WASHINGTON: The US views the recent Indian elections as the “most successful democratic experiment and demonstration in modern history”, notes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepted the electoral outcome, and believes that India’s democratic resilience gives New Delhi an edge in its competition with Beijing, Kurt Campbell, the American deputy secretary of state has said.

Kurt Campbell, considered the key architect of the Joe Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific policy, expressed scepticism about the prospect of any breakthrough in the India-China relationship (X/DeputySecState)

Campbell, considered the key architect of the Joe Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific policy, expressed scepticism about the prospect of any breakthrough in the India-China relationship due to the “structural issues” between the two countries and China’s unwillingness to show any flexibility on territorial and border issues.

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At the same time, Campbell said that the US was very “bullish… confident… comfortable” about its relationship with India, attributed any sense of drift in ties to the political and election campaigns in both democracies, termed India the leading nation of Quad, and said that he had never seen the bilateral relationship as close as it is now in his decades of working on India.

Campbell, who is the second-highest ranking diplomat in the US and moved from his perch as the Indo-Pacific coordinator in Biden’s national security council to the State Department earlier this year, also acknowledged that it was time for the US to change certain practices and ways of doing things in terms of export control regimes to deepen the defence and tech relationship with India.

He will accompany US national security advisor Jake Sullivan on a trip to India next week where the two countries will review progress under the initiative on critical and emerging technologies (iCET) mechanism and discuss other regional and global issues. Before that, PM Narendra Modi will meet US President Joe Biden in Italy on the sidelines of the G7 summit.

Campbell was speaking at the Stimson Center, a Washington DC-based thinktank, on Wednesday where he also outlined the administration’s current approach to China. While the US officially congratulated Modi after the elections, this is the most expansive set of comments by a top American official on the bilateral relationship after the polls.

The India-China-US triangle

Responding to a question on how the US views reports about possible talks between India and China, Campbell said that any time two countries can find “a degree of common space to reduce tension”, the US supports it and expressed his best wishes to India for any deliberations.

But Campbell then expressed his scepticism about any talks leading to a breakthrough and said there were “some structural issues” that “frankly will be difficult to resolve”.

“I think from an Indian perspective, they are going to demand and expect, from any rapprochement or substantial improvement in relations, differences with respect to how China treats the contested borders and steps that they have taken. I think one of the things that we have seen under Xi Jinping on anything that bridges or touches territorial matters, it’s very hard for the Chinese to show any flexibility or any desire to find common ground,” Campbell said.

In the same response, almost drawing up a contrast with the relationship with the US, Campbell said that the US was “very proud” of the steps it had taken to elevate the India-US relationship and claimed he had never seen the kind of progress in bilateral ties as had happened in recent years. “And there are many reasons for that. It is not only American support to India when they faced challenges along the Line of Actual Control; kudos to the Trump administration for that. We followed up on that in a variety of ways.” Donald Trump was in office during the Galwan clash in the summer of 2020 when the US had stepped up to offer both intelligence, defence and logistical support to India in quick time.

Campbell added that the US has worked closely with India on Quad in many respects. “They are the leading nation in the Quad frankly, they help drive initiatives. After being initially reluctant, they are now fully embracing the potential.”

Campbell then referred to his upcoming trip to India. “We have worked assertively in technology. I will be with Jake Sullivan in India next week as we advance areas of coordination with India here. And so I think we feel very good about this partnership, the people, the people that connect in with our diaspora and the like. We are very confident and comfortable about the state of our bilateral relationship. And we want that to continue going forward. And you know, the President engaged PM Modi almost immediately after the election. We are looking forward to continuing work with them.”

The democratic and strategic convergences

Asked if he felt that the remarkable resilience of Indian democracy gave India a “leg up” in the competition with China, Campbell said, “I do. There are obviously issues that have been raised in US-India relations, some concerns, but at the same time, we have to recognise that what India just experienced was the most successful democratic experiment and demonstration in modern history. And that’s just remarkable. And note that PM Modi accepted the outcomes. This was thought to be an extremely effective demonstration of a democratic machinery.”

Campbell reiterated that if he had to name one country that was going to be the most important for the US in the 21st century, he would, “without hesitation” put India on top of the list and listed out a set of factors that was propelling closer ties.

“I believe that there is growing strategic alignment. There is enormous interests at the people-to-people level. And I am finding that among a younger generation of India’s interlocutors, some of the previous inhibitions or concerns or grudges are not as significant.”

Campbell added that this was the same on the US side, where “a growing group of people” recognised that “deep strategic engagement with India” was in America’s “best strategic interests”. “And there isn’t the bifurcation that we have seen in the past; India-Pakistan. We engage India on its own merits.”

Due to these changes, Campbell said he anticipated that the US would work even more closely with India on issues such as clean energy, the security of the Indian Ocean, coproduction, and technology. “I would say that American technology companies view India as really the next frontier and that has been one of the major arenas of cooperation between our two sides.”

Export controls: Need to change old practices

In response to a question from HT about the perception of drift in the relationship due to public controversies, Campbell said, “Things happen in a bilateral relationship, particularly between democracies. PM Modi had his campaign. We have had some politics as well. I would simply say that both countries are deeply committed to sustaining the upward trajectory of our bilateral relationship. I believe we remain ambitious for what we want to accomplish across the board and those areas of cooperation will include things in technology.”

HT also asked Campbell whether the American export control regimes placed limits on bilateral tech and defence cooperation. The deputy secretary acknowledged that there were “practices and some steps” that had been in place for a long time but were no longer relevant to the US-India relationship. “We need to move beyond them to find new areas of cooperation and partnership. And I think that’s going to be one of the issues that NSA Sullivan will be talking to his Indian counterparts about. We want to take those steps to advance the relationship to make sure that that momentum is unmistakable. And we are quite bullish on the relationship.”


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