Kenneth Juster (54), US President Donald Trump’s pick to replace Richard Verma as the US ambassador to India is no stranger to Indo-US relations. He is widely acclaimed as one of the key architects of Indo-US strategic relations. In fact, to some media commentators in Washington, he is the “foremost authority” on the subject. Therefore, his nomination to the key post comes as no surprise to many.
The Ken Juster touch
As soon as news of Juster’s nomination as the US ambassador to New Delhi broke, media houses in India came out with reports that hailed his contribution to Indo-US relations. But almost all of them lack finer details of his role in building the strategic partnership between the two countries in the years prior to the signing of the landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear deal in 2006.
Ken Juster, a Harvard graduate and a former US undersecretary of commerce, played a key role in transforming the Indo-US relationship in the post-Cold War era. During the Cold War, India and the US were on opposite sides of the table on most key issues. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, relations between the two countries did not warm up immediately, thanks to the continued US support for Pakistan and the US perception of India as a Soviet client.
However, it was soon felt in Washington that a closer economic engagement with India, the largest democracy in the world, could open up new avenues for US businesses. New Delhi, on its part, felt the need for high-technology, the transfer of which had been banned due to US sanctions imposed in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests by India.
The US soon began extending a hand to India. In 2002, the man it sent to New Delhi to proffer that handshake was Ken Juster, then the US undersecretary of commerce. Juster argued for closer ties, including in defence, which had not until then been an area in which the US engaged with India. Ever since he assumed charge as the undersecretary of commerce, Juster had been vying for stronger cooperation between Washington and New Delhi in the realm of hi-tech trade. That 2002 visit to New Delhi focussed largely on promoting high-tech trade between the two countries. A high point of the visit was the setting up of a High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG).
Political commentators of the time hailed it as a radical departure in US policy towards India and welcomed Washington’s desire to cooperate on sensitive areas. “This is the first time ever when the USA, which had imposed harsh sanctions on India in the wake of India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, has agreed to take its cooperation with India to such sensitive areas as space and high technology,” wrote Rajeev Sharma, a political commentator in the Tribune newspaper.
Ken Juster assumed the US chair of the HTCG, which over the next six years, starting from 2002, initiated several dialogues between India and US in areas such as nanotechnology and defence and strategic trade. One of the key aims of HTCG was to lift the export licence requirements on dual-use items, without which the scope of high-tech trade would have remained limited. Dual-use items refer to those that have both commercial as well as military application. Over the next few years, the licence requirement on a large number of dual-use items was done away with. In 2010, Juster noted that now only a “fraction” of dual-use trade with India now requires a licence.
According to the Ministry of External Affairs, the dialogues under HTCG led to easing of restrictions on the export of tech trade to India. As a result, tech export from the US to India grew five-fold between 2002 and 2008. Going by the MEA estimates, high-technology imports from the US grew from $1.6 billion to 8 billion during that period.
In 2003, Kenneth Juster also negotiated the Next Step in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), a diplomatic initiative to boost cooperation between India and the US in areas such as space and nuclear technology. “The NSSP is grounded in the realisation that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. It acknowledges India’s role as a major power, while appreciating that it takes time to build a lasting strategic partnership. It sets up a process to create and build upon successes, while establishing habits of cooperation that extend deep into the governmental fabric of both countries,” Juster wrote in a 2004 Wall Street Journal piece.
The NSSP was a prelude to the nuclear deal. In July 2005 MEA announced the successful completion of its first phase. “The successful completion of this initiative clears the way for even greater engagement in a number of key areas in which cooperation has previously been limited or non-existent,” an MEA statement read.
However, the man who tirelessly lobbied in Washington to promote high-tech trade with India did not shy away from expressing his opposition to trade tariffs and caps on foreign investments in sectors such as defence. “India’s tariffs and taxes remain too high, its investment caps too restrictive, its customs procedures too complex, and its intellectual property rights protections less than full,” he wrote in 2004.
Ever since, he has been persuading New Delhi to lift the 26 per cent cap on FDI in defence. “India should consider raising its limit on foreign direct investment in the defense sector from the current 26 percent limit to 49 percent or more,” he wrote in a working paper for the Centre for a New American Security, which he co-authored. Juster got his way when in 2016 the BJP-led government decided to do away with a cap on FDI in defence.
“The sale of defense-related goods by US companies to India and collaboration on defense technology between US and Indian firms remain areas of significant opportunity for the U.S. government and the U.S. defense industry,” Juster wrote in the working paper. He wrote that an expansion of defence trade with India would be beneficial for the US since it would enhance “interoperability” between the US and Indian militaries, while also providing a “significant” market for US defence hardware manufacturers at a time when the US defence budget was shrinking.
Sacked and sent to India?
While Ken Juster has a wealth of experience in Indo-US relations, there have been reports that said Juster was sacked from his White House role as deputy assistant on international economic affairs due to a feud with other Trump administration officials.
Juster reportedly had disagreements with others in the administration on policy matters. “He is not going to be here (in Washington) long. The question is where will he go. The only reason he’s not gone already is they’re trying to find him an alternate position,” an official had told Politico.