Last updated on October 18, 2022
India, the world’s largest democracy and home to one of the largest US embassies in the world has been left without an ambassador for the past twenty months, the longest stretch yet with no US representative to India.
In January of 2021, the last US Ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, vacated the post. Since then, there have been four interim Chargés d’affaires, including Patricia Lacina, who is currently heading the mission. Interestingly, this is not the first significant setback in the appointment of a next ambassador to India. In the 1990s, there was a extended delay due to tensions between the US and India over the Kashmir Conflict. However, the current delay is especially curious as India becomes increasingly important to the US.
In January of 2022, US President Joe Biden’s nomination of Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, as the next ambassador to India was confirmed by The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Few nations are more vital to the future of American security and prosperity than India,” Garcetti told the committee. He underscored his ambitions, if confirmed, to advance a bilateral partnership in the Indo-Pacific region and work towards securing India’s borders through counterterrorism coordination.
Unfortunately, however, approval for Garcetti’s confirmation fell through when he was faced with allegations of sexual harassment filed against a member of his staff which raised questions of the “hostile work environment of his office”. The position was left unfilled and Garcetti’s confirmation, now unlikely, remains stalled.
Interestingly, this record-long vacancy comes at a time when fortifying a US-Indian relationship would be more favorable to the US than ever.
On one front, tensions between Russia and the West—with targets primarily being made at the US as a leading power of NATO—rise progressively with the ongoing war in Ukraine. Putin’s recent speech launched threats against the West which brought Cold War rhetoic into the conversation between the US and Russia.
But perhaps the more menacing part of Putin’s war speech was his emphasis on Russia’s geo-economic and political relationship with ASEAN countries, specifically with China. “As Russia builds a coalition of Asian countries, it is simultaneously challenging the American alliances that oppose Moscow’s ambitions” (Real Clear Defense).
At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s indirect challenge to western dominance left India, a formally nuetral Asian country, at the center of a “tug of war” between the Russian-backed Asia coalition and the West. It wasn’t until September of 2022 that Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, condemned President Putin for the war in Ukraine at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. The Indian position on the war now aligns with the West.
On another front, in the context of the India-China border standoff and the growing US-China rivalry, India is also taking on a more pro-US position. This partnership has been regarded by some as “best for its economic and technological advancement and for the realization of its larger global aspirations” (East Asia Forum).
While China and the US are economic rivals, their economies are interdependent. For example, American companies need Chinese factories to manufacture products across many industries and Chinese companies need Western semi-conductor technology to power its own industries.
Nevertheless, more recently, China faces a downward trajectory for investments as western businesses begin to pull out due to an ongoing trade war and extreme COVID-19 and national security restrictions imposed by the CCP. As a result, international businesses are searching for opportunities to pull out of China and instead turning towards places like India with aspirations to turn it into the next manufacturing powerhouse. One such example is Apple which has recently begun operation of an iPhone 14 production line in Chennai for the domestic Indian market. Developing closer economic ties with India would mitigate some of the US dependency on China.
At a time when India’s relationship with China is increasingly unstable, and its recent stance against Russia aligns itself more closely with the West, India is a pre-eminent partnership in which the US should invest. Now is the prime moment for the US to take advantage of a relationship with the most populous democracy in the world, an enemy of a US enemy, and an emerging sphere of development.
Ironically, as New Delhi gradually shifts to align itself with the West, no one from Washington is on the ground in India. Furthermore, despite India’s efforts towards economic disentanglement with China and condemnation of Russia, the Biden Administration has yet to drop Garcetti’s nomination which begs the question of why Washington’s loyalties lie with Garcetti instead of New Dehli.