WASHINGTON — Apprehensive about the Chinese aggressive military buildup, top U.S. lawmakers cutting across party lines are pushing for building a strong defense relationship with India.
The senators during a Congressional hearing endorsed a move by the Obama Administration to help modernize Indian military including the ambitious defense technology and trade initiative.
“As the world’s two largest democracies, it is essentially that Washington and Delhi stand together to uphold democratic values, principles and norms in the Indo-Pacific, particularly as China seeks to gain greater influence in the region,” Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during the hearing.
“The nature and scope of the U.S.-India relationship has changed significantly over the past couple of decades, and the political, economic and strategic cooperation between the United States and India is at an all-time high,” he said.
“There is considerable potential to further strengthen many aspects of our relationship. For example, I’m encouraged by efforts to expand U.S.-India defense and security co-operations specifically in the maritime sphere,” Corker said.
India and the U.S. have a lot in common, asserted Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The South China Sea and China’s activities on maritime security dictate that the United States and India work at a closer defense cooperative arrangement to make sure that we maintain the commerce of the seas and the openness of the shipping lanes,” said Cardin.
“We also need to deal with counter-terrorism. We still recall the tragic terrorist episode in Mumbai in 2008. Three of my constituents from Maryland were killed during that attack, and that’s still fresh in the minds of the people of India,” he said.
“So I think strengthening our ties on counter-terrorism, working towards a further cooperation from South Asia, is an important part of the growing relationship between our two countries,” said Cardin who, during the hearing, was quite vocal on expressing concern over human rights situation in India.
Former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said he oftentimes heard the role of India’s future discussed as a sort of counterbalance to China.
“I think it should be much more than that. Obviously there’s an element of that, but I think India in and of itself is a nation with incredible potential, and there’s incredible potential in our bilateral relationship,” he said.
“So, my questions about military exchanges are not towards the desire to use viewing India as some sort of surrogate counterbalance to China in the region, but rather one that recognizes what I think is their potential, and ultimately their rightful role in South Asia and across the world,” Rubio said.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said he is heartened by the ongoing work that’s being done in the defense sector.
Referring to his visit to India in October 2014 wherein he went to the Mazgaon Docks in Mumbai to see India’s ship building industry, he said he has encouraged the defense ministry to send a delegation here.
“And I think that has happened, maybe last summer. And then, there’s ongoing work in these various defense spaces. (Defense) Secretary (Ashton) Carter has been really good about it,” he said.
“It’s good that as we think about that part of the world even we’re changing our vocabulary to reflect the fact that the relationship with India is of growing strategic importance. I believe that it is. And I just want to encourage that we continue in that way,” he said.
AP adds: Earlier, U.S. lawmakers said May 24 they are encouraged by growing defense cooperation with India but remain concerned about religious intolerance and slavery in the South Asian nation ahead of a visit by its prime minister.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee examined ties between the world’s two largest democracies in advance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to Congress.
There is strong support among U.S. lawmakers for deeper relations with India, but plenty of grumbles about limited progress in boosting trade and investment and New Delhi’s reluctance to accept U.S. scrutiny of its human rights record.
Some in Congress also expressed unease about India’s ties with Iran after Modi just visited Tehran and India agreed to invest $500 million to develop a strategic port in Iran.
Corker complained about high tariffs and red tape hindering U.S. access to the Indian market. He also expressed incredulity that about half of the estimated 27 million people in slavery in the world reside in India.
“How does a country like this have 12 to 14 million slaves in the year 2016. How does that happen?” Corker said.
Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal, the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, said that bilateral relations have “never been stronger” but said both sides recognize “there is much more to be done.”
On slavery, the Indian American official said there’s increasing awareness and commitment in India to address the matter, and the U.S. ambassador on combating human trafficking had been allowed to visit the country for the first time and had “useful and constructive discussions.”
Biswal said some human trafficking rings have been broken up, but India needs to “advance the rule of law across all aspects of its society to insure that these kinds of conditions don’t exist, and this kind of trafficking does not exist.”
Kaine raised India’s refusing visas in March to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which issues an annual, global report. India’s position is that the commission, which provides policy advice to Congress and the U.S. executive, does not have the legal standing to pass judgment on conditions in the country.
Modi is due to meet President Barack Obama at the White House on June 7, and then address a joint session of Congress the next day.