By US Ambassador Richard Verma
In 1947 as Jackie Robinson was getting ready to play his first major league game, and our government was rolling out the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, the Indian people were preparing for the realization of their “tryst with destiny.” Those words from Jawaharlal Nehru seem prophetic now, and I am looking forward to discussing with you today the remarkable transformations that have taken place both within the country where I am serving and in the world’s perception of India. However, perhaps even more important than the promising future foretold in Nehru’s words were the remarkable circumstances in which they were forged. In the late 1940’s many countries in Asia were emerging from colonial pasts and grappling with the question of how to redefine nationhood and national identity.
Some countries chose to adopt an identity based on a shared religion or ethnicity; others constructed a national framework built upon a political ideology. India was unique. Its national hero was not a general, or revolutionary or nationalist leader, but rather a man whose commitment was to democratic values, multicultural tolerance and nonviolence- Mahatma Gandhi. There is no doubt that the values he espoused became part of the national fabric at the moment of India’s conception. As Indian governments have come and gone the ideal of a multiethnic democracy has remained at the very core of the national consciousness. In this way India was perhaps the first truly 21st century country. In the decades after 1947, the freedom riders who were trained in Gandhi’s ideals and methods, and in some cases in India by Gandhi’s associates themselves, helped the United States begin to come to terms with our own history of injustice, providing the reconciliation that allowed for our post-Cold War prosperity and influence.
This history is well understood, but I believe it is a critical underpinning for the factors that are bringing the United States and India into a partnership as “natural allies” in the words of Indian Prime Minister Modi. The commitment to a democratic system and the rule of law that have made India an island of stability in a continent that has seen tremendous upheaval in the past 50 years will continue to provide the Indian people the platform on which to construct their 21st century emergence. That India has lifted millions out of poverty and many of its 1.2 billion people have prospered while living under a transparent system of government demonstrates that the principles both countries hold dear are not “American” or “Asian” but human aspirations. This shared view of a government that is inclusive and accountable to its people has resulted in India, despite its considerable economic challenges, leading the pack in a number of key indicators. Indian citizens are among the world’s most numerous and active social media users – much has been written about the Indian impact on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Indian innovators are among the most successful and prolific patent applicants in the world, and Indian companies, drawing on a highly educated English speaking workforce, are deeply integrated into global business processing. Recent controversies notwithstanding, India’s civil society is composed of tens of thousands of vocal and active NGOs that are influencing policy and budgets around the country. In this century, the advancement of prosperity will require the ability to nurture innovations, energize global audiences with new ideas and build cross-cultural understanding. I need only to consider the number of Indian citizens using Facebook on cell phones charged by village entrepreneurs selling solar power to be certain that India is primed to succeed in these challenges.
India Reclaims its Global Role
It is also true that India is seeking to make up for lost time. India is still grappling with a legacy of systemic economic challenges that have hampered its growth in comparison to other Asian powers in the 20th century. However, India has exerted a profound historical impact on the global economy, and is poised to do so again. For much of recorded history, until the 18th century in fact, India’s GDP matched or exceeded that of China and dwarfed production in Europe. As the birthplace of Buddhism and a historical center of Sufi Islam, India’s cultural influence extends from Southeast Asia to Mongolia and from Indonesia to the steppes of Central Asia.
The developments of the past year show that India is determined to emerge from its slumber as the second sleeping giant of Asia and reclaim its historical position as one of the great world powers. Indian leaders have expressed a determination to leave behind the traditions of nonalignment and strategic autonomy and, in the words of Foreign Secretary Jaishankar, to become a “leading power.”
India and the Rebalance
So what does this all mean for U.S. interests and U.S-India relations? I don’t need to tell this audience that the movement of the center of the world’s economic gravity to Asia is well underway, and that the continent that is home to 60% of the world’s population will shape global affairs for the foreseeable future. These paradigm shifts informed the President’s rebalance to Asia policy. However, the United States has, in India, gained a critically important strategic partner in the rebalance– one that is dynamic, shares our fundamental commitment to open and transparent systems, and is home to a youthful population of 1.2 billion.
This strategic partnership will be unlike the geo-political alliances of the 20th century. Rather than remaining confined to one corner of our planet, we will work to uphold the global systems and spaces that will allow for the continued advancement of humankind. In the words of Prime Minister Modi the great promise of the U.S.-India relationship is what both countries “can do together for the world.” To be sure, the U.S.-India strategic partnership will be anchored in Asia. But it will also be a truly 21st century relationship of natural allies working together in cyberspace, global hotspots, outer space, the human genome and the global biome.
I am certain that the U.S.-India relationship will serve as an important new buttress safeguarding open commerce and freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific region. Through dialogues such as the U.S.-India East Asia Consultations which the East West Center graciously hosted in June and the U.S.-India -Japan Trilateral Dialogue, we are working together to promote a democratic and rules-based vision for political and economic security in Asia. But our bilateral relationship will be much more far-reaching. The U.S. and Indian governments are engaging agricultural professionals from Kenya, Malawi and Liberia to improve food security in their countries by increasing crop yields using new technologies. India’s generic pharmaceutical industry and highly skilled biotechnology workforce will be essential to addressing the greatest health challenges in all countries across the economic spectrum. Our countries are exchanging findings from current Mars missions and are sharing ideas about future explorations. Prime Minister Modi recently hosted the third USAID-supported Call to Action Summit to end preventable maternal and child deaths. The United States and India have joined forces to advance a multi-stakeholder model of internet governance and are working to bring together industry, academia and regulators in both our countries in support of this vision. These are just a few examples that show how the scope of our alliance will not be limited by geography or sector but will encompass the full spectrum of human endeavor.
A truly global partnership involves jointly addressing threats to stability and prosperity wherever they occur in the world and our governments are already working closely to address security challenges far from our shores. Our respective militaries will work together to jointly train UN peacekeepers on the ground in several African countries. We are looking to our historic relief collaboration after the Nepal earthquake as a springboard, to increase joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the region, and beyond. India is already taking unprecedented actions beyond its borders. The United States was deeply grateful for the Indian Armed Forces evacuation of American citizens from Yemen in April. Our governments are also keenly focused on the threat to our societies and the cyber commons posed by radical ideologies, and are talking at high levels about joint strategies to address this developing phenomenon – approaches involving religious leaders, internet providers, local police departments and social media outlets.
No global challenge that the United States and India tackle together will have a greater impact on future generations than the issue of climate change. Climate, which will impact the future viability of human economic activity on this planet, is no doubt the most consequential of the global commons that we will address together. I won’t attempt to gloss over the difficulties we have faced in aligning our approaches to this issue. But what I would like to emphasize is that our leaders share an appreciation that without U.S.-India partnership on this issue no proposed solution to climate change can succeed, and they believe it is the obligation of both governments to find common ground. The fact that, despite our differing ideas of how to reach this goal, we continue to talk about it regularly at senior levels demonstrates that our partnership is rooted in a sense of shared responsibility. And there is no greater measure of a mature and functional partnership than this – that despite considerable concerns on both sides we persevere in our consultations because of a shared sense of duty to future generations.
Military and Defense Ties
A crucial pillar of our close relationships with our European and Asian allies is the rapport and fraternity between our armed forces. One of the most exciting developments I have witnessed over the past eight months has been the transformation of the ties between the United States and Indian militaries. Just a few years ago our armed forces were barely talking. They were skeptical about the utility of increased cooperation and, frankly, mutually suspicious. That is not the case today. We have overseen a remarkable expansion of bilateral training, exercises, and sales of advanced weapons systems to the Indian military. Our defense industrial systems are now cooperating on the co-production of new technology that will be used by our respective armed forces. We are looking to make significant contributions to India’s strategic capabilities, such as the anti-surface warfare capabilities of the Indian Navy’s submarine fleet. And I don’t need to remind you of the historic agreement to establish a joint working group on aircraft carrier technology. At some point in the next decade India will launch its next generation of aircraft carrier and the United States will have played a direct role in its construction. I am pleased to report that India engages in more bilateral exercises with the United States than it does with any other country. In a few weeks the USS Theodore Roosevelt will visit the Indian Ocean to take part in the annual MALABAR 2015 naval exercise, with the joint participation of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force. We look forward to the participation by the Indian Air Force in exercise RED FLAG-Alaska next year and the YUDH ABHYAS exercise will continue to expand the interoperability of our armies. Our bilateral Special Forces exercise VAJRA PRAHAR will resume again in January 2016 for the first time since 2012. This is the tempo of a defense relationship between two forces determined to forge a new level of cooperation, and breaking down historical barriers to do so.
Empowering our Youth
The United States and India are blessed with young populations eagerly immersing themselves in the search for innovative solutions for global challenges of this century. They are aided in that pursuit by national systems that grant them the freedom of thought and speech that allow unfettered debate and collaboration across national borders, gender and social status. It will be essential for our countries to nurture this entrepreneurial approach to problem solving and the exchange of ideas between our young people if we are to generate solutions to the problems that will confront us in the future. We are delighted that the number of Indian students applying to study in the United States this year has increased by nearly forty percent over the past year to 130,000. We also hope to increase the number of American students studying in India and to forge links between our institutions of higher learning that will generate the new approaches that will fuel our partnership. I would emphasize that, in keeping with the innovative nature of the U.S.-India partnership, we are looking beyond traditional relationships between universities to also incorporate the community colleges and vocational and technical institutes that will power our economies in the decades to come. As democracies we know that our strength comes from our people and we are determined to empower the next generation of American and Indian thought leaders together.
India and China
I know the elephant in the room is whether these transformations in our relationship with India are somehow directed at China. The United States and India are clearly committed to a set of common principles and a vision for Asia, as our Presidents stated in New Delhi in January, and we will continue to work together towards that goal. However, the potential of this relationship is so much larger than developments in India’s eastern neighborhood. I would also note that it would be a poor strategic calculation on our part to attempt to view India as an eager rival to China. The remarkable history between those two countries shows there is no inevitability in India-China competition, and we are glad of that fact. Rather, India and China have a long history of cultural cross-pollination and peaceful coexistence, from the contemporary and non-competitive flowering of the Gupta and Tang dynasties to the centuries of visits by Chinese pilgrims to the university at Nalanda. Indeed, I can think of no other examples of neighboring global powers that have coexisted for millennia with so few instances of conflict. So no, I can definitively say that this relationship is not about any third country, but rather arises out of a conviction that we have more to offer the world together than we do on our own.
An Alliance for Global Prosperity
What I hope you will take away from my description of the U.S.-India relationship today is that it is poised to become a 21st century alliance, based in Asia, working towards the goal of global prosperity. This partnership will protect the commons, empower the youth of our countries and the world, help maintain global peace, and further prosperity and development. Never before in history have two such diverse and culturally distinct powers been united by a shared vision for the global good. Our multicultural citizenries that cherish similar traditions of tolerance, participatory governance and rules-based international systems are uniquely capable of advancing an inclusive and consultative approach to the global challenges of this century. Those challenges will come from unexpected directions and take forms that we may have never anticipated. But I am confident that our alliance, based on the principle that we will unleash the vast potential of our people for the benefit of humankind will serve as a nimble and stabilizing force in the region and the world. I am deeply gratified to know that the fulfillment of India’s tryst with destiny that Pandit Nehru described in 1947 will involve the close partnership of the United States as India reclaims its rightful place among the stewards of human progress in this century.