Ronen Sen is a career diplomat in India's Foreign Service and became his country's ambassador to the United States in 2004. His tenure is spanning a remarkable transformation in the once chilly U.S.-India relationship. The administration of President George W. Bush is promoting a strategic partnership with India, stressing the two countries' shared values on democracy and fighting terrorism. Sen was interviewed Jan. 16 by members of the San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board.
Q: What is your government's perspective on what is emerging as an historic new relationship between the United States and India? And what do you see as the core shared interest of the U.S. and India today?
A: I'd say that it's a fascinating and rewarding time to be Indian ambassador to the United States. Because this relationship has never been as good as it is today. And it's getting better with each passing month. I would describe the relationship as being rapidly transformed across the board, whether it's trade or investments or scientific collaboration or collaborating in areas which are of mutual benefit as well as collaborating in areas which affect the long-term national interests of our countries. Above all, today in the new post-Cold War period the threats which we as democracies face.
Q: You're talking about the threat of terrorism?
A: Terrorism. International terrorism. And the recognition earlier was that it was thought to be a regional phenomenon. But we had over the past number of years, over the last decade or so, far more. We'd make a mistake in trying to compartmentalize it, trying to see this in a regional perspective. Because this is a global threat and we have to address it at the source. And before it spreads, but unfortunately now it has spread a lot and as everyone recognizes, particularly after the traumatic events of 9/11, that it is global and there is no country which is immune from it. The other is we have a widely shared interest in non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly in our part of the world. And our worst-case nightmare, for both our countries, is a combination of the two.
Q: Terrorism and nuclear proliferation?
A: Yes. If you look at our region, for India it's not an academic issue because we have the largest concentration of terrorists right adjacent to us.
Q: Southwest Asia and the Middle East?
A: Yes. That is in Afghanistan, Pakistan and our area. And also with the source and the biggest source in destination for proliferation of nuclear weapons. The means of their delivery. So it is in this context that the relationship is evolving as I said into a strategic partnership which will be durable and confidently durable, because as I said it is not based on tactical considerations or transient interests.
Q: But in your view enduring, shared interests?
A: Yes. Shared interests and also common values. Because in the ultimate analysis, relations between two democracies are relations between people in two countries. And if you look at that I can say that we can look forward with confidence to the future because this is one relationship, and there are very few, believe me, that enrich you and reconcile ideas and interests where you can reconcile principles and practices. You don't have to go into contortions.
Q: Does India see the United States as a counterweight to China?
A: I don't think so because as I just pointed out this strategic partnership between India and the United States stands on the basis of its own merits. We at the same time believe that it does not in any way hamper the engagement of the United States with China and that engagement is growing.
Q: What is annual per capita income in India?
A: It's just about $900 or so.
Q: Isn't that figure misleading in the sense that one of the results of India's current economic boom is a very large, growing and prosperous middle class?
A: That is growing. And the challenge for us today really is to meet the basic needs of our people. Like for instance I was talking of high technology. We need to achieve very high technology but for meeting very basic requirements. I'll give you an example. For instance, take a space program. It is advanced. So India is a study in contradictions. In every sense. You have the bullet cart in a country which is one of the six countries in the world which can place a satellite into use in stationary orbit.
Q: What is the current figure of remittances that go from the United States to India from Indian-Americans who live and work here?
A: It is a significant figure but I don't know exactly what it is, (perhaps) about $30 billion.
Q: What does it mean in a poor country to have $30 billion from an outside source? It must be very gratifying for India to receive that much money from Indian-Americans working and living in the United States. Has it affected the politics at all in terms of the acknowledgment. In Mexico it's become very much part of the discussion because that $20 billion that goes to Mexico is more than Mexico earns from tourism or oil. In India do they just accept the money and not say anything about it?
A: Much more is being sent outside India. For instance if you look at Indian-educated doctors working in the United States, you have received more from the Indian taxpayer. Because when you talk about education in India you're talking of taxpayers' money. You are talking of 95 percent-plus of their education expenses met by the Indian taxpayer. So if you look at it in that light, the resource flow is in the other direction.
Q: What is the current number of Indians studying in the United States?
A: Every year as I said we have about 80,000-plus students studying here. This does not include, of course, Indian-Americans who are a significant number; mainly American citizens but also Indian citizens who are residents here, green card holders. I would say the population of Indians and Indian-Americans is currently about 2.2 million in the United States.
Q: India is emerging as a technology source for the global economy. Is that driving your rapid economic growth?
A: Research and development centers in India work on tomorrow's technologies. There's a demand for that kind of more research-oriented work, but not just research by itself as an end to itself but research that is oriented to commercial exploitation or industrial application or application on a large scale in areas (such as) making a major impact on education or public health or improving the social well-being of our people. Or meeting very, very basic requirements. India is excelling in so many indicators of rapid economic growth. But you have also the fact that about 17 million Indians don't have access to potable water. So we have to address those issues. It's extremely challenging. And also our infrastructure is so poorly developed. If you go to India you realize it the moment you land at an airport. We need better airports, better roads, better ports; across the board infrastructure is very poor. But you can see it both as a constraint, which it is, but also as an opportunity.
Q: A controversial aspect of the alliance between India and the United States is nuclear cooperation. The U.S. government wants India to permit a verifiable separation of its peaceful nuclear energy program and its nuclear weapons program. Where does the effort to get to that verifiable separation stand now?
A: At the moment, we have passed two stages. The first stage has been both governments agreeing to this cooperation taking place and which is involved on our side, as you pointed out, separation of the civilian and the strategic aspects of our nuclear program. Number two, it has involved that our agreement to place the civilian facilities under habitual safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. And the corresponding obligation assumed by the United States of continuity of supply of (nuclear) fuel. So basically we agree that these safeguards are being (maintained) and on the other hand it's very finely tuned and balanced in terms of reciprocity and rights and obligations of both countries. So one stage is we reached those understandings. The second stage is the House and Senate approving this framework of cooperation. Now what we have to do is we have to work on the bilateral agreement in the framework of the go-ahead given by the U.S. Congress and the framework of the bilateral agreement which we already have in place. We have to flesh that out. Second is that that agreement will also require approval by the U.S. Congress, both houses. The fourth step would be to get the concurrence of the nuclear suppliers group, that is, the 45-member countries who constitute the nuclear suppliers group, to change their guidelines. And the other step would be to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to get a safeguards agreement on supplies and to negotiate what's called an additional protocol.
Q: One of the reasons the U.S. Senate voted 95 to 0 back in 1997 not to agree to the Kyoto Accord was because China and India and other developing countries were excluded from the agreement's required reductions in CO2 emissions. If global warming is indeed a problem and CO2 emissions are, in fact, contributing to a greenhouse effect that is raising global temperatures, what is India prepared to do to help reduce these emissions?
A: When you said about not being held to the same standards as the United States and the omission on that count, I don't think it's factually correct because factually our consumption (of energy) is at such low levels. It is at the level of sub-Saharan Africa. It is less than half the global average. It is actually closer to one-third. We are uniquely disadvantaged because we have coal located in one part of our country with very high ash content.
Q: And coal provides the great bulk of your energy source.
A: Yes. We want to reduce that. So we have nuclear cooperation ... we have energy dialogue which is across this board. Like clean-coal technologies. We are looking at every alternative: solar, biomass, wind energy.
Q: Are you saying, in effect, then that it would be very difficult for India at this stage in its development to contribute significantly to reducing CO2 emissions?
A: No. What I am saying is that one of the elements is that we have to have global cooperation. We should not say that there are two ways of dealing with it. One is if we say that if we are given a choice we should not be given a choice between effectuation of poverty and (helping) the environment.
Q: Do you see technology as the salvation?
A: General Atomics here is working on fusion energy. Now that's an international project which we have just joined. Maybe it's not around the corner, maybe it's decades away. But we have to work on it today. So we are putting in a lot of effort and we'd like to get minds together to say that, look, development and meeting very basic needs of our people, very basic needs, should not be at the cost of making it worse for us. Even in terms of health costs. It doesn't make sense.
Q: Only 3 percent of India's energy comes from nuclear power. What are the prospects for a significant increase in energy production in India from nuclear power?
A: We hope that this agreement which we have reached, when it's taken to its conclusion would make it worthwhile for us on our own and together with international participation with our private companies and other private companies elsewhere to substantially increase this percentage. And we have some experience in this area. We were the first country in Asia to make a reactor on our own. And so we have more than about five decades of experience in handling full nuclear fuel activities right from mining to fuel fabrication to the reactor to reprocessing to extracting the plutonium and putting it back. We were among the first five countries in the world to have those technologies. Now to make it commercially viable. And we believe that we can do this through technologies.
Q: Realistically, how much more nuclear power generation can India expect to produce?
A: In the next couples of decades, we should be able to add 60,000 megawatts of nuclear energy. With 1,000-megawatt plant reactors now, that would be 60 reactors.
Q: Should Americans be worried about India taking away U.S. jobs in high-tech occupations? Is there something that India can teach Americans about the reality of competition and about what it takes to be successful?
A: No, I don't think so. I think these fears are exaggerated. And as I said it's perception and I think what we can do is we can try to bridge this gap between reality and perception. As I was telling you, you'd find that more jobs are being created as a result of outsourcing than would have otherwise been the case.
Q: Jobs created here in the United States?
A: Here in the United States. Because it's keeping companies which would have folded up, it's keeping them competitive. People also forget that India imports much more than it exports. Our imports are 40 percent higher than our exports.
Q: What is India's balance of trade with the United States?
A: In terms of merchandise goods, we have a 2-to-1 advantage as of now. In services, the United States has a 2-to-1 advantage.
Q: The immigration debate in this country for the last five years has mostly been about low-skilled workers and a discussion about guest workers from Mexico. There is a element that pops up in the debate about H1V visas every once in a while and about whether or not we need to revisit that program, expand the number of H1V visas so that high-tech workers can come in from places like India or China. Are you concerned at all that in the immigration debate either that issue might not be given enough proper attention or that there may even be a push by some quarters to limit the number of H1V visas?
Honestly, it doesn't concern me because it's not an Indian-U.S. issue, it's a global issue. Because basically countries will have two alternatives. One is that either United States is not so much of an issue because the United States, fortunately, is a very dynamic country. It's a very pluralist country, like ours. If you look at Indian immigrants over here they've contributed to the intellectual capital of this country, they've contributed in terms of creating far more and many more jobs than they have taken themselves. In terms of education they are about the highest in terms of educational achievement. In terms of crime, they are the lowest. In terms of being good citizens of the country, in terms of contributing to the community as such, the larger community. I don't mean the Indian-American community but their neighborhoods and what they're trying to give to society, whether it's in the museum or whether it's to some community housing projects or diversities. They're giving back. They always have a tradition of giving back more than they receive.