India a global security power: U.S. top diplomat

‘I spoke to the Congress yesterday [June 8], and they want to talk about the India relationship because they see this is the anchor in the Indo Pacific. This is the way that we guarantee security, not only for Asia, but for the United States and for the rest of the world,’ says Donald Lu

June 15, 2022 07:58 pm | Updated June 16, 2022 01:32 pm IST

Donald Lu.

Donald Lu.

The U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu, spoke to The Hindu’s Sriram Lakshman in a wide-ranging interview, in which he discussed his forthcoming trip to Texas (June 15-17) to engage with the South Asian diaspora and companies, India’s security role, bilateral human rights discussions, and visas.

On the State Department’s push to engage domestically with the Indian and South Asian diaspora...

Well, I have had the great privilege of working on South Asia generally, but specifically India, since the mid-1990s. And what has been true then, and is very much true today, is that the heart of this relationship is not governments talking to each other. It’s not even businesses talking to each other. It’s families, right? It’s the interconnectedness. We have a million people travelling back and forth between the United States and India every year. And so we want to channel that. We want to make sure that we are listening to the diaspora, that we are responsive to their interests, but that we’re also engaging them and being part of making this relationship fuller and more developed. They’ve got a lot of great ideas, particularly on the commercial side. And we want to make full use of that.

What can we expect from your trip [to Houston and Dallas] in terms of announcements in the commercial sphere? What are the specific types of engagements that you’re having?

One of the things I’m most excited about is going to a company in Texas called First Solar. First Solar is the company that’s working in Chennai to produce solar modules that will support Prime Minister Modi’s goal of 500 gigawatts of non-fossil fuel and solar energy by 2030. This is the biggest investment that the Development Finance Corporation has ever done — $500 million in a single factory and deployment of all of these solar cells. It’s going to produce an amazing amount of energy for the Indian economy. And I think it’s a model for going forward — not only from the United States, but from a whole range of countries around the world.

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On whether there is a feedback mechanism between diaspora interactions and policy changes at the State Department, U.S. government and the U.S.- India bilateral relationship...

So one of the wonderful things that I’m seeing is that there are South Asian Americans joining government in numbers I’ve never seen before — at levels of seniority that I’ve never seen before.

So a couple of examples that I’ll use is, in my own office, one of our new Deputy Assistant Secretaries is a person of Indian American descent. And we have as our new international religious freedom coordinator, someone of Indian descent, Rashad Hussain. And we have the Secretary of State’s new senior business development person, for the whole world, is Dilawar Syed, who is also someone of South Asian descent.

We’re seeing not only consultation with the diaspora, we’re finding that many of the people who are actually making the policy are people who themselves were born in South Asia or their parents were born in South Asia and they have this cultural, linguistic, and family context that makes us able to be better professionals.

I’m super excited about what we’re doing with commercial sphere. We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about women’s empowerment in commerce when we’re there [in Texas]. We have the U.S.-India alliance for women’s empowerment that aims to mentor five million women entrepreneurs in India. We’re already seeing incredible strides on that project. I hope by our work in Texas, we’re going to see even more American companies signing on to be part of this.

On reports of individuals in need of H-1B visa appointments at U.S. missions in India getting drop-box appointments that are far out in the future, sometimes in 2023 — is this something that you plan to look into?

Well, we know that there are delays in this process, but what I can also verify is it’s getting better, not worse, that we’re in touch with our colleagues who, both staff our visa sections in the many places that we offer services in India, as well as people looking at the metrics all throughout India and South Asia. And we see improvement week on week.

Yes, in a particular post, there may be a glitch that causes a delay of several additional weeks. But as a whole, throughout the country, we’re seeing wait times continue to go down. In addition to that, the White House … has announced some initiatives that will not only give workers a chance to come in greater numbers, but also students a chance to stay on after completing their academic study, (particularly graduate students) and work legally in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields for up to two years following their study.

We’ve increased the topics [qualifying academic areas] in which those students are able to work, but we’ve also increased the actual numbers as well as this J-1 category (exchange visitors) that is also now allowing internships and paid research, all sorts of new opportunities, particularly in STEM fields...

Many will say that the Trump administration was less friendly towards immigrants and foreign students. What is your message to individuals who are concerned about making a long term bet on the U.S. because policies can change in three years?

I would note it’s a big investment for families who decide to send their boys and girls to study in the United States. It is an investment. Many times there will be scholarships either by governments or private institutions, and it’s expensive in that way. I would argue that there’s no way that this is transient, that what we see is a growth curve for our cooperation in higher education, which is steadily rising over the course of decades now. It has reached 200,000 [Indian] students at present, the second largest number of international students from any country is from India today. And we’re very proud of that, but it’s also for our self-interest that that continues. One, because it strengthens our universities. Two, because it strengthens our economy…

On the larger relationship between the US and India and the region: In 2017, the Trump administration released its South Asia strategy and there was also an articulation of the Indo Pacific strategy. The Biden administration also released its Indo Pacific strategy a few months ago. When can we expect a South Asia strategy from the administration?

Well, I’ll tell you that we are working very closely with the National Security Council, with our interagency colleagues, both on policies to make sure they are crystallised within this administration, for India and for Pakistan. I believe that trend will continue throughout South Asia, but we already have very established goals and objectives and plans for our engagement in India and Pakistan and you are seeing the results of that right now. Our engagement is at a record high level of high-level engagement but also working groups that are trying to implement the decisions of our bosses as we come up with good ideas.

We had the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence meeting Ministers Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh here in April; we had the President meeting with Prime Minister Modi in May. We have lots of other visits stacked up for the coming months. We’re very excited about what’s happening now. And I can continue to believe this will fuel growth in both of our economies, but also as we look to balance other powers in the world, this collaboration is very, very important.

I spoke to the Congress yesterday, and they want to talk about the India relationship because they see this is the anchor in the Indo Pacific. This is the way that we guarantee security, not only for Asia, but for the United States and for the rest of the world, if we get this relationship right.

Should we expect the articulation of that strategy, all the elements being brought together and presented as a South Asian strategy during the Biden administration? Should we expect that as a formal document?

That’s a great question. I can’t speak for the White House about whether that’s in the cards. So far what I’ve seen is, we’re doing individual strategies for individual countries.

So what are the challenges you are facing with not having a Senate confirmed Ambassador in New Delhi, and how are you overcoming those challenges?

Well, we are really excited about the President’s nominee, Eric Garcetti, going to New Delhi. I have been lucky enough in my career to work for both career State Department people who have been Ambassador in India, as well as political appointees chosen by the President. Eric Garcetti is someone who knows India well but he’s also a leader in the United States and will represent our country with distinction there. It is taking longer than we would have liked. Our system is very slow. But I am confident within the next few months that we’re going to have a confirmed Ambassador there. I know the Congress cares deeply about this. And the President does as well. I ask for a little patience on behalf of our Indian counterparts. I think those who know the United States well, know that our process sometimes takes a little time. It’s not untrue in many parts of the world, we’re still waiting for our Ambassadors to be confirmed.

And have there been any major challenges because you don’t have the President’s nominee in Delhi yet?

I think we’ve been really pleased by the fact that our colleagues in the Ministry of External Affairs and throughout the Indian government have been really understanding of the fact that it’s taking a little time and really welcomed our Chargé d’Affaires Patricia Lacinia there and we work very well together in the absence of an Ambassador, but we are working hard every day to make sure we have a fully confirmed Ambassador on the ground in India.

About the human rights dialogue between the United States and India: The Government of India’s response to the U.S’s criticism of human rights violations in India has been that there is “vote bank politics” going on in the U.S. What is your response to this, and has the dialogue between both countries progressed since the start of the Biden administration in terms of human rights?

We’ve had several excellent discussions with the Indian government, and I would say the Indian government is clear that they also have human rights concerns in the United States, particularly relating to the treatment of people of South Asian descent in the United States. So it goes both ways. And I think that’s a healthy development that’s happened in our relationship.

I’m a big believer that of the many countries I get to work on, or that I’ve worked on in my 30-year career, India has the most dynamic democracy, believes in the values that the United States does. So one of the things that I believe that we can do as a partner is to support Indian democratic institutions, your [India’s] independent courts, your very free media - some would argue to free media - your robust civil society;  that we should as a partner, look for ways that we can contribute to those democratic institutions, through exchanges, our judges and our prosecutors, training of journalists that goes both ways because, honestly, we have a lot to learn from Indian journalists and talking about how our civil society in America supports Indian civil society and vice versa.

We have a lot, as democracies, we can do together. If we can do that successfully, I believe these democratic institutions will uphold human rights standards in India. I don’t think it’s going to be that foreign countries are able to fundamentally change how other foreign countries deal with human rights. But, I think if we can support these internal institutions of democracy, that’s really where we get the biggest bang for the buck, and that we can find ways to cooperate in support of our common goals on human rights and democracy.

We don’t see much emphasis from the U.S. on the Indian Ocean part of the Indo Pacific. Is that because the U.S. is building an understanding with India and its partners regarding security oversight of the Indian Ocean?

… I would say it is completely accurate to say that the Indian Navy and the Indian military and the Indian government are very focused on the security of the Indian Ocean. I don’t think it’s right to say we don’t care…that’s not true at all. But we also have a lot of confidence that the Indian government, the military, are focused on the threats in the Indian Ocean, that you actually have [ i.e., India has]  a very robust Navy, that you are creating capabilities today that will ensure the security of this broader region, not just the Indian Ocean, but far afield.

We see Indian naval vessels now transiting many parts of the globe. You are not only a security provider in the narrow Indian Subcontinent, you are a global security power now, and that’s what’s in the interest of the United States — that you are militarily ready, but that you are also able to project that power far beyond your borders, because we are partners that share a common view of the security of Asia and of the world and we want India to be able to project that power. And we are working in very concrete ways, right now, between our militaries, to talk about how do we cooperate more intensively, which is complex, multi- services exercises, but it’s also: How do we get our defence systems to work better together? How do we help India to develop but also to obtain some of the best defence equipment in the world?

P8-I … who was the very first international customer of the P8-I in the world? It was India. We are trusting India with technology that we, at that point in time, had never trusted with anyone else. We are currently leasing MQ-9 B Predator drones to India. That’s a very small number of countries in the world that have access to that technology. And there’s, right now, testing going on of the F-18 aircraft in Goa with respect to your Indian aircraft carriers. This is a very exciting area of cooperation with us. And I can see a lot of interest on the Indian side to deepen that relationship.

Explained | What is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity?

Is a visit by President Biden to India on the cards such as, say, for the next Republic Day?

I am working every day to try to encourage my big boss, the President, to visit India. I have the honour of working in India when President Biden visited [Mr. Biden has visited India in the past, such as in 2013, when he was Vice-President] and when President Clinton visited as well. There is nothing like an American Presidential visit to create warmth, goodwill and progress in a relationship. So I’m a huge supporter of this. I can’t tell you a date because I can’t speak for the White House, but we are working on this very closely with our Indian counterparts.

On the visa appointment issue again: You said the wait times are coming down. Can you commit to doing something proactively to bring those times down?

Throughout the pandemic, we weren’t able to fully staff our visa sections because of limitations of the number of people allowed to come into our spaces, because wanted to control this disease. We were not producing visas … [inaudible audio]. That has dramatically changed. We are fully staffing — as of the summer —  all of our visa sections throughout Mission India, and we’re going to be able to see dramatic reductions in wait times over the next few months.

So everyone should stay tuned. Everyone has been so patient with us. I travel a lot. I know that visas really matter. We’re going to see, over the course of the next few months, those wait times go back to a normal level from pre-pandemic [level]. We’re focused on that, I know that Indian families are focused on it.

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