New Delhi: The US State Department Tuesday announced the appointment of yet another Chargé d’Affaires for India, while sending a full-time ambassador to the country continues to remain stuck at the Senate.
Elizabeth Jones, who is expected to take charge by next month, will act as Chargé d’Affaires (CDA), ad interim, the US State Department said in a statement. The statement also said that the US-India partnership is one of the “most consequential in the world”.
However, such an expression has failed to be translated into action by the Biden administration that has appointed its envoys across the entire South Asian region, but as yet not in India.
In the past 22 months, since the last US Ambassador to India Kenneth I. Juster left the post following President Biden’s assuming office in January 2021, Washington has posted five CDAs in its mission in Delhi — Don Heflin, Edgard Kagan, Daniel Smith, Atul Keshap and Patricia A. Lacina — who have tried hard to steer the relationship through several crises, from the onset of the pandemic to the India-China border standoff and now the Russia-Ukraine War.
Jones will be taking over at a time when the US wants to make India its ally as it takes China and Russia head-on.
According to senior Indian official sources, the US-India relationship is currently standing at a “very crucial moment”, even as the world is undergoing a paradigm shift post the Covid-19 pandemic that has upended economic growth of countries and then the Russia-Ukraine war, which threatens to change the global order.
The US now wants to take the security and defence relationship with India to the next level and for that it is important that Washington sends someone here to discuss key issues on a regular basis, sources told ThePrint.
In Pakistan the Biden administration has sent ambassador Donald Blome in April this year, ambassador Peter Haas was sent to Dhaka in December 2021, in Sri Lanka the Biden administration sent ambassador Julie Chung in February this year and in Nepal the US President sent ambassador Dean R. Thompson earlier this month.
With Bhutan the US maintains an informal relationship through its missions at the United Nations in New York, Washington DC, and New Delhi, India.
According to the sources, while the India-US relationship has taken a “definitive turn” with the Biden administration bringing India under its tight strategic embrace with the Quad summits and leveraging the partnership with New Delhi vis-à-vis China, not having a full-time ambassador has certainly “raised eyebrows” within India and its partners.
Under former US ambassador Juster, who had taken over the post in November 2017, not only did India and the US come closer in an unprecedented manner under the Indo-Pacific strategic conduct, but his tenure also witnessed the revival of Quad.
Hence, it is crucial that India and the US continue to have robust diplomatic ties with the appointment of a full-time US ambassador to India.
In May last year, President Biden had indicated that his trusted political ally Eric Garcetti, presently Mayor of Los Angeles, will become the new US Ambassador to India. Biden later announced it officially on 9 July last year.
But his appointment is stuck with the US Senate since May 2022 as he failed to secure the required number of votes there to able to confirm his appointment, because of a sexual harassment case of one of his former aides.
Understanding policy dynamics within India is crucial, says Juster
Speaking to ThePrint from New York, former US ambassador to India Juster said, the Biden administration will probably seek to get Garcetti confirmed by the Senate after the November midterm elections.
“As is the tradition, I have spoken with Mr. Garcetti on a couple of occasions. He is intelligent, knowledgeable, and energetic. He would likely be an effective envoy of the United States to India,” said Juster.
The former US envoy added: “The bilateral relationship cannot function at the highest level without a strong ambassador, who can fully appreciate the policy dynamics within India, help facilitate mutual understanding of each side’s perspective, and communicate with nuance and clarity to the senior leadership back in Washington, D.C. All important issues cannot be fully and effectively handled by Secretary (Antony) Blinken and (External Affairs) Minister Jaishankar, or even by those directly below them in the respective capitals.”
Juster highlighted that there are a number of issues that can be handled at the level of Secretary of State Blinken and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar. “But given the importance of U.S.-India relations, as well as the practical challenge of the time difference between the two capitals, there is still a need to have effective ambassadors in Washington, D.C. and New Delhi.”
He explained: “The ambassadors will have a much better understanding of the nuances of the local perspective on issues of importance to both countries, and can communicate those sentiments directly to top leadership back home. Without a U.S. ambassador to India, we are not operating at full strength, and that is sub-optimal for this strategic relationship.”
According to Juster, “with regard to Russia’s war on Ukraine, there have been a number of bilateral meetings, both at the level of leaders as well as the ministerial level. I think that both sides have a good understanding of their respective positions, and have generally handled matters well”.
The former US ambassador to India, however stressed on the fact that “a strong U.S. ambassador would supplement this process, by being in regular communication with various elements of the Indian government, outside policy analysts, the business community, and others to provide a more nuanced understanding of Indian opinion on the war and effectively communicate the U.S. position”.
Politics within the US over ambassadorial appointments
There are still as many as 39 vacancies for the post of ambassador, after the Biden administration has completed 22 months in office, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
While this has become a major point of contention with the opposition parties, they are also up in arms against the Biden government for filling up key ambassadorial posts with his political allies and not hardcore foreign service professionals.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, said, “We’ve certainly had a revolving door of temporary US envoys since the departure of Ambassador Juster, but ultimately the administration’s goal is to ensure that good diplomats continue to hold down the fort in Delhi until a permanent ambassador is in place.”
“The timing of not having an ambassador, and for such a long period, couldn’t be worse. The post is really needed to help lead US diplomacy as it navigates the challenges posed by India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” he added.
Kugelman also pointed towards the recent misunderstanding of sorts between New Delhi and Washington when the US ambassador to Pakistan visited Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and over the proposed US F-16 refurbishment deal with Pakistan.
“These (issues) can be better addressed with an ambassador on the ground to smooth things out. To be sure, the US-India relationship is robust and can easily withstand the disadvantage of there not being a US ambassador. But given just how important the relationship is, it’s that fact that cries out for the need for Washington to move more quickly on this front,” he stressed.
Kugelman added: “At this point, it’s worth asking why the Biden administration doesn’t just nominate a new ambassador, given how the process with Garcetti has ground to a virtual halt.”
According to a report in the Foreign Policy last year, right after coming to power, the Biden administration has been knocking on the doors of wealthy election campaign donors to take up key diplomatic roles, which they don’t have an experience of.
In September this year, the US government imposed its first-ever sanction on an Indian firm for oil trade with Iran. Officials say such issues can be avoided if Washington had a full-time ambassador positioned in New Delhi.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)