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Is Jake Sullivan resurrecting Obama’s G2? His presence in India-US ties points to a ‘long game’

Sullivan knows that just as the US helped China become a world power – at its own cost, increasingly – the name of the game with India will have to be underlined by both sides making money.

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Three days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the US for a State visit, only the third such by an Indian leader, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be in Beijing to stabilise his country’s increasingly fractious relationship with China.

This is how big powers play – talking to all sides and publicly underlining the well-known proverb: “Hold your friends close, but your enemies closer.” It’s a lesson Modi should note while traversing the Atlantic in a few days from now and going to Paris for the Bastille Day celebrations next month. If you want India to be a regional power and assert its place in the world, you cannot hold nations and their people to ransom by having conditions for dialogue.

It’s what makes America special. Everything, or most things, are front and centre, warts and all. Along with its strength and ambition, the US has never hesitated to articulate its challenges and dilemmas. It helped China shed its reluctance to join the real world in the 1980s and helped modernise the country by investing in it. Today, the US openly admits it will do everything in its power to cut down China because the latter is daring to become world number one.

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Enter India. The Americans understand that India is already staring down the dragon on its icy frontiers in Ladakh – nothing like 100,000 Indian and Chinese troops eyeball-to-eyeball to concentrate the mind. It won’t take long to convince New Delhi to come on board because both have the Chinese threat in common.

Jake Sullivan is an interesting man to watch

Certainly, the Americans are laying it thick. US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti called National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval “an international treasure” at a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) event Tuesday, held in honour of visiting US NSA Jake Sullivan. “Indians love Americans, and Americans love Indians,” Garcetti added.

The 46-year-old Sullivan’s presence in town makes another fact crystal clear. Sullivan wasn’t even born when the US sent the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal in the winter of 1971, warning India from attacking Pakistan. That fact, of the US coming on the side of Pakistan and not India, is so deeply embedded in New Delhi’s subconscious that it has largely defined what people generally think about the US and the Soviet Union’s successor State, Russia.

Sullivan’s looming presence in the India-US relationship is a stark reminder that 50 years on, the game has totally changed. That India is fast catching up to becoming a fast friend of the Americans, keenly aware that the economics is heavily stacked in favour of that relationship.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that Sullivan, not Blinken, is the linchpin of the India-US relationship.

For example, Sullivan and Doval signed the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) in January, which is expected to lay the foundation of the countries’ future relationship based on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and science research. According to the Hindustan Times, the US National Security Council is “working closely with the Association of American Universities and National Science Foundation to leverage Indian talent in the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] space.”

Only the really old-timers will remember how the Americans refused to share super-computing information with India during the Rajiv Gandhi years. The Soviet Union was still around then, and the Americans, presumably, felt that India could leak this further to Moscow. This refusal pushed Indian scientists to up their own game. What a far cry today, just over 50 years later, as India and the US veer toward each other, hoping to consolidate each other’s strengths.

Sullivan is clearly an interesting man to watch. He was Hillary Clinton’s key foreign policy advisor, part of her inner sanctum when she stood for president. He was also Joe Biden’s NSA when he was vice-president. The US President has called him a “once-in-a-generation intellect.” As Biden’s eyes and ears, he knows he can gently push top people in the administration – like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief Willian Burns, commerce secretary Gina Raimondo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and defence minister Lloyd Austin – to get the work done.

Like Doval, who has been Modi’s man for several foreign policy seasons and runs all the countries in India’s neighbourhood besides Russia and China, Sullivan is an invaluable asset for Biden. At the CII event, Doval was calling Sullivan by his first name, betraying an intimacy that must have been forged in January when the two signed the iCET agreement. At that time, the 78-year-old Doval told Sullivan: “Jake, we have to deliver on this soon.”

Also read: PM Modi’s US visit to decide contour of future of Indo-US ties; both sides working on robust outcome document

US’ long game with India

But Sullivan’s presence on the India account is also interesting for another crucial reason. Probably because he has travelled with Clinton to 112 countries, including India, he realises there’s no point hectoring New Delhi; much better to turn on the charm if you want your work done. Significantly, former US deputy NSA Dilip Singh Saund – who told India that it would have to face “consequences” if it continued to buy Russian oil – should have known better but didn’t.

Unlike Saund and the rest of the Washington DC inside-the-Beltway folk, Sullivan seems to have understood India’s long-standing ties with Russia. He stood down those critics who wanted to take a tougher line on India, saying the US was playing “a long game.”

He told a Washington think-tank in June 2022: “We are investing in a relationship that we are not going to judge by one issue, even if that issue is quite consequential, but rather that we are going to judge over the fullness of time, as we try to work on convergence on the major strategic questions facing our two countries…On one of those questions, how to deal with the challenge posed by China, there is much more convergence today, and that is important to US foreign policy.”

Sullivan realises that just as the US helped China become a world power – at its own cost, increasingly – the name of the game with India will have to be underlined by the business of both sides making money. That’s why the GE-F414 engine deal, to be signed during Modi’s visit, will be part of the Prime Minister’s “Make in India” basket. It will also be a test case for the future transfer of technology to India. If India has to be cajoled into becoming a US ally and its defence systems – increasingly purchased from the Americans – are going to be integrated into US defence processes for interoperability, then Indian businesses must also become part of the profit.

It is equally true that in the past, Sullivan, like Blinken on his forthcoming trip to China, has sought “peaceful coexistence” with China. In October 2021, Sullivan met China’s Politburo member Yang Jiechi and told him that the US goal is “not a new containment or a new Cold War.” He followed that up a month later by telling CNN that the objective of the Biden administration is “to shape the international environment so that it is more favourable to the interests and values of the US, allies…not to bring about a fundamental transformation of China itself.”

He went on to add, in what must amount to the clearest view from Washington on how it looks at the world:

“The goal of America’s China policy is to create a circumstance in which two major powers are going to have to operate in an international system for the foreseeable future, and we want the terms of that…to be favourable to American interests and values.”

Is Sullivan bringing back Obama’s “G-2,” an abbreviation for US-China entente?

As Modi goes to America, all the blinkers about India’s place in the US sanctum sanctorum must be understood in the backdrop of how the latter sees its place in the world – where it is a key power along with China. There is no room for a third “kabab mein haddi” – not India, even if it is the world’s largest democracy.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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