New Delhi: US Ambassador to India, Kenneth I. Juster, has said be it America, India or China, none of the countries wants a conflict to take place, but these countries need to work out a way to deal with Beijing’s rising power in the world.
In a conversation with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta during ‘Off The Cuff‘ interaction, the outgoing US envoy said the geopolitical situation today, especially that between the US and China, is “very different” from that of the Cold War era.
“China is integrated in a lot of our economic activities. It’s very different from the Cold War situation. So how we manage China’s rise and how China manages that rise will be the great issue for the next 5-10 years,” Juster said.
He added, “Ideally it can be in a way that’s mutually beneficial. If it starts to be in a way that starts to become conflictual, no one wants a conflict. I don’t think the Chinese do, I don’t think India does, I know US does not, so we have to figure out how we manage that rise and the influence that China has in a way that can be beneficial and not detrimental,” he said.
He also stressed that India’s importance in Indo-Pacific is “more than just” because of its geographical location.
“It’s the fact that it’s a democracy, it’s a large economy, it’s people who share our interest and values. It’s a partner that we think is important to the overall stability of the region in the international system,” he said.
Juster said in the times to come, India is going to be play an important role in the Indo-Pacific as like-minded partners, who share the same democratic values, come together.
“India is going to be a key player in that (Indo-Pacific). Because, one of the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic is that globalisation cannot mean doing everything in the most cost-efficient way if we’re trying to get the benefits of the international system, but also mitigating political risks and taking into account the fact that you don’t want to be overly dependent in critical areas on partners you may not be able to trust,” he averred.
“But if you’re looking for trusted, like-minded partners, India, US, Japan and Australia, these are quad countries for the Indo-Pacific region. India is a key player and a strong and democratic India is in the interest of United States. And that’s why we’ve supported India’s rise on the global stage and in our national security strategy.”
He also stressed on the centrality of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) in Indo-Pacific as well as some of the European countries that have rolled out their individuals strategies on Indo-Pacific.
“One of the enduring legacies of this (Trump) administration will be to have really solidify the concept of Indo-Pacific, which connects India and the Indian Ocean, East Asia and the Pacific, integrates from the west coast in the US to the east coast of Africa and puts India in a central position in terms of better stability and prosperity,” he said.
China stand-off not an isolated incident
On the ongoing border stand-off between India and China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eastern Ladakh sector, Juster said, “It has been a bit of mystery because there’s been no explicit statement as to what the objective was … Whether it was something that drew out of a particular onsite episode and then mushroomed beyond that.”
He said just as the same time China was engaging itself in a border stand-off with India, it was also laying territorial claims in South China Sea and East China Sea.
“There were territorial claims on eastern Bhutan and it is troubling because it wasn’t an isolated incident but it occurred across the entire border in the Ladakh area and at a great magnitude in terms of number of troops and heavy equipment,” he said.
He added the fact that the stand-off has now continued for eight-nine months indicates that the disengagement of troops will not happen anytime soon.
“The fact that this has now gone on for eight-nine months, indicates that this is going to be a long-term challenge and this is not something that was an episodic incident. I think this has deeply affected the levels of trust between the two countries and will continue to effect what develops more broadly in this region,” he said.
US’ view on China bipartisan
According to Juster, the incoming Joe Biden administration will also put as much focus on China as the Trump administration did.
“Views of the challenges posed by the rise of China are bipartisan, certainly in the US Congress, and I think if folks who are coming in have not been as up to date as some of the information and intelligence that they will get there, they will see that it’s across the board and it’s going to be their major overarching issue. The exact nuances of every arm to their policy is going to be up to them but I think there’s no question that the relationship with China and how to manage that is going to be there,” he said.
Juster also reiterated that as far as US-India relationship is concerned, it has been bipartisan, irrespective of whichever administration has come in the White House.
“And I know that President-elect and the person nominated for the Secretary of State are both experienced in issues relating to India and will continue on the trajectory we are on in terms of the US-India relationship,” he added.
Juster also underlined the growing defence partnership between India and the US post the signing of the key defence pacts between both countries such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), and Industrial Security Annex (ISA).
He also said India is now realising the potential of signing these agreements with the US.
However, he also underlined the fact that sooner or later New Delhi has to take a call on its concept of “strategic autonomy.”
“Strategic autonomy is an Indian concept … It’s a question of how you express your strategic autonomy. I understand strategic autonomy to be India wants to have independence of action and to be free from the coercion of any other country. You can do it in a variety of different ways,” Ambassador Juster said.
He also added, “As challenges grow in certain areas, you may have to make adjustments in the expression of strategic autonomy while still keeping your independence and not feeling that your subservient to anyone country.”
Juster said this in the light of India’s consistent defence procurements from Russia, especially with the S-400 air defence missile system.
“We understand that you have procured a majority of your equipment from the Soviet Union and Russia over the years and it simply is a more practical question as technology becomes more sophisticated and as people are worried about the ability of software of one piece of equipment to interact with software of another piece of equipment whether there will be natural limitations on how sophisticated the technology can be from a particular country,” he said.
“But this is a choice for India. They have to balance their desire to have a diverse group of suppliers with getting the most sophisticated technology, with getting interoperability and highest level of efficiency. Those are the decisions you have to address in the future.
‘Pakistan hasn’t been my daily preoccupation’
As the US Ambassador packs his bags and leaves for the US after his three-year tenure as America’s envoy here, Juster said, Pakistan has not been his daily preoccupation unlike his predecessors.
“After the terrible incident of Pulwama, obviously, we (US, Pakistan and India) talked because we understood what was going on and try to ensure that there would not be any further escalation of the situation … But Pakistan has not been my daily preoccupation in my position,” he said.
However, he highlighted, that the Trump administration, especially US President Donald Trump, was the “first one” who called out cross-border terrorism in a “strong way” and as “unacceptable.”
“This administration and this President was the first one to really, in a very strong way, call out cross-border terrorism as unacceptable as any other form of terrorism and to suspense military assistance as a consequence. We want everyone in this region to try to promote peace and prosperity and to not to in any way, give comfort to those who might be involved in cross-border terrorism,” he said.