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Premium Conversations | Decoding India-US relations with Atul Keshap

Feb 21, 2022 12:44 PM IST

Keshap, president of USIBC, spoke about the evolution of the India-US relationship, the economic opportunities and challenges, the geo-economics of the Indo-Pacific, and his vision of bilateral ties

After having been a career diplomat in the United States (US) foreign service for 28 years, Atul Keshap recently took over as the president of the United States-India Business Council (USIBC), part of the US Chamber of Commerce. In the course of his career, Keshap, whose last diplomatic posting was as the US Chargé d’Affaires to India in 2021, has extensively worked on South Asia and East Asia, and played a key role in the US’s enhanced engagement with Indo-Pacific.

Atul Keshap played a key role in the US’s enhanced engagement with Indo-Pacific. (Twitter) PREMIUM
Atul Keshap played a key role in the US’s enhanced engagement with Indo-Pacific. (Twitter)

Sitting in the head office of the US Chamber of Commerce, right opposite the White House in Washington DC, Keshap spoke extensively to Hindustan Times about his stint in India, the evolution of the India-US relationship, the economic opportunities and challenges across the domain of trade, digital economy and investment, geo-economics of the Indo-Pacific, and his vision of bilateral ties.

Besides having your personal roots back in India, you have, in your professional capacity, engaged with South Asia for over two decades. How has India changed, and how has the US changed in this period?

Well, I think everything has changed. I look back in my memory of India into the 1970s and how much there were, you know, difficulties and irritations in both directions between Delhi and Washington in the 70s, 80s, 90s, even early 2000s. There was a lot of legacy, historical difficulty between our two governments. And what I see today is that all of those legacy issues have been overcome. You can ascribe many reasons for why that's happened. But what is now clear is that the sky is the limit for the upper potential of the US-India partnership. And as an Indian-American, it matters a lot to me. It matters personally and it matters professionally because I think that our two great democracies need to become the single most consequential partnership, geostrategic and geo-economic partnership, in the world. I think it's going to be good for India. It's going to be good for America. It's going to be good for 1.7 billion people of our countries. It's going to be good for the world. So, there has been a total turnaround over the course of my lifetime. And it's because of the work of thousands of people, even millions, in both governments and both countries to bring us together.

There was a lot of legacy, historical difficulty between our two governments. And what I see today is that all of those legacy issues have been overcome

What do you think enabled that shift?

Well, one, the geopolitical situation is always fluid and what made sense, you know, in 1998 or in 1971, changes. And so both Washington and Delhi, I think, have come to realise that we have far more in common than we have apart. And ours are two great, highly diverse democracies. We believe in inclusive government. We believe in a rules-based international order. We believe in peaceful arbitration of disputes, and we both have invested mightily to preserve and uphold global order. So when we have that mutual regard for each other, and we realise that we have essentially shared values running on the same operating system, it creates a further sense of affinity.

I would argue that diaspora has played a critical role. There are now between three and four million, maybe a little more, Indian-Americans in the US. They are leading in every walk of life. And that is a real credit to the genius of the American system. These people, all of us, are contributing to the kind of convergence of our two countries.

So the diaspora is important, the geostrategic equation is important, the values are important. And you know, I think, in a certain era, geography divided us. But, nowadays in the internet era, geography is, other than the 15-hour flight, almost irrelevant.

When you mention the geostrategic environment, is it the rise of China?

I think it's the appreciation that our values are good values and they need to be defended, that there have been many other paradigms of global order, and they have not been very good for humanity as a species. They have resulted in war and suffering. 

Democracy, I believe passionately, although imperfect, is the least-worst form of government and therefore needs to be protected. I think Indians believe that and Americans believe that down into their roots. At a time when democracy and pluralistic open inclusive government is under threat around the world, we democracies need to stick together and defend our values. It is not an offensive play. It's a defensive play. We have to preserve the good things that have generated prosperity and abundance for our people. Look at India today. It has captured the politics of abundance and has harnessed it toward the well-being of its people. That's great. That's what democracies do.

At a time when democracy and pluralistic open inclusive government is under threat around the world, we democracies need to stick together and defend our values.

Leading the US embassy in India

Last year, you went back to lead the US embassy in Delhi. There was a new administration in Washington. There was a government in Delhi that, its critics would claim, was not as committed to the values that you have just outlined. Was it hard to bridge the differences?

Challenge number one was that we, as a planet, were getting through that terrible Delta wave of the coronavirus. India had a really tough time in April-May last year, and we did our best to come to its assistance. I would note that the companies that are part of the US Chamber of Commerce and USIBC sent hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance to partners and friends in India, because that's what India did for us when we needed help earlier in the pandemic. And this proves the genius and enduring value of democracies and democratic partnership. We want to see each other succeed. So when I went out to India – I was asked to go on short notice by the secretary (Secretary of State Antony J Blinken) and I went straight out there – job one was to help our embassy get through the very, very harsh pandemic consequences of the Delta wave, get them back on their feet. They had had losses within the embassy just as others had had losses, and the job was to help them mourn, help them recover, help them get moving again. That is one of our most important embassies in the entire world.

The other job was of course, to have the conversations with the Indian government about the future trajectory of the relationship. And on this, I feel, as a former career foreign service officer, that there has been a great deal of continuity between administrations in both countries over more than 20 years now to ensure the growth in convergence. So it didn't take a whole lot of effort to sort of continue that continuity, and make sure that our national security bureaucracies and our economic bureaucracies sort of stitch up together. What I found most amazing is that compared to my last stint in the embassy in Delhi between 2005 and 2008, and my time as deputy assistant secretary for South Asia in the State Department, the briefings the country team gave me when I got there about the current status of relations were, was amazing. I mean, I was just amazed.

Tell us the difference.

A simple statistic. When I first started working on India, bilateral trade in goods and services was around $20 billion. And my economic team told me that in 2019, in the last pre-pandemic year, bilateral trade had risen to $147 billion in goods and services. My team here at USIBC tells me that the digital economy trade alone is a $100 billion between our two countries.

We wanted to show that our democracies can function and function well, despite the pandemic and democracies can deliver. (AFP)
We wanted to show that our democracies can function and function well, despite the pandemic and democracies can deliver. (AFP)

Or take defence relations and the fact that we exercise and we train with each other with a great degree of trust and confidence. I remember when we were trying to negotiate, you know, a ship visit and it was so complicated because it had a lot of optics that needed to be managed. Nowadays, it's all very comfortable where whatever exercises we do in each other's countries reflect the great solidarity between our own forces.

Our counter-terrorism cooperation is integral to the peace and security and stability of both of our countries, and it does important things every day that make sure that our citizens are safe. There are a thousand other areas where I was amazed. So I got very optimistic and very ambitious and very positive about all of that.

And then we had, of course, the visit of Secretary (Antony) Blinken, a very important visit. And, you know, we wanted to show that our democracies can function and function well, despite the pandemic and democracies can deliver. His team did a wonderful job, he did a wonderful job, and his statements on the ground and external affairs minister (S) Jaishankar’s statements on the ground speak for themselves about how democracies work together in a constructive way, and that was a signal to the entire world. So I thought that visit went really well.

I feel like we are in potentially a breakout year, 2022. Hopefully, this Omicron wave is the last wave, I hope and pray, and we will be able to travel more, have more high-level visits and business can get back to normal. Part of building business relationships, forging contracts, investing in each other's countries, hiring people is meeting people, it's a human need. I have a very ambitious plan to try to travel as much as possible in and around India, in and around the US to meet our hundreds of member companies and hear from them about their ambitions for US-India economic cooperation. My ambitions are sky high and that stint in Delhi helped remind me of that continuity. I really loved it, and I saw so many friends.

Our counter-terrorism cooperation does important things every day that make sure that our citizens are safe.

The economic partnership

That's a good segue for me to get into your current role. In your engagements both with the government of India in the past, and now with members of the chamber, what is the one positive thing that you hear, and what is the one concern that you hear on both sides about the economic relationship?

Let me start with the negative, although my tendency is always to focus on the positive. You have to keep in mind. from my personal perspective, as a retired diplomat, part of the job of diplomacy is not the beautiful photos, you know, of the secretary of state and his counterparts or the flags – it's steering around the problems. An analogy I use is we are all skiing downhill and having a great time, but you never want to hit a tree. There are lots of trees out there. So it is the skill and well-being and intentions of our diplomats, national security managers, businesspeople, politicians, diaspora to ski around the problems. There are always going be problems when 1.7 billion people have activity and engagement with each other in every field of human endeavor; the challenge is to address the problems before they become big problems.

So we have cleared so much of the challenging issues between the US and India over the past 20-25 years. And now we are down to things that really are less about fixing problems and more about optimising outcomes. I think it's incredibly important that we figure out ways to optimise outcomes. I will give you an example: Digital economy. This is the goose that lays the golden eggs for India and the US. Our companies are leaders in this field. If you look at the top 10, it's the American and Indian flags together in the digital economy. And nowadays, every company is a digital and data company, every single one. Even your rickshaw wallah has this phone and does digital payments. So everyone's getting integrated into the digital economy.

My sense of this is that US and India should work together constructively as friends to make sure that we set positive, inclusive, helpful standards for the entire world. It will be for the benefit of our companies and their shareholders and their many, many millions of employees. It'll be good for our governments. It will be good for all our people.

Digital economy is the goose that lays the golden eggs for India and the US. Our companies are leaders in this field.

Digital economy

On the digital economy, three specific questions. The first is about regulation of big tech. These companies have had issues both with the government here, and also with the government in India. Is it leading to a volatile relationship?

Well, this is where you have trust and confidence. The US and India have built up an enormous amount of mutual regard and mutual trust, and we are able to speak to each other as friends. That was not always the case. These are not the difficult issues of the past. Believe you me, we have handled much tougher issues. We have handled crises between our governments in a respectful and friendly manner that has resolved them. And it has taken determination and goodwill on both sides to do that. And a lot of political support. So these are, I think, again, not problems. These are questions of optimisation.

Let's acknowledge that we are in a new frontier. We are writing the rules for an industry that, until 20 years ago, simply did not exist. These are new standards of human activity that have never existed in the life of our species. We are learning. Our big companies in both countries, human society, all of us are learning as we go. We are building the bus as it rolls down the road. The key is to make the bus more comfortable, more accommodating, to ensure the privacy and happiness of citizens who live in a free and democratic system, and ensure that there are good regulatory practices, that there is transparency in rule-making, that there's inclusivity in rule-making. We have got to make sure that companies who have real knowledge can be constructive stakeholders contributing to the conversation, whether it's in America or in India. And that we continue to build what is essentially the backbone of the future of human economic activity. And we do it in a way that strengthens the already strong ties between democracies. So again, it's, it's got to be a dialogue, it's got to be a conversation.

And then, governments, being the supreme authorities, have to arbitrate all of these stakeholder inputs and make sure that the rules of the road continue to ensure growth and prosperity. I do believe in the politics of prosperity, and I think that both of our governments believe sincerely, that there's always a better life for our people. And so the key is, of course, just not to do the things that, in any way, hinder growth. You can address privacy. You can address the inputs of citizens. You can address the needs of the hour in terms of human society.

I don't claim to be an expert. There are plenty of experts that work in this building, in the US Chamber of Commerce, in USIBC, who are working with a very broad network of companies, Indian and American, who are our members, who have very detailed and constructive insight that they are very happy to share with both governments in a respectful way to help the governments optimise policymaking. And I think I have full confidence in both the Indian and American governments to optimise that policymaking, because this is really important.

Do you think that one of the problems here is the difference in the political lens? I ask this because when we see the debate here on big tech, it is about regulating big tech to expand democratic space. But when the government of India takes actions, vis-a-vis big tech, the narrative here is that this is censorship, and we saw a recent US Independent Trade Commission Report talking about how censorship is affecting American businesses. So is the political gulf causing a challenge for you, and do you see a way to overcome it?

Well, it's obviously the issue of the hour and the need of the hour to resolve these big issues and these big questions. I believe that good regulatory practice results in good outcomes. If you have an inclusive discussion, if you include a very broad degree of stakeholder input that includes ordinary citizens who pay their taxes and have views, if you include the views of the broadest possible spectrum, including the people who are really working in the most nitty-gritty way to build that digital future, then it results in good regulation, good laws, good outcomes.

I am not a lawmaker. I am not a regulator. My job is to advocate for ensuring that the big picture future of prosperity in this burgeoning sector continues, while addressing all of the inputs and all of the needs of individual citizens, all the way up to the biggest companies. It's a tricky job for governments, and I respect the challenge that they have. They have to make sure that they step forward in a prudent and useful manner that is constructive and helpful and addresses their citizens' needs while also preserving the need for creating jobs, attracting investment, ensuring that the ecosystem thrives and survives. Again, go back to that top 10 list. US and India dominate the digital sector. Heck, some of our biggest companies are led by Indian-Americans.

The second specific issue is data localisation. Is that a big concern among American companies?

Well, look, this goes back to a question that is highly technical. Everyone talks about how data is the next big thing. It is the big current thing. Anything that involves localisation of data in a planet where increasingly these systems are global and companies work around the clock and they have customers around the world increases costs, right? So then those costs are ultimately borne by the consumer. There are also national security concerns. There are all kinds of issues that may propel the desire for data localisation.

So how do you make that mix just right? Our companies have views. They convey them constructively and respectfully. And remember our membership includes Indian and American companies. And these are very complex technical issues for which there is an optimised outcome that keeps prices low for consumers, gives them the value and the choice that they need and expect and want, and also address the needs and concerns of the government. It requires constructive conversation. It also requires that the experts be part of it because a mandate can often become a very expensive mandate. And then that has a ripple effect. My vision is of an India and America that lead us into the global digital future that enshrines our democratic values into that global digital future. And that our companies remain at the very top of the game in this burgeoning industry

E-commerce rules. That’s another area of contention.

I don't view this as contention. I view this as a new frontier; everything we are doing is new, right. And in our countries, this is not like the railroads, which are over 150 years old. This is a new industry. So it's no contention. It's creating the rule of the road in an area where technology is moving much faster than government, and government, of course, has to keep up and stay on top of things. I don't see contention when our companies are thriving in both directions. They are hiring people. They are investing. They have constructive engagements. They have views, they wish to express them, and they will express them. And they will express them through me as the president of USIBC; they will express them in direct contact with government officials in both countries. But it is a question of expanding abundance and prosperity. If a company can address a regulatory issue in a way that takes them from having X number of employees to Y number of employees, and it makes more prosperity within the Indian system or the American system, that's not a contentious issue. That's just optimising good outcomes.

The reason I use the word contentious is because e-commerce has ignited old fears of American behemoths coming in and destroying local economic stakeholders. The fear that the kirana store will get destroyed and all the profits will go back home to America is something that is now in the political discourse. Do you want to address that?

So I used to buy aerograms. Do you remember what those are? Tiny little thin sheets of paper with the stamp already printed on it. I was in Africa, I would write to my friend in America, and then it would go all the way and you would hope the guy would get it. And then three weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, 10 weeks later, you would get the aerogram back saying yes, I am alive. Everything is fine. And it was a cheap and easy way for a kid to communicate, but it took eight weeks. Well, I don't buy aerograms anymore. The whole world has transformed.

Yes. There are people who may feel vulnerable. I acknowledge that. I respect that, but if you talk to the companies, they are employing so many people and creating so many new avenues for prosperity. You look at the products that are being sourced in India or in America. I talk to Indian companies who say, hey, we are in rural area of state X, and we are employing kids straight out of high school to do X and Y and Z. And it's really great. And we're helping these rural economies prosper. And then I talk to an American company and they say the same thing that we are sourcing this product out of this rural area that is going on shelves in the US. And it's creating local millionaires in these small little villages.

So again, do we want to just put our economies under glass and preserve them, or keep them dynamic and keep them growing? And part of the history of the human species is transition. We move around. I just shifted jobs because I felt like this was where I should put my energy. India has this dream of being a $5 trillion economy, a great dream. I have a dream of India being a $20 trillion economy. That will require dynamism and adjustment. The US is a very dynamic society, it is always changing. So again, our companies, yours and ours, Indian and American are building prosperity in both of our countries. It may not be under the old way or the old system or the old paradigm of something from the past or the future, but it's their way. And they want to preserve it and expand it.

Trade

Let me move to trade. Last week, we saw that bilateral trade in goods increased to over $100 billion in 2021 for the first time. Before that, we saw the two countries agree on pork and mango exports. Do you think India and the US should stop chasing this dream of a mega trade deal and focus on incremental achievements, especially since the former seems politically so difficult?

Well, look, there are issues of regulatory practice, more market access, between both of our countries, and so many other issues, that need to be worked through. I am of the firm view that our companies will benefit from a framework. It's good to have a framework. It's good to have a governing structure that helps us expand investment and trade in both directions. So, I will never abandon a big vision or a big goal. You should always have a big target in mind, a big dream, and try to visualise it and realise it, right? So yes, we should do that, but that doesn't mean we stop doing all the little incremental things that need to be done. The trade policy forum had a very good meeting in November. They had a good, modest, reasonable outcome. Good. That's incremental progress. Now let's make another round of incremental progress. You know, the world watches and notices how the US and India are doing. It is a geo-strategically consequential relationship and is a barometer of the future. We are friends. We are not adversaries. We should treat each other as friends and work together on the hard stuff so that then the big goal becomes easy.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Indian commerce & industry minister Piyush Goyal. We are friends. We are not adversaries. We should treat each other as friends and work together on the hard stuff so that then the big goal becomes easy.(REUTERS)
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Indian commerce & industry minister Piyush Goyal. We are friends. We are not adversaries. We should treat each other as friends and work together on the hard stuff so that then the big goal becomes easy.(REUTERS)

Given that the Indo-Pacific strategy just came out, I want to ask you about the idea of the Indo-Pacific economic framework. That has been one of the weaknesses of the US in the region. What's your vision of this framework?

Great question. We have very sophisticated economic relationship with partners such as Canada and Mexico, Japan, Australia, Singapore, countries of the Indo-Pacific that have boomed over the past 50-60 years because they have worked toward intensifying their trade collaboration, and created positive frameworks for a prosperity and abundance agenda. It's a hopeful vision. It's not a I want to rob you from your pocket and you rob me from mine and we'll see who gets ahead. It's a kind of a shared perspective. If you look at APEC, to which I was the US envoy for a while, it's a collaborative process.

My sense of where we're going is that first of all, the US administration is clearly focusing on the Indo-Pacific and what the economic and trade space looks like. That's good. And I appreciate that they have ambition to sort of articulate ways forward in that space, which is a highly strategic, very important space. These are countries, a lot of which are allies and friends of the US, strategic partners, and India, of course, is critically important in the entire Indo-Pacific geography. So what I would like is an Indo-Pacific economic framework that of course includes all of our allies in the Pacific, but also India and other boom economies and growth economies in that broader Indo-Pacific space. And that it creates a kind of a collaborative framework where we can work together, each at our own speed to sort of accept good rules of the road on all of the various major elements of the trade. It gets really tough in the details. And if you look at the negotiations on trade agreements, they take years and years for valid reasons.

“I love, love the fact that the Quad is as friendly and collaborative as it is, and it creates a very positive vision for the future of the Indo-Pacific."(ANI)
“I love, love the fact that the Quad is as friendly and collaborative as it is, and it creates a very positive vision for the future of the Indo-Pacific."(ANI)

But what we need is a collective feeling of solidarity. That's really important. And I've worked on the Indo-Pacific for a long time to create that vision and that concept in all of our governments and in our societies because I think you need to include India and the Indian Ocean in that perspective. It's very good that is our frame going forward. I love, love the fact that the Quad is as friendly and collaborative as it is, and it creates a very positive vision for the future of the Indo-Pacific. And what I am hoping is that all of this leverages itself into positive movement, not only by the US, but by our partners and by India and others to kind of move forward and bring the entire region forward with it.

But isn’t this urgent? China has ensnared the entire region in trading arrangements while we are still talking.

It's always urgent. You know the economic saying is in the long run, we are all dead, which means that every moment lost is a moment that slips away forever. So I do think there's an urgency, that it's necessary, especially for democracies, to show that they can lead, that they can deliver, that they can ensure the happiness of their people and, preserve human freedom. So that is where I want to put my energies to see US and India converge even further.

Do you think this trading framework is better served in the bilateral or plurilateral format?

Look in our democracies, politics is always a real thing. So I have to defer to the administration and the governments of both of our countries to determine what is politically feasible and, and achievable. My ambition is for everything. We have to be impatient. We have to be ambitious. Others are moving ahead. Let's also move ahead.

Investment and supply chains

I want to move to investment. Given the political climate in Washington, which is pushing for diversification from China, can India become a more attractive destination for US investments?

Your question is more appropriately directed to the government of India because the locus of decision-making is with them. What I can tell you on behalf of our member companies is that they are very keen to see how US and India can weave our supply chains closer together for the security and happiness and prosperity of both of our peoples. Supply chain is a critical issue. We all saw it during this pandemic. We have to have resilient, secure supply chains, and it's going to have to be on things as modest as face masks and as sophisticated as semiconductors.

And what does that look like? You know, this is where governments help create an empowering environment. And I know that folks in the US government are looking at this very seriously at the highest levels. And they look at all of the new and emerging technologies to see how we can ensure resilient and secure supply chains for the American people going forward. And I can tell you with utmost assurance that they view India as a great partner, a great and reliable friend in world affairs.

The question is how do we create that environment? Very clear rules of the road, good regulatory practices, ease of doing business, focus on the mundane needs of supply chain, things such as water and land and electricity and access to quick shipment. You know, a lot of components these days move around the world before the finished product goes to the consumer and they have to be able to move really fast. So, you know, you get into very unglamorous, but highly important things like customs clearances to make sure a factory can work 24 hours a day without any interruption of the component coming in from overseas, then being worked in the factory, and then the component going back out overseas to another factory, because, like I learned, semiconductors move around the world many times in the course of their journey toward being injected into a product. So if our two governments can create the environment, if our policymakers, regulators, our bureaucrats can create that environment. I know there's great desire and willingness among American companies and Indian companies to see that happen.

What does the government of India need to do to create that environment? And do you think it is moving in that direction?

Well, if you look at just semiconductors, look at Taiwan, which is the world leader, or look at Japan or Korea, these governments have worked to perfect the most sophisticated supply chains in the world. So it's not like there's a lot of invention that needs to happen. There just needs to be a lot of implementation of already existing frameworks of very sound principles. I have confidence that the regulators in India are smart people, they study and they do comparative analysis and they talk to our folks and others and stakeholders and companies, your companies are some of the most sophisticated in the world. So it's not really for me to say exactly what needs to be done.

But what I can say is if you create the conditions and there's no secret about what those conditions are, it can happen. Good regulatory practices, level-playing field, clear and transparent regulations. I mean, companies really need predictability. You know, if they are going make a $20 billion investment, they have to have predictability about many, many inputs. And then just the nitty-gritty of supply chain management and movement and inputs in and outputs out. So it's not necessarily rocket science. It just requires a very high degree of focus and discipline to ensure the right conditions.

Political economy debates

You have spoken about a level-playing field. When you started out working on this relationship a couple of decades ago, it was a time of economic openness. What we have seen both in your country, as well as in India, is an inward turn in terms of emphasis on self-reliance and a tendency towards protectionism. Is that making your job difficult?

Look, we have all been through tough times. The pandemic has changed all of us and it has created political dynamics as well. We have to live with the reality of what is in front of us, and our people – Indian people and American people – feel a little uncertain coming out of this pandemic. They need reassurance. They need bold and positive leadership from our governments. They need to feel secure. Companies need to do their best to address those needs. There are certain realities of how things are made, and how investments and companies operate that I think create greater efficiencies, particularly if our democracies work together as friends. I don't think necessarily that standards of living would be enhanced by being very mercantilist and nationalist in the way that we have been in the past, in the history of humanity. We have to recognise that we have friends, that having those partnerships is mutually enhancing, and that we should have confidence in the people whom we trust.

Take defence. India is continuing to push for indigenous production. Is the US military-industrial complex comfortable with the idea of going and producing in India?

Look, this is an area where our two democracies should continue their convergence. It's important for us. It's important for India. It's important for the entire world and how they do it is something that, I think, is best left to the companies. But I do understand the compulsions of governments. These are national security issues. So on this, I would say, let's come up with systems and standards that facilitate the growth of US-India exchange in this critical area. To the extent that your country and our country get stronger together, it's good for the entire world. It's good for democracy. It's good for freedom.

Getting the rules and the admixture right on the policy is really important because I think our companies are always willing to pursue a useful opportunity that is mutually beneficial. Any agreement has to be mutually beneficial. So how do you create the rules that ensure that? Our companies will always be invested, interested, curious to see how they can engage. They are very positive on India. They recognise that with India things sometimes take time. They recognise the security environment that India is facing. We want to be a part of the solution. We want to help ensure a strong and robust India, both externally-facing and within. And if we can do that in a constructive way, and if the rules of India foster that growth, that's great. Look, I have seen what's happening in Hyderabad between our two countries and companies. It's fantastic. It helps us. It helps you. I would love to see much more of that happening in both directions because your companies are as active in America as our companies are in India. So this is win-win together.

The other question around the level playing field is this there is a major debate in the Indian political economy around the idea of crony capitalism. Is that causing concerns among American companies?

I think our American companies are extremely bullish on India, extremely bullish, very positive. Look, the IMF said that India's economy is projected to grow at 9% this year. And that was a downward adjustment due to the pandemic, a downward adjustment, 9%. Our companies are very bullish. They are very optimistic. They are in for the long haul. They recognise the genius of India and its democratic system and its inclusive nature. And the fact that it has immense power all around the world, especially in terms of positive cultural influence, I don't think that's ever going to change. And it's my job to make sure that the US-India corridor gets as strong as possible. I showed you around this building. We have the backing of the entire chamber to see the US-India business relationship and the economic growth continue.

Our companies are very bullish on India. They are very optimistic. They are in for the long haul. They recognise the genius of India and its democratic system and its inclusive nature.

Is there a tension within this chamber among those who want to diversify away from China and those who want to stay invested in China?

I think there is a desire in this chamber always to do what's right for the American people and take care of their interests and their well-being as much as possible. Any country that believes in free enterprise and believes in human freedom is going to have a friend everywhere around the world, especially right here.

What are the three things that you hope to see in the India-US economic relationship in 2030 that's not present today?

One, $500 billion in exchanges in goods and services between the US and India by 2030. That would be ambitious, but man, I really want to see it happen and I will work toward it. I will put full effort. Two, I would love to see a framework or structure between our two countries that helps create even greater confidence and, and trust between our companies, whether that's an FTA (free trade agreement) or something else, we should look towards that. Third, I would say let's weave our supply chains even closer together, especially on the big converging issues, digital economy, also high tech, AI (artificial intelligence), quantum, 6G, you name it, because it will create greater security for both of our countries and for the entire world.

If we can see those things happen, I would be very happy. I do think that if you achieve those things, then it creates jobs. It creates employment, it creates revenue and taxation, it creates prosperity. And let's do it in a green and sustainable way that respects people's rights, their freedoms, their interests, their desire to live happy lives.

One final question, given the current moment we are living through. The US has warned that Russia may invade Ukraine any moment. India has a close relationship with Russia too. Do you see this becoming a major friction point between India and US?

Here is what I will say. The US and India have worked together and worked through much bigger problems in the last 25 years — and I have seen this with my own eyes, put my own effort into it, and I have the scars to prove it. And we will work through everything that comes our way because there is a certain genius in the convergence of our two countries.

US and India should work together constructively as friends to make sure that we set positive, inclusive, helpful standards for the entire world.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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