real differences in national and local laws, and it is playing out in India amongst other places.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is also leading to—and I think this is interesting because the United States has stood up and said things against China and its treatment of journalists and dissidents and dissident voices, and I haven't seen the same kind of—the United States saying something against India's suppression of some dissident voices, and I wonder what you think about that, if that is because we want to focus on creating a better relationship so we are going to ignore the things that we might call out other countries doing?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: The United States does make statements on human rights and personal freedoms in other countries a lot and has with respect to India as well. I do think the situation in India is much more complex than that. It is certainly not comparable in my mind to China in terms of how the media is able to operate and so forth.

There are also issues where a lot of it falls not just under national laws in India but under state and local laws, so sometimes that is a mitigating factor both ways. So I do think it is a bit more complicated. I am not sure if that is the only reason that we see a different approach, but obviously I think that is part of it.

What is interesting is that again most surveys show this pretty clearly, that most Indians do think of their own country very much as a democratic country and very much as a pluralistic country, but you also see strong support for certain constraints in freedom of expression and strong concerns for the role of the state in regulating content. Again, you see certain areas where public sentiment is much more in alignment with the United States and other Western countries, but you also see other areas where it does not align as cleanly.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Having said that too, I think we are also going through—we need to regulate tech giants more here in the United States.

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: That has certainly been part of it. There is not a lot of sympathy right now politically in many governments around the world for the Big Tech companies, although again the concerns they have are often very different from one another.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What other things are you looking forward to when Blinken comes to Delhi next week? What are people talking about?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: The State Department did announce some of the issues that would be on the agenda. Obviously, I think the QUAD will be one, QUAD cooperation and touching base on a whole bunch of QUAD-related initiatives before the summit later this year, if that happens. Afghanistan I think will be another topic as the United States draws down there but has also its concerns. Some issues obviously on the bilateral agenda possibly, although some of that falls outside the remit of the State Department strictly. But I would say those are the big issues. Of course, I would say COVID-19 relief would be very high up on the agenda. I believe the State Department indicated that QUAD, Afghanistan, and vaccine diplomacy and COVID-19 would be the key bits of it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that continues to be a big conversation here too. There was another variant that just came out after Delta—I forgot the name of it—today, so I think we will be—

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: There is the Lambda variant.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Lambda, yes. I think that will continue to be part of the conversation here, especially as schools start in September as we are all looking towards the fall.

One last issue, though, we haven't really touched on and I think that we need to is climate and energy. I know that our environmental czar Kerry has looked to India as a partner in changing and moving forward on some initiatives. Can you talk to us about some of that?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: I think we have come a long way on the climate discussion as well. During the 1990s and really up to the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the United States and India really did not see eye to eye on a lot of climate-related issues. The concern in India was that the developed world, including the United States, should be doing a lot more including on climate financing, basically putting a lot more of the burden on the developing world in a way that would compromise their own development future trajectory. So India worked with China, Brazil, and South Africa to block in some way some of the consensus that would have emerged at Copenhagen, and that left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

A lot of that changed by the time the Paris climate summit came around. Partly I think the technology and green financing had matured to the point where it wasn't a hard zero-sum choice that India and other developing countries had to make between development and sustainability, that both of those objectives could be pursued simultaneously. So you saw India working with France to take a more forward-leaning position at the Paris climate summit and ensure that there was some consensus there.

Today I think we are at a slightly different point. On the one hand, India has very ambitious and large renewable targets that it is pursuing. Again, some studies by independent actors suggest that India is one of the few major economies that is in line to meet its Paris climate targets. Most European countries are not. Japan is not. Russia is not. The United States certainly is not.

At the same time, I think there are still some concerns about the financing piece of it and what the United States and others are going to bring to the table, so in the run-up to the Glasgow summit later this year there will be some I think very hard negotiations involving the United States, India, and some other countries on that matter. Secretary Kerry did visit India a few months ago and I think left on a seemingly mostly positive note. So hopefully I think we will see a pathway towards the Glasgow summit that should see some meaningful agreement on the path forward for climate change.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think this circles back to what you said earlier about emerging technologies being a pillar of the relationship because certainly sharing of technologies, pioneering of new, greener energy technologies will definitely be a part of the relationship. Of course, I think the G20 environmental ministers are concluding their meetings in Naples as we are discussing it, and it does seem there is a greater willingness to try to find that common ground moving forward.

But of course, one of the things in the run-up to Naples, which I think is quite an interesting statistic, is that between Paris and getting ready for Glasgow is a lot of talk from all governments about climate targets but also looking very much at the short-term economics of voting, including things like fuel subsidies and again making sure people can have access to cars and things like that. So I think that is going to be an interesting thing moving forward, which is that all governments are going to have to navigate this tightrope between longer-term climate policy and, for all the ones that are democracies, the fact that you need to get mandates from your voters at regular intervals, and voters may not want to pay higher prices or see restrictions.

That has always been something that I have been interested in, and perhaps some of your thoughts as we are rounding out, which is—and you have already alluded to it in discussing some of the tensions in climate—this idea that subsequent governments in India essentially have a bargain with the population as we have seen in China—the Chinese model is certainly much more authoritarian—to guarantee in essence that people can have access to a middle-class lifestyle, that everyone should be able to have access to certain goods and services and a standard of living that is commensurate beyond, that pushes people into that middle class, education being a part of it, as you said, but then you have to make sure that the opportunities are there.

Do you see the possibility as the U.S.-India relationship evolves that there is going to be this kind of shared understanding of—essentially the Biden administration has made this a central point in their plank of a foreign policy that benefits the middle class. That is the rhetoric that Jake Sullivan is using as national security advisor. Do you think in the end that this will provide a convergence that will enable the relationship to move forward?

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: That's a great question. I would say yes and no. Obviously, again I think there are some similar concerns—job scarcity, both the United States and India are relatively young countries, and so we will have positive demographics for the near future, at least. At the same time, I think I would underscore that India is still very much a developing country and that the concerns remain—although considerable progress has been made—about some very basic things, what we would consider the middle class in the United States would take for granted: providing electricity for everybody; there is right now a major push underway to provide pipe drinking water in key states; sanitation and toilets. There has been a big public sector push in that direction; basic literacy.

The numbers are moving up, but they are still not there. They are certainly not where China is, let alone the United States. I think we still have a lot of, for lack of a better word, "developing world" concerns that will preoccupy India for the near future, at least for the next decade or two, although that is becoming a sort of diminished issue. Now you have a growing number of people with college degrees in India who are in search of jobs and who no longer feel like they need or want to do manual labor. How do you ensure employment for those people? That is again creating a second-order set of concerns for a lot of Indians as people move away from agriculture to something else, and I think there are still a lot of big question marks as to what is that something else. Will it really be manufacturing?

Just to give one anecdote, somebody who runs a major clothing company in India has told me that it is cheaper now for them to have robots producing some of their clothes than cheap labor because there are fewer mistakes and it is easier to manufacture at scale. If that is the case in India where you have a lot of surplus labor, you are going to have some real questions about employment in years ahead.

I think the sweet spot will be finding ways that the U.S. and India can cooperate in ways that will really create value and create jobs in both countries over time. I think quite optimistically that it will be a mixed bag. There will be some areas where that will work quite well and other areas which will remain quite contested for the reasons you mention.

TATIANA SERAFIN: On that note, I do want to say there are so many "help wanted" signs everywhere here in New York. I don't know if you are seeing the same thing where you are in Rhode Island and DC, but I definitely think we are going to be talking about employment as a doorstep issue for a long time to come.

Thank you so much for joining us, Dhruva. We so appreciate your time. Again, executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America. Please follow Dhruva and his work. If you have questions or comments, contact us on Twitter @DoorstepPodcast. We look forward to hearing from you. Thank you again.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

DHRUVA JAISHANKAR: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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