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Covid vaccine, energy, IT to be building blocks for India’s engagement with Biden govt

India believes it will take the new US govt some time to focus on key policy areas of defence and trade, so it will focus on ‘non-traditional’ areas of cooperation.

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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government is focusing on some of the “non-traditional areas” to engage with the new US administration under President-elect Joe Biden as it will take some time for Washington to focus on the key policy segments of defence and security, trade and business, multiple sources told ThePrint.

In an effort to hit it off with the Democratic administration, the Modi dispensation is planning to put immediate policy focus on cooperation in Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine production, top-level Indian diplomatic sources told ThePrint.

Biden has already announced that controlling the spiralling coronavirus cases will be his topmost priority for which he has even set up a task force that is expected to begin work in full speed from January 2021 onward.

India is hoping to be one of the key partners in the task force, while it will also participate in the “bulk production of Covid vaccines”, a top official involved in the process said.

“We are going to be the natural partners when the US begins the mass production for Covid-19 vaccines,” the official said.

The task force will be co-chaired by Indian-American Dr Vivek Murthy, who is originally from Karnataka. One of the members in the task force, Celine Gounder, an assistant professor in the New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, also has her origins in India.

“Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts,” Biden had said, while announcing the task force on 9 November.

The US President-elect had also said during his victory speech on 7 November that the Covid task force would translate his campaign promises “into an action blueprint that starts on 20 January 2021”.

Biden will be sworn into office on 20 January 2021.

India is also “hopeful” of a solid beginning with the appointment of Biden’s long-time aide Ron Klain as the White House Chief of Staff. 

Taranjit Sandhu, Ambassador of India to the US, recently met Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, and held discussions with her on a range of bilateral issues between India and the US.

“Thanked Senator @SenDuckworth for her support for the India-US strategic partnership in a virtual meeting today. Discussed the close people-to-people ties between our two democracies and growing partnership in healthcare, commerce, digital and innovation spheres,” Sandhu said in a tweet.

Sandhu also discussed vaccine development, therapeutics and internal medicine with Albert Bourla, CEO of American pharma major Pfizer.

Also read: Trump or Biden? Doesn’t matter to India-US ties as they’re in a full, strategic embrace

‘Renewable energy to be new area of convergence’

Another area of “convergence” where India is focusing on teaming up with the Biden administration is in the area of new and renewable energy, especially in solar energy and LNG imports, said another top official.

According to the official, this is one sector that will see a continuation of the work that had taken place under the Donald Trump administration as the US will keep its focus on India intact when it comes to energy exports.

In fact, energy partnership was one of the main focus areas during Modi’s last visit to the US in September 2019 when he had visited Houston, considered to be the ‘energy capital of the world’, and met CEOs of some energy sector conglomerates such as ExxonMobil, Tellurian Inc, Schlumberger and Emerson Electric, among others.  

India imports oil and gas worth $4 billion annually from the US.

During Modi’s visit, India’s Petronet had signed a $7.5 billion deal with America’s Tellurian Inc to import LNG from its terminal in Louisiana. 

Under the Trump era, India and the US gave a strategic recognition to their energy partnership and created the US-India Strategic Energy Partnership (SEP), which will be co-chaired by the new US secretary of energy along with India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan.

The SEP last met virtually on 17 July and discussed issues concerning power and energy efficiency, oil and gas, renewable energy and sustainable growth as the four main pillars of energy cooperation. 

The two-way trade in hydrocarbons between India and the US reached $9.2 billion during the last fiscal of 2019-20.

The US and India have also created a gas task force under which several MoUs have been signed. Some of the key agreements have been the MoU between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Petroleum Natural Gas Regulatory Board on information exchange in oil and gas regulatory frameworks, and an MoU signed in 2019 between ExxonMobil and GAIL.

According to sources, while Biden has said he will normalise ties with Iran by coming back to the Iran Nuclear Deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, India believes it is “too early to ascertain” whether all sanctions will be removed and India will be able to import oil from Tehran again, which has been halted since May 2019

Also read: Countering China is now a priority for both India and US. But only one needs the other

Cooperation in digital, IT space to elevate ties

Diplomatic sources believe that US-India cooperation in the field of digital technology, IT and innovation holds the potential to “elevate” the bilateral relations between both the countries in the first few years of Biden’s rule.

This is one area where the US sees India as a counter to China’s aggressive plan in the cyberspace and digital economy, sources said.

India has already taken steps to arrest China’s rapid entry into its digital space by banning several Chinese apps and making it difficult for Huawei to roll out its 5G networks here in response to the seven-month border standoff in Ladakh. An official decision on the 5G rollout is presently pending.

“These are areas where a lot of work has happened and they are in developed stages. So the Biden administration will have a much nuanced approach in the digital and IT cooperation with India. He (Biden) also knows that he has to satisfy various lobby groups in his own country and this is one issue where every American is united,” said the first official quoted above.

According to a report by The Asia Group, a Washington-based strategic advisory firm, the digital and IT sector has been one of Trump administration’s major achievements and the new government should carry the agenda forward.

“Chinese aggression in the Himalayas has exposed the widening power differential between Delhi and Beijing and lent new urgency and importance to efforts that deepen the US-India partnership. It is vital that Washington does not miss its moment to cement ties with Delhi nor squander a golden opportunity to amplify pressure on Beijing,” stated the report authored by Anand Raghuraman, vice-president at The Asia Group and the team lead for technology and financial services clients operating in South Asia.

“A digital airlift offers Washington a path to do both in one stroke using modern tools of statecraft, not boots on the ground,” it added.

Also read: Biden will see India through national interest. US bureaucracy doesn’t like wild zig zags


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