Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second state visit to Washington in two years, according to the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/06/the-impressively-awkward-hugs-and-handshakes-of-indias-narendra-modi/), occurred last month (June 7-8) with the usual Washington pledges to upgrade the relationship with the world’s most populous democracy. I have pondered for a long-time why the U.S. has not vigorously pursued closer ties with a country that seems a natural fit, a promising trade partner, an ideological soul mate, and an occupant of a dangerous neighborhood which shares a number of common security concerns with Washington.
But, then again, I am no India expert (having visited the country only once, in 2004, for ten days on a Congressional staff delegation trip primarily dedicated to visiting the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, although time was included for discussions in New Delhi with Indian government officials on such regional concerns as a rising China and the then-ongoing civil war in Nepal between the former monarchy and Maoist rebels .) The Indians proved warm and decidedly pro-American. The waiters at a restaurant at the four-star hotel where I stayed in New Delhi, for example, proudly insisted that I, as their new “American friend,” sit in the very booth where former President Bill Clinton had sat for a meal during a recent India trip.
Yet it has seemed to me, as an interested amateur observer of the U.S.-India relationship for over a decade from my perch as an Asia adviser on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that American official interest in pursuing more positive relations is highly episodic. We tend to lay the blame for this on historic factors, such as India’s alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Kissinger’s famous “tilt” to Pakistan during the South Asian crisis of 1971 which brought about Bangladesh’s independence. And then there is the supposed reluctance of Indians to deal with “Anglo” powers such as the United States given their often unfortunate colonial experience with Great Britain (Having watched “Jewel in the Crown” on PBS (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jewel_in_the_Crown_(TV_series) who can blame them?)
With my knowledge of India coming mainly from television dramas, I was naturally at first hesitant to post a blog piece about India. But I have learned over the years that almost anyone in Washington can take it upon themselves to become as “instant expert” on about any foreign policy issue. When I returned to the States from Beijing in 1998, for example, I hesitated to call myself a “Korea expert,” feeling such an appellation assumed a very grave level of expertise. But then I went to seminars and heard various persons spouting off as “Korea experts” who had NEVER even lived in the country, having maybe visited for a few days here and there, and who barely spoke one word of the language. Having lived in Korea for a total of over eleven years, on three separate occasions, having learned the language to a degree where I at least once spoke the language on a professional level — a 1979 Korean language speech contest victory indicated as such — and knowing at least something about the people, culture and history of this complex society, I decided that I must be a “Korea expert” if all these other people were.
But getting back to India, and feeling that this soon-to-be-most populous nation in the world, according to current demographic trends, was a critical piece in the whole Indo-Pacific regional puzzle, I went to the Heritage Foundation on June 9th to attend an event, co-hosted by the India Foundation, where some REAL India experts gave their views on the significance of the just-completed Modi visit and the current state of U.S.-India relations. In this I was not disappointed. The seminar, titled “Security and Strategic Outcomes from the Modi Visit,” provided a wealth of information in a very short space of time.
Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal introduced the speakers at the Heritage event. I have known Nisha since 2000 when we shared a Congressional staff office in the sub-basement of the Rayburn building. She began her very upbeat remarks by speaking of “the arc of the relationship over the past decade, from the bold steps taken by the previous Administrations. President Bush and Prime Minister Singh made the long bet on this relationship by negotiating the landmark civil-nuclear agreement.” She went on to note “the contours taking shape of a commercial venture by Westinghouse to provide six nuclear reactors, providing power for 60 million Indians and creating thousands of new jobs in America and India.”
Now I have a vivid memory of the India civil-nuclear agreement since the two heads of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my boss Chairman Henry Hyde and then-Ranking Member Tom Lantos, were key in moving the required legislation forward, both first through the Committee and then on the House Floor. The legislation, known as the “Hyde Act,” granted India a special exemption to U.S. legislative restrictions forbidding cooperation for peaceful nuclear purposes with a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). When this matter came up in 2006, following the signature in New Delhi of a Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Hyde was at the end of a long and distinguished legislative career, as he was retiring from Congress at the end of that year. Agreeing to sponsor the Hyde Act would thus prove to be one of the last major pieces of legislation put forward by the Chairman. As his principal adviser on the North Korea nuclear issue, I recall that the decision to go forward with this legislation caused Henry Hyde great angst due to his worry that a precedent might be set for other non-NPT signatories such as North Korea. It took, I recall, a number of private conversations with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to convince Hyde. But, with U.S.-Indian peaceful nuclear cooperation going forward a decade later, the end decision seems to have been the right one.
Secretary Biswal went on to note that “our Strategic Partnership with India is a key element of this Administration’s Rebalance to Asia – a strategy which recognizes that America’s security and prosperity will increasingly depend on the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.” She also referenced Prime Minister Modi’s historic address to the U.S. Congress the previous day: “The most important outcome, in my mind, of the visit this week, and of the years of effort, is the clear and compelling vision that was laid out by Prime Minister Modi yesterday before a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress. The Modi Doctrine — as I have been calling it — laid out a foreign policy vision that ‘overcomes the hesitations of history’ and embraces the convergence between our two countries and our shared interests. The Prime Minister harkened back to the framing of his mentor, PM Vajpayee, to invoke the natural alliance between our two countries, calling the United States India’s indispensable partner.”
The U.S. Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, also spoke at Hertiage. He noted that “it’s best to start with the Prime Minister’s own words yesterday. He, of course, referred to the United States and India as ‘natural allies’ and like President Obama, called our ties ‘the defining partnership of the 21st Century.'” Ambassador Verma made reference as well to the MALABAR naval exercise which began in 1992 as “a modest joint naval exercise” but which has morphed into “a trilateral exercise, with regular participation from the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force. When our three naval forces gather next week for MALABAR 2016, it will be among our largest and most complex exercises to date. This year’s MALABAR will feature a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and submarine, maritime patrol aircraft, Indian Navy divers and marine commandos, and a large variety of surface ships.” Ambassadar Varma also noted that the level of bilateral trade reached “a record level of $107 billion” last year. It seems that with India’s still young and growing population, (reportedly over 50 percent of its population is below the age of 25) in contrast to the greying populations of China, South Korea and Japan, that the sky is the limit for expansion of both a consumer market and a skilled work force. India, with a reported annual GDP growth rate of 7.6 percent, is also the fastest growing of the world’s large economies.
And then there is the issue of terrorism and other international threats to both U.S. and global security. As I noted in the title, just look at a map or read journalist Robert Kaplan’s compelling book “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” (https://www.amazon.com/Monsoon-Indian-Ocean-Future-American/dp/0812979206/ref=pd_bxgy_14_img_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=60ZPE5ZTD25DRWY37F7C). A map would reveal that India lies squarely in-between a volatile Middle East and a South China Sea where a rising and increasingly belligerent China has drawn a line in the sand. The fossil fuel which runs the engines of the global economy in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea must pass right by India in tankers bound from the Middle East to East Asia. So do some of the world’s major sea lanes.
India has also been a front-line state in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. When in Mumbai on my trip in 2004, I stayed at the regal old hotel, the Taj Mahal, next to the Gateway to India, which became the object of a major terrorist attack only four years later. As such, I was a bit concerned at Heritage to hear a retired Indian Vice Admiral state that all joint US-Indian naval exercises to date have been limited to the seas to the east of India and have not been conducted in the Persian Gulf. With the growing instability in the Middle East, it would seem that the U.S. could use all the naval friends it could get in the waters off that region. And as Prime Minister Modi told the U.S. Congress last month “the need of the hour is for us to deepen our security cooperation” in order to “build a bridge to a more united, humane and prosperous world.” India is right there. Just look at a map.