The United States and India may find their commercial and defense ties strengthened in the “new normal” that emerges once the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs, a potential silver lining to a trial that has “upended the world” and threatened global collaboration.
That’s how Indian Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu portrayed it during a Thursday call with the Atlanta Council on International Relations. The Consulate General of India helped bring the ambassador to the local audience virtually, though he noted he hopes to return in person soon.
The ambassador relayed the latest on India’s pandemic response, though his health focus was somewhat eclipsed during the question-and-answer period by concerns over a scuffle with China in the Himalayan border region this week that left 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead.
“Our focus is on testing and contact tracing,” Mr. Sandhu said, noting that 920 labs are approved for testing around the country. “We are testing more than 160,000 samples every day. Grassroots women health workers, popularly known as asha, meaning ‘hope,’ are actively involved in contract tracing, and our death rate is very low and our recovery rate is over 50 percent.”
He added that Mr. Modi has consulted with chief ministers (similar to governors) of Indian states and offered national-level guidance while allowing them to respond appropriately to outbreaks, a federalized approach similar to that of the U.S.
Spoke on Strengthening India-US Strategic Partnership at Atlanta Council of International Relations @ACIRAtlanta today. Highlighted the deepening bond between our countries during the CoViD 19 crisis and opportunities for collaboration beyond the crisis. pic.twitter.com/HAcVoBtdXj
— Taranjit Singh Sandhu (@SandhuTaranjitS) June 18, 2020
He pointed reforms to India’s tax code and structural changes to enhance the ease of doing business and improve standards at some 3,300 Indian industrial parks.
“There are complementarities in our partnership and untapped opportunities,” he said. Some 2,000 U.S. firms have invested in India already.
He warned against protectionism and underscored that India has kept medical supply lines open during the pandemic, an important factor given its key role in the pharmaceutical supply chain.
“We are the world’s leading supplier of generic medicines, which have given us the tag of the ‘pharmacy of the world.’” Mr. Sandhu said. “We meet 20 percent of the global demand for generic medicines.”
He added that research partnerships toward the development of a vaccine would be an area where India-U.S. collaboration can really shine and noted that multiple Indian companies have been tapped to make the drug Remdesivir, approved by the FDA under an emergency-use authorization to treat COVID-19 patients.
Beyond health, Mr. Sandhu sees ample room to grow the $150 billion in bilateral trade, especially as collaborations in defense, technology, space and energy continue to grow. India is a major importer of crude oil and liquefied natural gas, while the U.S. has become a net exporter of energy.
These ties can only be enhanced by the more than 200,000 Indian students in the U.S., who mainly study in STEM fields and, as a result, go on to contribute greatly to U.S. high-tech firms, he said.
India has one of the world’s largest “unsaturated markets” for multinationals, he said, with a young population and a rapidly growing digital economy — one reason Indian mobile giant Jio has been able to raise some $10 billion amid the pandemic by selling off a combined 25 percent stake to international investors including Facebook and various funds.
Meanwhile, the world is on edge after the deadly brawl in which Chinese and Indian troops used weapons like iron bars and sticks wrapped in barbed wire near the so-called “line of actual control” in the disputed Himalayan border region. Skirmishes have taken place, but no Indian solider had been killed in the region since the 1970s.
ACIR members were concerned about escalation, a prospect Mr.
Sandhu said India did not desire but would not rule out.
“There should be no aggressive action by any side. We certainly don’t intend to, but at the same time we will defend our territorial integrity and sovereignty,” the ambassador said, noting that it was becoming evident, at least to India, that the incident was no accident. China has so far been quiet and has not confirmed any casualties suffered by its forces.
“In our understanding is this was definitely preplanned from what we have been able to pick up from satellites and these things,” Mr. Sandhu said, noting that consultations between the countries’ foreign ministers agreed to return to an understanding reached June 6 to resolve the dispute through discussions.
Asked by Global Atlanta whether India would block 5G mobile equipment from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei at the behest of the Trump administration, which has branded the firm a global security threat, he said India would weigh a variety of factors.
“We are certainly not looking to close ourselves and just look inside. We will interact, we will be partners, but we will also keep in mind to ensure that we are conscious — and I can assure you that we are very conscious — about security, especially in terms of these high-end tech issues. Whatever decisions we take will be well considered ones.”
Learn more about the Atlanta Council on International Relations at atlantacir.org.