Remarks at Georgetown University's India Ideas Conference

Thomas L. Vajda
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Georgetown University
Washington, DC
April 21, 2018

As prepared for delivery

Good morning. First let me express my thanks to Professor Irfan Nooruddin, the director of the India Initiative, and Georgetown University for putting together an outstanding program in the second year of the India Ideas Conference. It’s an honor to participate in a discussion with Ambassador Rich Verma, my former boss in India, whose tenure in New Delhi did so much to build the foundation of the strong U.S.-India partnership we enjoy today.

It is also a privilege to be part of this session dedicated to the memory of Ambassador Howard Schaffer. Ambassador Schaffer was a Foreign Service legend with a lifelong commitment of service in South Asia: from his work in India and Pakistan to his distinguished tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh. Ambassador Schaffer mentored generations of foreign policy leaders during his time as a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and director of studies at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. This conference is a fitting acknowledgment of his vast contributions to the ties between the peoples of the United States and South Asia. Visionary leaders like Ambassador Schaffer have made the U.S.-India strategic partnership what it is today.

Building on the strong foundation of shared values and democratic principles, leaders in both countries have recognized the immense opportunities to work together to address global challenges and provide prosperous futures for our peoples. It is also useful to view this partnership in the context of the United States’ abiding commitment to Asia and our position as an Indo-Pacific nation. Over the last seven decades, the United States has promoted a free and open Indo-Pacific in which sovereign nations with diverse cultures and different aspirations can prosper side-by-side in freedom and in peace. This remains our strategic goal – to safeguard the continuity of the rules based system that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the region, and to usher in a century of even greater prosperity based on connectivity, innovation, and good governance.

There have been a number of questions about what we mean by a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. So let me explain briefly. Our goal is for Indo-Pacific nations to interact in a free and open region that allows each sovereign country to choose its path to prosperity -- free of coercion. We are grateful that this is a vision shared by India, as well as by Japan, Australia and our other close partners in the region. Advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific means ensuring the freedom of the seas and skies; pursuing peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes; promoting market-based economics; supporting good governance; and preventing external economic coercion. We firmly believe that more open and transparent investment environments and improved connectivity that drive regional integration will further contribute to rising living standards throughout the region.

Our Indo-Pacific strategy, as well as our National Security Strategy and South Asia Strategy, all recognize one salient fact: the importance of India’s emergence as a rising global leader. We welcome India’s rise as a global leader and its role in fostering sustainable development and expanding regional security cooperation to counter common threats. The development of a “2+2” ministerial between our Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense with their Indian counterparts is one reflection of our deepening strategic and defense relationship. We are right now working with New Delhi to identify dates for the inaugural session of the dialogue. Our engagement with India includes growing strategic, defense, counter terrorism, and maritime security cooperation. In fact, we will hold our next bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue at the end of this month. As a Major Defense Partner, we also work together with India on advanced defense equipment and technology at a level commensurate with that of our closest allies and partners. As an illustration, the United States has offered India advanced platforms including the F-16 and F-18 fighter aircraft.

Another important pillar of our relationship with India is, of course, our economic partnership. India is experiencing strong economic growth as it integrates more fully into the global economy, and the U.S. trade and investment relationship with India continues to grow. We are pleased that bilateral trade expanded by $11 billion in 2017, totaling $125.6 billion, and two-way investment to $45 billion. U.S. companies see great opportunity in India, and we support India’s efforts to open up to greater trade and investment. Given the size of our respective markets, there is still plenty of room to expand the flow of goods and services in both directions and, in the process, for trade to become more balanced and fair, which is a U.S. priority. We are working to resolve the issues that are preventing the U.S.-India economic relationship from reaching its full potential. We believe it is important that India make greater efforts to lower barriers to trade, which we believe will support and accelerate Prime Minister Modi’s effort to improve India’s long-term growth rate in a sustained manner, advancing regional connectivity and our broader Indo-Pacific goals in the process.

Another critical element of our strategic relationship with India is the ability to work together in support of other partners in the region. One good example of the potential for U.S. and Indian collaboration is our expanding connectivity and economic development projects in Nepal, a country I visited just last week. In Nepal our Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is undertaking a $630 million Compact that will support Nepal’s efforts to expand its electricity transmission network and improve energy connectivity with India. We hope India will play a critical role in this project by building the transmission lines on the Indian side of the border that will eventually link to the transmission lines that MCC will build in Nepal. In Nepal as elsewhere in the region, we seek to better coordinate U.S. development initiatives with like-minded partners such as India and Japan. Doing so will not only improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our assistance, but also demonstrate, in deed as in word, our commitment to an open and sustainable process for supporting the region’s development.

It is this kind of collaboration – joint efforts that offer a positive vision for the region based on transparency, the free flow of information and goods, and respect for sovereignty – that will guide our Indo-Pacific enterprise.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak today. I look forward to our discussion.