US-India Relations: Year of Expectations

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early September. (Photos: U.S. Embassy, New Delhi)

Washington sent some mixed signals to India over 2018 – achieving signal defense and security cooperation even as troubled waters roiled over the H-1B visa that brings mostly Indian techies to the United States.

The “2+2” ministerial dialogue reserved only for Washington’s closest strategic partners, the highlight of the bilateral relationship in 2018, kick-started in September. It concluded with the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), characterized as “a big deal” by South Asia experts, including Jeff Smith of the Heritage Foundation and Walter Andersen, former head of the South Asian Studies department at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Smith calls it an “important milestone” in the strengthening U.S.-India partnership, and even a “crown jewel” that allows the U.S. to transfer secure communications and data equipment to India including drones, and engage in real-time data sharing with the Indian military.

“It took years in the making as India did not want to appear to be leaning too far strategically to the US to prevent China especially from concluding that India was working with the US to contain China,” opined Andersen, currently a senior adjunct professor of South Asia Studies at SAIS.” This is, I think an element in a hedging strategy by India to send a notice to China that India can move even closer to the US if China continues to take steps viewed as unfriendly,” Andersen said.

The year ended with the most recent meetings in early December between Defense Secretary James Mattis and his Indian counterpart Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in Washington, D.C. Sitharaman’s five-day visit was capped with a trip to Honolulu, the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command, recently renamed from PACOM to INDO-PACOM. She also visited Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, where she went on the U.S Guided Missile Destroyer and was briefed on the INDO-PACOM activities.

A sign of how routine defense cooperation had become, was the Dec. 12, 21st Executive Steering Group meeting on bilateral naval cooperation in New Delhi.

“2018 was a busy year for both navies,” said a press release from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. “The U.S.-India partnership is more important today than ever before,” Lieutenant Commander Jerry Tzeng is quoted saying in the press release, adding, “Seventh fleet South Asia together and forge a vision of how our forces will work together for the years to come.”

“Our naval partnership gets stronger from working together on initiatives throughout the year,” said Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer. “We share an enduring commitment to providing security across a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

In December 2018, during a five-day trip to the U.S., India’s Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) recently renamed INDO PACOM.

The U.S. and Indian air forces participated in exercise Cope India Air Station Arjan Singh, India, Dec. 3-14, and are scheduled for another exercise in 2019 (CI19) at Air Station Kalaikunda.

One of the important high-level meetings was the U.S.-Australia-India-Japan consultations that took place Nov. 15, in Singapore. Officials reaffirmed a shared commitment to maintain and strengthen a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in which all nations are sovereign, strong, and prosperous. They highlighted the complementary visions for the region held by their four countries, grounded in a shared support for a free, open, and inclusive region that fosters universal respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sustainable development, all of which hinted at China’s rise and unsaid concerns over its dominance in the region.

The scientific and cultural community continued its interaction in both countries in fields of higher education, healthcare, arts, and sports.

Despite concerns over visas, the number of Indians studying in the United States increased by 5.4 percent over the last year to 196,271, according to the 2018 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. This marks the fifth consecutive year that the total number of Indians pursuing their higher education in the United States has grown.

The frequency of high level visits continued, as did cultural and social events including the Indian-American community, such as the 150 Years of Mahatma Gandhi celebration on Capitol Hill Nov. 27; commemorating the victims of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks; Diwali oat the White House, the State Department, and on Capitol Hill.

It was not just on U.S. soil that Indian leaders met counterparts. For example, India’s Vice President met U.S. officials in Singapore in September, In July As part of Indo-US Bilateral Defence Cooperation, the 7th Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) meeting was held alternately in India and the U.S. with the goal of bringing sustained leadership focus to the bilateral defence trade relationship and create opportunities for co-production and co-development of defence equipment,

A number of joint working groups were established to take the defense relationship forward.

A bipartisan Congressional delegation visited India April 4-7, at the invitation of the Ministry of External Affairs.

People-to-People

The people-to-people relationship received a fillip with the visit of a 7-member bipartisan Congressional delegation to India April 4-7, at the invitation of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. The delegation included Congressmen Pete Olson, R-Texas, Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, Drew Ferguson, R-Georgia, and Tom Suozzi, DNY; and Congresswomen Terry Sewell, D-Alabama, Dina Titus, D-Nevada, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Michigan.

On Sept. 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, during the U.S.- India 2+2 Dialogue. They also met their counterparts, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and Defense Minister Sitharaman, culminating in a Joint Statement on strengthening the defense and security partnership.

An August meeting between the U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster and India’s Power Minister R.K. Singh took place at the Regional Conference on Enhancing Energy Cooperation and Integration in New Delhi.

In June, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, the only cabinet-level Indian-American ever to be appointed, visited New Delhi June 26-28, meeting members of the Indian government, civil society to discuss strengthening U.S.-India cooperation on international issues. Haley also met Modi.

A Student Visa Day was held at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi to celebrate the education exchange between U.S. and India.

Yet, according to Professor Andersen, a problematic issue that continued through 2018, was the unfilled position of assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department “in a region with a host of problems.” Two years into the Trump administration, Robert Williams, a senior intelligence officer was named by the President and he still has to go through the nomination process and Senate hearings. “The empty position underscores the comparative lack of knowledgeable officials able to handle South Asia,” Andersen said.

From anti-trafficking to urban initiatives and educational exchange, the relationship widened and deepened further in 2018.

But on another front, the American Dream “began to fade” for Indian techies, some analysts contended, as the H-1B visa came under President Trump’s anvil. Higher qualifying criteria, more stringent paperwork, increased fees, and toughening on any small infractions, are making their way to becoming the norm as the visa created by a Republican president back in 1990, as a means to meet the skill needs became transformed into a path to citizenship.

Not least of all, was the fate of working spouses of H-1B visa holders who had applied for the Green Card. The future of thousands, mostly Indian women on H-4 visas with the Employment Authorization Document, hangs in the balance. This visa category that came into being in the waning days of the Obama administration is predicted to almost certainly come to an end in a year, upending the lives of many Indian families who thought they were making a prosperous life for themselves and their children.

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