The Russia-Ukraine war has sparked global concerns over loss of life and property, as well as its impact on the economies of most countries hit by massive supply-chain disruptions. With the world already ravaged by the Covid pandemic, the ongoing conflict is expected to trigger a sharp rise in inflation in countries like India. New Delhi’s neutral stance on the war has also complicated ties with the United States and many other Western nations.
In an interview with CNN-News18 during a visit to India, former American diplomat Atul Keshap, who recently took over as the president of the United States-India Business Council (USIBC), part of the US Chamber of Commerce, put forward his views on the repercussions of the conflict in Eastern Europe, the nature of India-US ties, and their future. Edited excerpts:
The US and allies are revoking the most preferred nation status of Russia for trade. How much pressure is it likely to impose on Russia? To what extent can Russia take specific countermeasures?
I don’t speak for the Russians. What I can say as the head of a major American trade association is that, you know in life, we have to deal with the consequences of actions. And because of those actions, the whole world is trying to figure out a way forward. The war that has been unleashed has an impact on American and Indian people in terms of energy prices, inflation, commodity prices, and this is where the genius of our two societies and our two economies and our values come together. Our companies are world-class, innovative, and react to market events. I think given the very strong energy leadership of both the US and India, we can work to address this on a global scale and try to reduce energy prices for both of our people and thereby tackle inflation and ensure that people’s wages are of greater value. So innovation is gonna get us through this and trust is gonna get us through this. Partnership is gonna get us through this. In life, we have no control over what gets dealt to us sometimes but we can absolutely control how we react. I think our companies are ready. When I say our companies, I don’t mean American companies. I mean American and Indian companies, because there are many Indian companies that are also members, valuable members, of the United States and its business council.
After the US looked at sanctioning oil/gas from Russia, the EU has also indicated that it will reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas by 2027. Meanwhile, the Russian deputy PM made a call to the Indian minister of petroleum and natural gas. Where does this leave India? India surely needs more energy options but is this too slippery an option in current times. Could it upend its ties with the US?
I believe in the power of free enterprise. I believe that the power of free enterprise drives the happiness of our people. I also believe in the very basic foundation of reality that free people should trade and invest with each other, and create free world supply chains because we trust each other. We believe in each other. The United States has some of the world’s leading companies in terms of all of the elements of the energy pipe: oil and gas, nuclear, renewable. Our companies are absolutely at the top of the game. And so, I always believe that the best partners for the United States are democracies. India is a great democracy. It will make its own decisions on what is best for its people. But this is where America offers an amazing and very unique value proposition. We are very solid and stable, we are robust democracy, we have frankly enormous reserves of oil and gas. We can leverage not only that but the investments of American companies all around the world in ensuring highly resilient oil and gas supply lines. They don’t get pinched by geography. And these are the things that no other country can offer. You just don’t have to buy it, you also have to ship and deliver it. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t result in greater financial complications. So, these are the decisions for India. What I can say is whether it is marginal nuclear, solar, wind, turbine, or its oil and gas, American companies have deeply invested in India. They love the vision of India becoming a 10 trillion dollar economy, prosperous happy Indian people contributing to global order, peace, and happiness. I think they want to be a part of that. They’re ready and Indian companies are similarly ready, and that is the genius of free enterprise between democratic polities.
After India’s stand at the UN over Ukraine, the sense I got from some European countries is that the West might choose to have a transactional relationship with India from here on and not one based on shared values and principles. Is that the sentiment even in the US administration or has the US shown more understanding of India’s dilemma in this crisis?
So you have to look at the signals coming out from both of the governments. I don’t speak for the US government, I am a retiree. I thought it was very interesting that amidst the backdrop of geostrategic tensions, the US, Australia, Japan, and India held a Quad meeting at very short notice. It showed the great confidence and mutual regard that we have for each other. And the notions that great Indo-Pacific democracies need to talk to each other, consult each other, and increase our project of convergence. This to me is vitally important. I take a very long view on these things. Look at the history of India over the past hundred years. Indians, by millions, helped liberate Europe not once, but twice. Indians by the millions stood up for freedom twice in the 20th century. Indians have always believed in the peaceful interplay between the states. Indian peacekeepers wearing blue UN helmets have been in every place of the world. Because India always has proven itself to be a believer in rules-based international order, peaceful settlements of disputes. It has always believed in and upheld the UN charter. It has never advocated the use of violence as a means to end relations. We have seen what that looks like in the past 10,000 years of human societies. The UN charter is important, Indians have held it for a century or more and I think that is the track record that matters. The US and India are bound to each other in a common destiny of Indo-Pacific partners. We are great democracies, each in our own hemispheres. I do believe that we are the pillars of rules-based international order and we have a positive ambitious vision for humanity. It doesn’t just include our 1.7 billion citizens, it includes every person on this planet. The Europeans may have their views but I have a very long-term, very positive, and ambitious view that our two countries will have the most consequential bilateral partnership of any two countries going forward.
India is moving forward on trade deals with Australia and the UK. Some announcements have been made regarding Canada and one has been wrapped up with the UAE. What happens to any deal with the US? Why is it still on the backburner?
Well, I don’t need to tell you about politics in large and pluralistic democracies. The great thing about Indians and Americans is that we are free people, and we are free to express our opinions, and we have fear of no authority in constraining that. Indeed, we inspire the entire world about the freedoms and rights of humanity. There is very complicated politics in the US, and that’s the reality we can’t ignore. The world has shown us that there are huge challenges out there that we need to overcome. My personal view and the view of USIBC membership, 250 absolutely top companies all around the world, Indians and Americans, hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue, is that a framework between the US and India, that helps in giving confidence to your investors and our investors, your workers and our workers, the two governments, is gonna be a good thing. We have already seen a run-up of India-US trade ties. I am espousing the then VP Joe Biden’s vision of 500-billion dollars in trade between the US and India in goods and services. I think we will get there. I think we will get there faster with some sort of framework, whatever that is, and again because we have democratic politics, we have to do something that our people will support. I give credit to the administrators for thinking of the Indo-Pacific economic framework, I think that is very positive and constructive. Let’s see how India-US discussions go on that. There was a very good trade policy forum in November last year between minister Goyal and US trade representative ambassador Tai. I saw minister Goyal on this trip and we had a very good discussion. I like the fact that India is showing ambition, and with all of these trade arrangements, India wants to become a 10-trillion dollar economy. India wants its people to lift up to new heights of prosperity. You cannot do that without global trade. And ideally, you do it with your friends, people whom you trust, people with who you have mutual regard, and shared values. I was on the plane the other day packed with Indians and Indo-Americans going back home. A gentleman behind me was 92 years old and his children were behind him taking care of him, the grandchildren were in the back. That’s the genius of our two countries, no other country has that. There are 4.5 to 5 million Indian Americans, so I am passionately committed to seeing that vision realised. I think we can do it. There is a positive momentum right now. And frankly, the tensions of the pandemic and the tension of the war that has been thrust upon us really require us to put in the effort now; it is time to break through the old limitations. I worked during the era of the nuclear deal; if we can get that done, we can get anything done.
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