The United States, India, and the Future of the Indo-Pacific
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Thank you so much for that introduction, Dr. Inboden, and it is such a pleasure and an honor to be back here on campus with all of you today. And it’s great to be here speaking at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, not only because I’m a proud UT alumnus, but also because of the fascinating similarities between what was going on in LBJ’s time and today.
Just over 50 years ago, shortly before this center was established, India faced a food shortage, threatening a famine of unimaginable scale. The deficit was projected at ten million tons of grain – and India had never imported more than four million tons in a single year. When President Johnson heard the news, he said that India’s food problem “ought to be attacked as if we are at war.”
President Johnson wanted a response that addressed both the looming disaster and the long-term problem of under-production. The resulting agreement tackled these issues, and grain started to flow from the fields of Midwest America, through the port of Galveston, Texas, and on to South Asia – in total nearly one-fifth of the entire U.S. wheat harvest in 1965, which was, at the time, the largest movement of grain between two countries in history. And the agreement’s reforms – as well as new wheat strains developed by Norman Borlaug – helped trigger India’s green revolution, doubling its wheat harvest in just seven years.
It’s an amazing story, and a major foreign policy success of the Johnson Administration. But the really incredible thing is that it happened during a period when U.S.-India relations were not exactly at their height. Some five decades later, we are now close strategic partners, with no limit to what we can accomplish together. We are cooperating in ways that are unprecedented in our history, whether it’s in rural development, maritime security, civil aviation, or space exploration – literally across land, sea, sky, and space. We have over 100 joint initiatives and nearly 40 government-to-government working groups. Simply put, the breadth of our engagement with India is more extensive than with almost any other country in the world.
President Obama has made stronger U.S.-India ties a top priority of the rebalance to Asia, recognizing that, as the nucleus of the Indo-Pacific, India will play an outsized role in the story of this century. As we see our mutual interests continue to align, we are also seeing reciprocation in India’s foreign policy towards the United States.
For example, in the development of what’s becoming known as the Modi Doctrine. Addressing a Joint Session of Congress earlier this year, the Prime Minister acknowledged that our two countries had finally overcome the “hesitations of history”, and then boldly and remarkably stated that we are now “indispensable partners.”
In what will be a dramatic non-appearance, we understand that the Prime Minister will not attend the upcoming Non-Aligned Movement conference in Venezuela – a significant departure from what was long a central facet of India’s foreign policy. Our two countries’ national and global interests will continue to converge, making an irrefutable case for us to work together to address global issues, especially in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and around the rim of the Indian Ocean.
Many wonder if the story of the Indo-Pacific in this century be one of friendly cooperation and mutual benefit, or one of adversarial competition and unnecessary conflict. Will it be a story where hundreds of millions of people are lifted out of poverty, and prosperity is created across the far reaches of the region, or one where the potential of the 21st century is not achieved?
The stakes today are high, just as they were for LBJ 50 years ago. The decisions the United States makes, the partnerships we build, and the strength of our commitment to the region, will have profound consequences that will resonate for many decades into the future.
Upholding the rules-based order that respects international norms and the territorial integrity of all states – big or small – is one of those key issues. It is an order, as Secretary Kerry recently said in New Delhi, that we have expended enormous energy and resources building, and it has served the world well – underpinning the economic growth that helped us win the Cold War and raising the standard of living for billions of people around the world. And today, that order is threatened by a few countries who think that only might makes right, especially when it comes to territorial disputes.
Yet India is setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. In just the past couple of years, India has peacefully resolved a long-standing land border dispute with Bangladesh, and has accepted the ruling of a UN tribunal that delimited maritime borders in the Bay of Bengal. These resolutions have resulted in renewed economic activity across borders and in the Bay of Bengal, which is an increasingly active node of regional economic activity.
To live up to the vision that President Obama articulated when he called India “a defining partner for the 21st century,” Secretary Kerry has sought to form a partnership with India that will be prepared to seize opportunities and confront global challenges – whether they are in upholding the rules based international order, countering the scourge of terrorism, or addressing the issue of unsustainable growth, which can leave too many on the margins.
Let me start with security, where our partnership is stronger than ever, and now includes joint development of everything from jet engine technology to aircraft carriers, as well as almost $15 billion in bilateral defense trade. We also recently signed agreements to define a Cyber Framework between our countries and a logistics arrangement that will allow our militaries to work more closely together in the field and on the sea. All the while, we are deepening our cooperation on counter-terrorism. Each of these efforts will lead to the modernization of India’s defense and show our support for India to be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region.
Our partnership on other global issues extends from ensuring stability in Afghanistan, to training peacekeepers in Africa, to working with Japan on a range of trilateral issues, to addressing climate change in a meaningful way. The Paris agreement reached last year, for example, would not have happened without the leadership and commitment of President Obama and Prime Minister Modi.
To help provide energy access to 300 million of its citizens still without electricity, we are partnering with India to help it meet its Paris commitment and quadruple its renewable energy capacity by the year 2022. And we’ve made tremendous progress in the last couple of years on civil nuclear cooperation, laying the groundwork for U.S.-built reactors that can provide 60 million Indians with more clean, reliable energy.
Economic cooperation is an area that has presented challenges in our relationship in the past – and even today – but it is also an area of staggering opportunity. India is the world’s fastest growing large economy, while the United States will remain the biggest for some time to come. Our overall two-way trade reached a record $107 billion last year, five times what it was just a decade ago. By further connecting with the global economy, India will be able to continue to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the middle class.
While some are questioning the virtues of trade liberalization, South Asia could provide potent examples of what free trade and the free flow of capital can do for a country’s growth and development. But the challenges are daunting. With roughly one million people entering the workforce in India every month, significant reforms are still required to provide space for innovation and entrepreneurs, lessen bureaucratic hurdles and make it easier to start businesses, improve access to infrastructure to facilitate the movement of people, information, and goods, build an environment that allows for investment capital – both domestic and foreign – to surge in transparently and fairly, and adopt policies that provide opportunity for all, especially women.
All of this is tremendously important, because South Asia – with India at its geographic and economic center - is still one of the least economically integrated regions in the world, with less than six percent of its total trade occurring within the region. Compare that to North America, where over 50 percent of exports are sold within the region.
So we know that South Asia can reap tremendous benefits from sowing the seeds of greater regional economic connectivity. And the region already has an ample supply of the most important ingredient: nearly two billion entrepreneurial, ambitious, and hard-working people.
Other principal ingredients are what you could refer to as infrastructure hardware and software. The hardware includes the roads, rails, ports, and powerlines that will help goods, people, and services to move across borders at faster speeds and for less money. The World Bank estimates that South Asia needs about $2.5 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next ten years. No small feat, but the right policies and investment incentives can go a long way toward attracting that level of capital, especially with smart public-private partnerships.
The software, on the other hand, includes new regulatory frameworks, capable institutions, and networked governments, businesses, and people. And this is where my bureau is focusing its efforts. Our flagship Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor initiative is working to create new regional energy linkages and improve trade and transport corridors. We’re also helping countries streamline their customs procedures and border crossings, as well as bringing together businesses and entrepreneurs from around the region.
What we’re ultimately working toward is an Indo-Pacific that is a primary driver of global prosperity and stability. An Indo-Pacific where hundreds of millions more people enjoy access to quality education and healthcare, and can climb the economic ladder out of poverty and into the middle class.
And, especially, an Indo-Pacific where we can work with our partners, both regionally and globally, to confront critical challenges like climate change, violent extremism, trafficking, and instability. These are issues that, along with the region’s economic growth, have a direct bearing on our own prosperity and security here at home.
And we have great cause for optimism. Three million Indian Americans form the basis of our relationship and are constant reminders of how our countries are inextricably linked. But perhaps most importantly, our commitment to democracy began with both of our countries’ inception and continues just as strongly today – democracies that respect the multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic societies we hold dear.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about our approach to other South Asian friends in the Indian Ocean region.
In addition to tremendous progress with India, our relationship with a democratically renewed Sri Lanka has completely transformed over the last couple of years. We now hold an annual Partnership Dialogue and have close cooperation on issues ranging from economic growth and maritime security, to good governance and national reconciliation.
Our decades-long partnership with Bangladesh has helped bring about some of the most impressive development gains the world has ever seen, including self-sufficiency in food production, a reduction of the poverty rate from over half the population to less than a third, and a drastic increase in the survival rate of new mothers and their children. And as one of the largest peacekeeper-contributing nations in the world, Bangladesh is an important partner in ensuring security in hotspots around the globe.
So we’ve come a very long way in a relatively short time, and while the wind may be at our backs, we have no illusions that there is still a very long way to go. But I have no doubt that the economic and strategic weight of this region will continue to grow in the decades to come, making our relationships with India and its neighbors in South Asia ever more critical and important, both to the interests of the United States, and to the global community of nations.
So thank you, again, for the invitation to speak with you today, and I’m looking forward to a great discussion about this very dynamic and exciting region.