The stars are aligned in the political firmament to make US-India relationship the world’s strongest and most important strategic partnership. India and the US must seize this opportunity. In doing so, they will be able to work more closely on issues ranging from international terrorism, the rise of an Asian hegemon, to economic development.
At a recent US-India Friendship Council roundtable at the American Capitol, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley gave a ringing endorsement to US-India strategic partnership. Perhaps that was not so remarkable since her boss, President Donald Trump, had stressed on US-India relationship in rolling out his South Asia/Afghanistan policy, and Haley’s fellow Cabinet members, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were saying much the same thing in Washington and New Delhi.
Perhaps even more noteworthy was Ambassador Haley’s being followed to the podium by leading Senators from the Democratic opposition. Giving strong commitments to the US-India partnership were Senator Tim Kaine, highest ranking Democrat on the subcommittee in charge of anti-terrorism and South Asia; Senator Mark Warner, Democratic Vice-Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus; and Senator Joe Donnelly of the powerful Armed Services Committee. These commitments were in line with those previously made by Republican Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis at an earlier US-India Friendship Council event.
The bipartisan support in the US Congress for US-India strategic partnership is not limited to the Senate. At the same roundtable keynoted by Senators Burr and Tillis, Republicans and Democrats from the House of Representatives were equally enthusiastic about US-India relationship. Republicans speaking up for the partnership were Representatives George Holding of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and Ted Yoho, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia. Democrats Tulsi Gabbard, Ami Bera, Ro Khanna, and Gerry Connally also spoke strongly in favour of a strongest possible bilateral relationship.
Thus, at a time when Republicans and Democrats in Washington can agree on almost nothing else, there is strong bi-partisan support for US-India strategic partnership. This support extends from the Executive right on through both houses of Congress.
From the perspective of an American observer, support for US-India strategic partnership seems similarly strong on the Indian side. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump had a successful summit, complete with mutual understandings and bear hugs. There seems to be widespread support in India for the proposition that the US and India are “natural partners”.
However, sentiment is no substitute for bi-partisan action. The US and India should take advantage of this political positive alignment to make progress that has real substance. Specifically, there are four areas in which action can be taken now: (1) terrorism, (2) defence production, (3) international organisations, and (4) visas.
As President Trump indicated in his Afghanistan strategy statement, safe havens for terrorism must be stopped. In 2012, the US government placed a $10 million reward on Hafiz Saeed for terrorist activities, the UN has listed him, and yet Saeed continues to operate in Pakistan as a political leader. The US recently designated Hizbul Mujahideen as a terrorist organisation, but it too continues to operate. The US can direct funding cuts and extend sanctions or take other actions in support of India on terrorism. For example, India has advocated for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). The Trump administration endorses the Convention. The US Congress can seize the initiative on this issue by a resolution endorsing negotiation of the CCIT.
With regard to technology transfer and co-production of defence systems, India should have, in the words of the Trump-Modi Joint Statement of 26 June 2017, “a level commensurate with that of the closest allies and partners of the United States”. India should have the same status for arms export purposes as NATO countries, plus five other of America’s close strategic partners—Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea, Israel, and New Zealand. At present India does not have this status. Changing this can give a major boost to “Make in India” for defence projects, from fighter planes to carrier technology.
The Trump and previous US administrations have committed to India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But nothing has happened. The trouble is largely with China and Russia blocking this move. India and the US should actively work together to change this. Such joint advocacy can have the additional benefit of emphasising to China and Russia the importance of international law and norms.
Indian Americans have made and are making significant contributions to both their adopted country and land of their ancestry. Indeed, Indian Americans are a key component of the US-India Friendship Council. Indian graduate students are one of the largest overseas groups receiving advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. Providing US green cards to such graduates would stand as a monument to the American benefit provided by the many Indians who come to the United States for education.
Making permanent, substantive progress in US-India strategic partnership will not be easy. Long held perspectives and tendencies must be overcome on both sides, particularly in the bureaucracies of both nations. The US must put aside the post-World War II tendency to view allies as necessarily agreeing with it on all policies. The relationship with Iran is a case in point. For its part, India should not continue to be hypersensitive on the issue of sovereignty. The doctrine of non-alignment is a Cold War perspective that no longer applies. Simple procedural understandings such as US defence foundational documents do not constitute some sort of neo-imperialist threat to sovereignty.
India and the US should recognise the historic opportunity that lies before us. Making the US-India strategic partnership the world’s strongest will benefit both countries and the cause of peace and prosperity throughout the world.
Raymond E. Vickery, Jr. is a leading expert concerning US-India relations. He is a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is an author of books and numerous articles on US-India relations. He is also Of Counsel to the law firm of Hogan Lovells and a Senior Advisor to the Albright Stonebridge Group. He served as US Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Trade Development, in the Administration of President William J. Clinton. He also served three terms in the Virginia General Assembly and in the campaigns of President Obama, Vice President Gore, Senator Kerry, and Secretary Clinon. He is a Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke University, was a Fulbright Scholar in South Asia, and received his law degree from Harvard Law School.