A Global Partnership for Tomorrow: The United States, India, and the Rebalance to Asia

Nisha Desai Biswal
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
33rd Annual Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture, UC San Diego
San Diego, CA
May 14, 2016

Thank you, Dr. Madhavan, for that generous introduction. It’s an honor to be with you today at UCSD to deliver the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture. And I am particularly excited to be on hand as you recognize the very talented and hard-working students who are the recipients of this year’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Scholarships.

I would also like to acknowledge the San Diego Indian American Society, which has been honoring exceptional students at this event for 33 years now. I commend the Society for keeping this generous and forward-looking tradition alive for so long – it’s a wonderful testament to your organization’s ideals and impact.

These scholarships were first offered in 1984, making them the longest-running scholarships that honor Gandhi in the United States. Over the past three decades, you have ensured that the ideals and values that Mahatma Gandhi espoused are passed on to successive generations and that the youth of today are connected to his work and legacy.

My own connection to Gandhi-ji was forged nearly twenty years ago. Back in 1998, I was feeling somewhat lost and ambivalent about my life and career. So I decided to take a sabbatical and go to India to spend some time with my grandparents, and to reconnect with the land of my birth.

During the long and lazy afternoons of the Indian monsoon, with little to do, I decided to record the oral history of my grandparents.

I learned about their childhood, about how my grandfather had to drop out of school in the fourth grade after his father’s death, to earn a living to support his mother and young siblings.

I learned of my grandmother’s defiance of convention and custom when she chose to marry my grandfather after she had already been declared too old and unfit to marry at the ripe old age of seventeen.

My grandparents took such joy in recounting their courtship on the banks of the lake where they met while washing their clothes – a love marriage at a time when such unions were unfathomable.

But the stories that had the greatest impact on me were the heady years leading to India’s independence, when they would drop what they were doing to participate in a march or protest in support of the great men of India – Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel.

As I sat with my grandparents in their twilight, I asked what it was they were most proud of – what they most remembered from their long and remarkable lives. Both said that they were proudest of the time that they spent in jail, locked-up because for civil disobedience. They told me that they had never felt as connected to their country as when they were imprisoned for fighting for a cause larger than themselves – for India’s independence.

When that extraordinary time with my grandparents ended and I left India, I took with me a deeper understanding and connection to the sacrifices that prior generations had made for their nation, and a determination to make my own contribution to my country. What I learned on that trip, two decades ago, is what has brought me to where I am right now, standing here, delivering this Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture to a group of bright, ambitious students who will no doubt make their own great contributions.

A little over one hundred years ago, Mahatma Gandhi returned to India and changed the course of history and the fate of a nation. Today, we still experience the impact of his life and teachings, and we see the inspiration of his legacy not just among leaders in civil society, politics, and religion, but even technology.

For example, Steve Jobs – one of the most visionary leaders and pioneers of the technology revolution – listed Mahatma Gandhi as one of his heroes. Jobs told Time Magazine in 1999 that Gandhi was his choice for Person of the Century because he believed that Gandhi “showed us the way out of the destructive side of our human nature.”

Mahatma Gandhi lived during an age of extreme upheaval, including two World Wars that combined to kill some 100 million people. It was an age when war was too often the first recourse of nations, not the last.

By the time of his death, in 1948, the world had just begun to build the nascent institutions of a new international order, one where diplomacy and trade were rewarded above aggression and conquest, and where disputes could be resolved based on international law instead of force of arms.

Since then, for almost 70 years, that international order has ushered in an era of unprecedented growth and prosperity unlike any other time in history. Particularly in the Asia-Pacific, we have seen a remarkable era of peace and stability, and of economic development that has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.

Today, we recognize that the growth of Asian economies will shape the global economy in the decades to come. By 2050, this vast region, which comprises over 50% of the global population, is also likely to make up 50% of global GDP.

When President Obama talks about of the “U.S. Rebalance to Asia”, it is a recognition that that the security and prosperity of the United States will increasingly be shaped by the security and prosperity of Asia. And nowhere is that more evident than in India.

India is now the fastest-growing major economy in the world and, by the year 2030, its middle class could reach nearly half a billion people. But as India seeks to grow its economy, it must first create the energy and infrastructure it needs to power its economy. Many estimate that 80% of the infrastructure of the India of 2030 has yet to be built.

Let me repeat that: 80% of the infrastructure of India in the year 2030 – less than 15 years away – has yet to be built.

Now, that is both an enormous challenge and an unprecedented opportunity, and we will speak more of this in a few minutes.

But India is more than just an economic engine. We see in India, the world’s largest democracy, a partner that shares our ideals of diversity, inclusion and tolerance. Now, I will grant you, in both of our democracies, there is space for many voices and views.

And while not all of these voices espouse these ideals, I am confident that through a robust debate and the democratic process, we will ultimately emerge with an even stronger commitment to the values that have defined our societies.

India has also shown that it is committed to a rules-based international order that seeks to keep our seas and skies open and safe for trade and travel. And India has provided the world with an excellent model of how a large power can peacefully resolve territorial and maritime disputes with its smaller neighbors. By accepting the results of international arbitration on disputed maritime claims in the Bay of Bengal, India, Bangladesh, and Burma have created a template for others to follow.

With the third-largest army in the world and increasing capabilities in all domains, India is also playing a role in advancing security and stability in the Indian Ocean region and around the world.

So as you can see, for the United States, the relationship with India is, as the President noted, one of the defining partnerships of the 21st Century.

But India is by no means the only opportunity in the South and Central Asia region. Increasingly, from the far corners of Central Asia to the eastern edge of Bangladesh, governments and their citizens are focused on the connectivity agenda.

For a region that has long been one of the least connected in the world, there is a recognition that future prosperity and security will be determined by not only what happens with in their own borders, but increasingly by how they are able to shape and influence the developments and decisions in their neighborhood.

But, as is the case for India, every single country in the region is also grappling with the challenges of uneven and unsustainable growth.

They must manage the skills gap so that they can build a workforce that can compete in the global market place. They must ensure that their human development indicators match their economic growth ambitions so that they can marshal the strength of all segments of their society.

And they must create an inclusive society where all of their citizens can participate in the economic, political and social fabric of their country, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, race, or religion.

Because a youth demographic that can power the economy can also lead to its destruction if young people are disconnected and disillusioned and if fear and frustration guide their actions and inform their decisions. This is as true in Dhaka as it is in Dushanbe.

So, as you can see, both the challenges and the opportunities that we see in South and Central Asia uniquely position the United States to be a leading partner in the region. The concept of shared security and shared prosperity is what makes us such a sought-after partner in Asia and around the world.

And with cutting-edge American technology, with companies that bring the best in corporate standards and practices, our commercial relationship is a big part of our engagement. With India, our trade has increased by a factor of five over the past 15 years, to over $100 billion per year. And we’re laying the groundwork now to expand that trade to $500 billion annually.

Given India’s monumental rise, it is no surprise that U.S. companies have invested nearly $30 billion dollars in the last decade and a half. And Indian companies themselves have invested over $11 billion in the U.S., creating close to 100,000 American jobs.

So a major expansion of two-way trade is in our mutual interest. But for India to attract the investment it needs, and to expand trade, it will first needs to modernize and reform its economic governance – to improve its ease of doing business.

Important steps can ensure that the country attracts the capital it needs to build the India of 2030, steps like updating its intellectual property regime so that technology and innovations have adequate safeguards; ensuring transparency, predictability, and consistency in its corporate tax code; and providing for an efficient system of adjudicating disputes.

We have already seen some steps in the right direction, and we are seeing a faster flow of investment as a result. And we are hopeful that by pursuing a bilateral investment treaty and passing a national Goods and Services Tax (GST) – two priorities of the Modi Government – India will further boost investor confidence.

Prime Minister Modi has also put a strong focus on clean energy – setting an ambitious target of 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022. He emerged as a leading voice amongst developing nations for combatting climate change, and played a key role in ushering in the ground-breaking agreement in Paris last year. The United States is committed to partnering with India in realizing its ambitious target and tackling the pressing challenges of air pollution and environmental degradation.

Keep in mind, 500 million South Asians still live without reliable access to electricity. Many of you have probably heard the statistic that 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, and that South Asia’s coastal cities are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

These problems cannot be solved by government alone. So the U.S.-India partnership is not only a whole-of-government effort, it increasingly engages the whole of our societies – including our cities, states, universities, and companies.

Businesses, and especially U.S. companies, can play a large role in helping to meet the demands of rapidly growing urban populations in South Asia. This is an area where we’re creating public-private partnerships to use our expertise, technology, and capital to further expand the circle of opportunity, making South Asia’s cities places where the children of today’s poor can become tomorrow’s middle class.

At the State Department, we’re also encouraging our great American urban laboratories like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York to connect and collaborate with India’s rising megacities to address common challenges like climate change, environmental degradation, and more.

I was just in Hyderabad, where I saw first-hand how American companies are partnering to usher-in the next generation of Indian start-ups. And India is increasingly looking to California, which has created an innovation economy as an engine of its prosperity. Companies like Qualcomm – with its Design in India Challenge, and its innovation fund for Indian start-ups – are indicative of a new means of engagement.

We have also strengthened our security ties – we’re now India’s largest defense supplier, and India now holds more military exercises with the United States than with any other country. Many of those grey hulls coming in and going out of San Diego’s harbor have sailed together with ships from India’s navy, improving our ability to operate together and respond to natural disasters, deliver humanitarian relief, and protect freedom of navigation on the high seas. And San Diego’s marquee companies are playing an important role too, as I saw during a visit to General Atomics yesterday.

But increasingly, the security partnership is not just about the number of exercises we execute, or the commercial deals we sign; rather, it is about our shared goals to advance security and stability across the entire Indo-Pacific region. To that end, we are also co-developing and co-producing new technologies that will power our militaries in the coming years. I believe this means that we can break even more new ground over the next five, ten, twenty years – bringing our collaboration to new heights.

Which brings us back to core purpose of the Administration’s “Rebalance” strategy – and how that effort, specifically in South and Central Asia, is preventing the emergence of new conflicts and expanding the circle of opportunity.

Standing here today in front of these bright young students, I am reminded of something that President Obama told a group of White House interns. He said that, if given the choice of when in human history to be alive, regardless of gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientation, that there is no better moment than the present. Because the world of today is, as the President said, “wealthier, healthier, better educated, less violent, more tolerant, more socially conscious and more attentive to the vulnerable than ever before.”

And so for the students with us today: While you may just be starting out, I know that you are on the path to do exceptional work to expand the circle of opportunity, and to make tomorrow even better than today. Thank you.