Jake Sullivan, a USNSA agent, will not visit India in February; the shaping meeting has been postponed.

Feb 13, 2024 07:36 AM IST

Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s closest national security aide, is currently dealing with multiple global crises, from West Asia to Ukraine, with domestic political implications for Biden in an election year

US national security adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan will not visit India in February due to other pressing commitments, as a result of which the annual review meeting of the initiative on critical and emerging technologies (iCET) will now be rescheduled, people familiar with the development said.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (AP Photo)

US officials have told Indian interlocutors that the visit was postponed due to “presidential business”, resulting in a clash in commitments. Sullivan, however, is still expected to travel “soon” for the meeting with Indian NSA Ajit Doval.

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Sullivan was also expected to speak at the annual Raisina Dialogue, organised by the Observer Research Foundation in partnership with the ministry of external affairs. The American presence at Raisina Dialogue will be headlined by State Department deputy secretary Richard R Verma, a former ambassador to India who is the highest ranking Indian-American ever in the State Department and handles the India account, during his first bilateral official visit to India in his new role.

Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s closest national security aide, is currently dealing with multiple global crises, from West Asia to Ukraine, with domestic political implications for Biden in an election year. But both governments wants to ensure the wider India-US relationship remains robust and iCET is on track.

Placing the rescheduling of the visit within the context of the wider state of the relationship, a senior administration official told HT, “The United States and India share a unique bond of friendship and we are committed to deepening collaboration across a range of critically important issues. The President has affirmed on several occasions a vision of the US and India as among the closest partners in the world – and have worked steadily to advance our strategic partnership across all domains, including strategic technology.”

iCET and high-level engagements

Sullivan’s visit to India was never officially announced. But on the sidelines of the G20 summit in September 2023, after a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden, the joint statement said that the next annual iCET review, co-led by the NSAs of both countries, will be held in early 2024. The meeting was expected to be held around Biden’s possible visit to India for Republic Day, but once the President expressed his inability to visit, iCET’s review was scheduled for the third week of February. HT had reported that Sullivan and Doval were also expected to discuss the situation in West Asia during their bilateral talks.

The senior US administration official quoted above underlined the importance of iCET and the American commitment to the mechanism. “The inauguration of the iCET in January 2023 was a major milestone in US-India relations, and our governments continue to work closely together, and with our businesses and academic institutions, to realise our shared vision for the US-India technology partnership. We held an intersessional meeting of the iCET in Delhi in December and look forward to holding the next session of the iCET.” The December meeting was led by US principal deputy NSA Jon Finer and Indian deputy NSA Vikram Misri.

Within a year of iCET’s birth, the semiconductor space has already seen progress with American investments in India. There is enhanced space collaboration between NASA and ISRO. Pilot deployments of the open radio access network (ORAN) telecom infrastructure are in the works. Research partnerships between top institutions have been signed. India, US and South Korea have launched a trilateral partnership in the domain. There is a growing dialogue on artificial intelligence and quantum.

Both countries have also agreed on defence industrial roadmap with an understanding on co-production that started with the GE jet engine deal, the Indian decision to buy Predator drones (a process that is now at the stage of Congressional notification), and the roll-out of Indus-X, a multi stakeholder mechanism to connect the private and public sector in the defence tech ecosystem of both countries. An Indus-X summit on the theme of Innovation in US-India Defence will be held in Delhi on February 20 and 21 as scheduled where joint challenges and projects will be the focus.

Writing on the first anniversary of iCET in this paper, Carnegie India director Rudra Chaudhuri argued that it was now time to institutionalise the mechanism through an iCET council and asked both sides and industry to look at the long-term in the context of strategic technologies and partnerships.

In addition, despite the controversy emanating from a US Department of Justice indictment that implicated a government of India official for an assassination plot on American soil, high level engagements between the two sides have continued. The foreign and defence ministers of the two governments held their annual 2+2 dialogue in November in Delhi. Doval and Sullivan met for a meeting that wasn’t publicly announced in Saudi Arabia in December. US trade representative Katherine Tai visited India for the annual Trade Policy Forum dialogue in January. There was a strong US presence led by State Department assistant secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu at the Ananta Aspen India-US Forum. And next week, Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary of defence for policy Sasha Baker will visit Delhi for the defence policy forum, besides Verma’s visit that will involve meetings with top Indian officials.

The context of the rescheduling

In the backdrop of this momentum in bilateral ties, the change in Sullivan’s dates appears more directly linked with the wider political and national security challenge confronting US.

Sullivan is assisting Biden on at least five simultaneous and public crises — the renewed Russian confidence over Ukraine and the uncertainty over Congressional funding for Kyiv that has thrown up questions about US credibility; the continued Israeli offensive in Gaza which has led to fracture in Biden’s domestic political coalition and put American diplomacy on the defensive in the rest of the world; the attempts to carve out a comprehensive ceasefire-hostage-Palestinian statehood-Saudi/Israel normalisation-Gaza reconstruction package deal; the continued offensive by Iran’s proxies across West Asia against US personnel and interests including in the Red Sea; and the jitters among European allies after Republican presidential nomination frontunner Donald Trump said he would encourage Russia to do whatever it wanted if NATO allies didn’t step up their contributions to the alliance.

Those involved in the India-US relationship suggest that while both governments are keen to achieve as much as possible in quick time, Washington DC and Delhi are conscious that the domestic political calendar and commitments will impinge on the pace of the bilateral track and visits through 2024.

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Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.