Filing the void: Case of a missing US ambassador in India

Relations between China and India have been further soured after joint military exercises last month by the United States and India near the India-China border.
Representative Image
Representative Image

MEENAKSHI AHAMED

It is hard to imagine the United States going for two years without an ambassador representing its interests in Beijing, Berlin, Moscow or Tokyo. Yet Roosevelt House, the American ambassador’s residence in New Delhi, has remained unoccupied since January 2021 — the longest gap on record.

There is no shortage of talk in Washington asserting India’s importance to the United States. President Biden sees it as “one of the most important relationships” for the United States.

Yet if India is an “indispensable” partner for America, as the president has declared, why has he allowed the position of ambassador to India remain vacant for almost two years? American ambassadors to India have often played a vital role in advancing relations between the two countries.

In 1962, when India was invaded by China, John Kenneth Galbraith was the American ambassador. Galbraith, who was close to President John F. Kennedy and had good relations with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was instrumental in getting the United States to ship arms and supplies to India.

Until then, Nehru had been lukewarm to American overtures. By swiftly coming to India’s aid, Galbraith changed how Indians saw America and brought Kennedy and Nehru closer. American support for India in 1962 would prove to be a turning point in the relations between the two countries. Galbraith remains a beloved figure in India.

India’s problems with China are far from over. Both nuclear powers, they share a 2,100-mile border, and lay claim to territories controlled by the other. China has been increasing its clout in Nepal and Bhutan, which have long been Indian spheres of influence.

For decades, Beijing and New Delhi maintained a cold peace, but the growing muscular nationalism in Xi Jinping’s China and Narendra Modi’s India eventually led to confrontations on the disputed border in 2020 in which scores of Indian and Chinese soldiers were killed.

More recently, tensions rose on Dec. 9 after Indian and Chinese forces clashed on the mountainous border near the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China calls South Tibet.

Relations between China and India have been further soured after joint military exercises last month by the United States and India near the India-China border.

The Biden administration has also stepped up efforts to deepen its cooperation with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the informal security alliance of India, Australia, Japan and the United States that seeks to counter China’s rise, a grouping that Beijing views as hostile.

The shared challenge of China has pushed America and India closer. For the past two decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have made India an essential partner in the American strategy to contain China.

The Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy report calls for enhancing India’s ability to deter China’s aggression “and ensure free and open access to the Indian Ocean region.” American encouragement of India’s rise has rare bipartisan support, which makes the absence of a US ambassador in India even more surprising.

There are significant economic reasons for greater American engagement with India, which recently surpassed Britain as the world’s fifth largest economy. While India remains poor in per capita terms (it has roughly $2,200 in G.D.P. per person), it is one of the fastest growing major economies and a vital market for trade and investment.

India is a major supplier of pharmaceuticals, including vaccines to the world. In 2021, the US direct investment in India was around $45 billion. As concern mounts over China’s outsize role in global supply chains, American companies have begun to seek manufacturing hubs outside that country.

J. P. Morgan estimates that by 2025, Apple may make roughly 25 percent of its iPhones in India. The US Embassy will need to provide support to American companies trying to enter India.

And India plays an important role in difficult global negotiations on global health, climate change or technology policy. Richard Verma, the US ambassador to New Delhi during the Obama administration, said that India was essential in getting an agreement on the Paris climate accords. Mr. Verma helped facilitate some of the initial meetings that led to engagement between Indian and American leaders.

Major policy decisions such as the climate accords were agreed on by President Barack Obama and Mr. Modi. But in bilateral negotiations, an ambassador plays a key role in hammering out details of trade and defense agreements relying on his or her personal relationships.

India assumed the leadership of the Group of 20 in December and has lost no time in projecting itself as a peacemaker following a rules-based international order. India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, arguably one of the most talented international diplomats operating today, projects an image of India on the world stage as a responsible nuclear power, resolute against terrorism, and a global force for good.

What you will not get from Mr. Jaishankar is an honest appraisal of the decline of civil rights in India. Ambassadors have been essential in providing Washington with clear-eyed assessments about the domestic situation in India — a task that is more essential now than ever.

Since his election in 2014, Mr. Modi has presided over the consolidation of a Hindu-majoritarian politics, systematically concentrated power in the hands of the executive and clamped down on political dissent. The Modi government’s onslaught against minorities, freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary has been relentless.

The United States will need to continuously assess the degree to which it and India still share liberal, democratic values. Ambassadors such as Galbraith, Chester Bowles, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Frank Wisner, mixing with civil society, the press, bureaucrats and politicians of all stripes, were able to provide an informative and nuanced assessment about the country’s trajectory.

The work of diplomats can be hard to pin down as they juggle multiple roles. One of the critical responsibilities of an ambassador is to provide accurate assessments about the political landscape of the host country and to be his government’s eyes and ears on the ground.

The absence of an American ambassador today may actually suit policymakers in New Delhi. It allows them to avoid careful scrutiny of its domestic affairs.

A US ambassador is the symbolic projection of American power. During the decades when India was strategically unimportant to the United States, Washington still sent important ambassadors to India. Today there is a glaring absence at the Roosevelt House in New Delhi.

Ahamed is the author of “A Matter of Trust: A History of India-US Relations From Truman to Trump.”

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