Senate hearing to confirm ambassador to India dwells on human rights, trade and strategic partnership

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Kenneth Ian Juster, who is expected to be confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to India. (Photo: Facebook)

At an Oct. 3 hearing to confirm the next ambassador to India, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled President Trump’s nominee Kenneth Ian Juster on a wide range of concerns even as the senior lawmakers recognized the growing cooperation regionally and internationally.

Even as Senator praised the expanding security, defense and strategic cooperation they criticized the trade imbalance, and dwelt at length on problem areas ranging from human rights, bonded labor, sex trafficking and religious liberties to child abduction and infant and maternal mortality.

Juster, a long-time India hand, is expected to be confirmed by the end of the week, finally putting in place an emissary for the largest democracy almost 9 months into the Trump administration.

In his testimony, Juster said he looked forward to advancing “our strategic partnership with India – a relationship that is critical to promoting U.S. national security and economic interests.” He also spoke of the contributions of the nearly 4 million Indian-Americans, and stressed that as a democracy, India’s government and its civil society community was already “grappling” with issues like bonded labor and human rights as well as sex trafficking. He said he would find the right “interlocutors” to address American concerns in every area of concern.

Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, raised concerns over the “18 million” people in India who he said were bonded labor, sex trafficking, and restrictions on non-governmental organizations.

On questions regarding regional and international relations, Juster stressed India’s “constructive” role in Afghanistan, and noted that India was enforcing economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea and that he would need to familiarize himself with what steps New Delhi was taking on new sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Russia.

Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supported Juster’s nomination, and noted that “As the two largest democracies in the world, the United States and India share a strategic interest in promoting and maintaining stability in the region.”

Corker referred to last week’s visit of Defense Secretary Mattis to New Delhi, which he said signified the importance of the growing security cooperation between the two democracies.

“As these talks highlighted, the United States and India continue to work closely together to promote stability and economic development in Afghanistan, confront terrorist threats and preserve freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea,” Corker said, but noted that the 2005 civil nuclear agreement left much to be desired in terms of implementation.

“While there has been steady progress in relations between Washington and Delhi, the aspirational nature of the civil-nuclear deal has left both countries struggling to meet unrealistic expectations,” Corker said. He also said he remained “frustrated by the slow pace of Indian reforms in the economic sphere,” and that American companies continue to face barriers like high tariffs and strict localization policies. He criticized an “unpredictable” foreign investment climate, asserting, “Clearly, the economic playing field is not even.”

Corker also contended that “the space for civil society in India continues to shrink as Hindu nationalism rises and international NGOs face undue scrutiny,” and expressed concern over human traficking and bonded labor. “I urge you to pursue an open and candid dialogue with our Indian counterparts about the roadblocks in our relationship,” Corker told Juster, adding, “The time is long overdue for breaking the cycle of expectation and disappointment…”

Juster, 62, recalled his interest in India was sparked since he was 11, when his father, an architect and photographer, brought back vivid photographs of India from his 1966 visit. During his career, Juster has been involved with India through both the government and private sector,

“The remarkable evolution of U.S.-India relations truly has been a bipartisan undertaking, and has benefited from strong leadership and support in the Congress,” Juster said, beginning with President Bill Clinton’s March 2000 visit to India, and President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s commitment in November 2001 to transform the bilateral relationship.

As Under Secretary of Commerce during the first term of the Bush Administration, Juster worked closely with officials in Washington, D.C. and New Delhi on this effort, forming the High Technology Cooperation Group; developing an initiative known as the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership which provided a roadmap for expanded cooperation with India, through a series of reciprocal steps, in civil nuclear activities, civil space programs, and high-technology trade, laying the foundation for the historic civil nuclear agreement. Juster was also in the U.S.-India Business Council, Asia Foundation, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, as well as the Aspen Institute’s U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue and other forums.