“A New Era in U.S.-India Relations”: Remarks by Ambassador Richard Verma at Brookings Institution

(As Prepared for Delivery)


I am delighted to be here at Brookings, along with so many friends and colleagues.  Tanvi, thank you for facilitating this event, and thank you also for the enormous amount of scholarship you produce on India, and on the U.S.-India bilateral relationship.  Your tweets on India are always insightful and thought-provoking too!  And to Strobe Talbot, let me also express my thanks, not only for today, but for all that you have done to advance U.S.-India relations over the course of your distinguished career.  Strobe’s book, “Engaging India,” is a classic, and a must-read for anyone engaged in diplomacy in South Asia.

In 1969, following his second tour as the U.S. Ambassador to India, the great American statesman Chester Bowles told an interviewer that India was destined to have “a big impact” on the world stage.  While those words may seem prescient now, Bowles went on to lament that despite India’s enormous economic potential he could never persuade the White House or State Department to give the country the attention it deserved during his time as ambassador.

To understand how much things have changed since Bowles was Ambassador, and how consequential the U.S.-India relationship has become, one only need look back at this past week.  An Indian Minister of Defense traveled to Pacific Command – the first time ever – to meet with our U.S. Combatant Commander and his team to discuss maritime security in the Asia-Pacific.  That was on Monday.  On Tuesday, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi spoke for nearly an hour on their newly established secure line – their second use of the secure line in the past two months, and their second engagement in the past 8 days, as a global climate agreement reaches a historic conclusion.  Back here in Washington, on Wednesday and Thursday, Secretary of Defense Carter and Minister Parrikar engaged in detailed discussions on deepening our security partnership, and even flew together on a V-22 Osprey to the deck of the USS Eisenhower to discuss and assess advanced carrier cooperation between our countries.  And over this past several days, Secretary Kerry has met numerous times with the Indian delegation at the Paris climate talks.

It’s Friday, and I’ve only given you a brief snapshot into all that’s taken place between our two countries this week….it’s enough to make one very tired!…but it’s also exceptionally gratifying to see the intensity and regularity of our cooperation across multiple domains – this is the new normal.

This kind of collaboration does not occur overnight.  What we are witnessing in the U.S.-India partnership is the culmination of years of effort – actually decades of hard work – that has yielded important results for both nations.  This past year, in particular, was especially transformative, and this is a good opportunity to recap the year to date, and give you a sense of where we are going together.

2015 – A Year of Consequence

Following the President’s January visit as the Chief Guest for Republic Day, we were determined to ensure we followed through on the commitments that were made.  Both of our governments set up joint cells to monitor our progress and report back to the President and Prime Minister on the progress achieved.  We established secure lines between our national security advisors, and heads of government.  We launched the first-ever Strategic and Commercial Dialogue, bringing a whole-of-government approach to our annual engagement, and we continued to push forward on the 30+ working groups and government-to-government dialogues that have been established on everything from space cooperation, cyber security, global health security, and civil aviation.

With our expanding health cooperation, joint U.S.-India research helped to launch the world’s cheapest vaccine against rotavirus, potentially saving millions of lives.  We’ve launched new efforts this year to combat TB, engage in joint cancer research, and to battle acute encephalitis.  And across the African continent, our development experts are partnering to increase agricultural productivity, boost farmer incomes, and reduce malnutrition.
On the public diplomacy front, we set out to ensure we were telling our story, and perhaps more importantly, listening to our Indian friends.  We set an ambitious travel schedule – I’ve taken some 35 trips across the country – to meet with business officials, students, civil society, and community leaders – to learn about their issues and hear what’s on their minds.  We’ve given a lot of speeches – enough to publish a whole book – on everything from women’s empowerment to counter-terrorism to smart cities.  And, we’ve greatly broadened our social media presence reaching hundreds of thousands of new friends and followers, and using all kinds of new methods to communicate and to tap into the pulse of a mobile, connected, and informed Indian society.  And here I have to make the requisite plug to follow us on social media to keep current on the U.S.-India relationship and how we are engaging with India in new ways.

I recall Secretary Kerry noting at the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue in September that “we may do more with India – on a government-to-government basis – than with any other nation.”  We hosted an extensive set of high-level visitors – six cabinet secretaries; two combatant commanders; a number of governors, mayors, senators, and members of the House; in addition to countless CEO’s, scholars, and expert exchanges.  The fact is our cooperation became more regular, even routine, which had the effect not only of building a certain durability and resiliency in our relationship that is critical to moving to the next level, but also in resolving disputes.

As you might imagine, we don’t always agree on every issue.  We are not the same countries and we don’t aspire to be, so there will be differences in approach and sometimes differences on policy.  Increasingly, we have put in place the structures to tackle those issues that not only unite us, but we can engage on those issues that might divide us as well.  This is the hallmark of a mature and lasting friendship.  One only need to consider the progress that’s been made on civil nuclear cooperation, on intellectual property, and market access, for example, as areas where we have had our differences, but through dialogue and working together, we’ve been able to make real progress, finding common ground to benefit both our nations.

So, how are we doing in our efforts?  Let me answer that by diving a bit more deeply into three areas of cooperation:  defense and strategic ties, climate and clean energy, and economics and trade.

Strategic Cooperation/Defense Ties   

2015 was a year of many firsts in our security partnership with India.  Let me name a few notable milestones:

We launched the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), moving from a buyer-seller relationship for defense trade to equal partners, further integrating our defense industries and creating a boost for the Make in India initiative.  In fact, the DTTI joint working group on jet engine technology held its inaugural meeting just this week, and the aircraft carrier working group met a few months ago in Virginia.  We are proud to be collaborating on systems and technologies to help bolster Indian maritime and aerospace capabilities.

We signed on to a common vision for the security of the Asia-Pacific, and over the course of the year have been working on a roadmap for further cooperation across the Indo-Pacific region to uphold the rules-based order that our nations rely on.

Secretary Carter was the first U.S. Defense Secretary to visit an Indian operational military command when he visited the Eastern Naval Command in Visakhapatnam back in June.  And, this week Minister Parrikar returned the favor, as he became the first Indian Defense Minister to visit PACOM, as well as the first to go aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, with his visit yesterday to the iconic USS Eisenhower.  While all these visits held important symbolism, they were indicative of our deepening partnership, particularly in the maritime domain.

The complexity and intensity of our military exercises continued to grow.  During Defense Secretary Carter’s meeting with Minister Parrikar, Secretary Carter welcomed India’s participation in next year’s Rim-of-the-Pacific multilateral naval exercise as well as participation by the Indian Air Force in the multilateral Red Flag exercise this spring.  Minister Parrikar welcomed the announcement of U.S. participation in the International Fleet Review of the Indian Navy in February.  And for the first time since 2012, our bilateral Special Operations Forces exercise VAJRA PRAHAR will resume again next month.  These announcements build on the large number of joint exercises already conducted by our militaries.  In October, Japan participated alongside the United States and India in the MALABAR naval exercise in the Indian Ocean.  This was the most complex naval exercise we’ve ever executed together, mobilizing over 8,000 personnel and including participation from a U.S. Carrier Strike Group, U.S. and Indian submarines, P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, and a Japanese destroyer.  The fact is our forces and systems are becoming interoperable – that’s why we engage in these exercises – so we can understand how each of our militaries employs force, and how we might even operate jointly in a future mission, such as in humanitarian and disaster response.

Bilateral defense trade has reached nearly $14 billion, with billions more in the pipeline.  In September, India finalized a $3.3 billion deal with Boeing for Apache and Chinook helicopters.  The deal will enhance the Indian Air Force’s capabilities, support over 15,000 American jobs, and also have an important Indian manufacturing role with plans to make Apache parts in India.
And, this past year, India continued to demonstrate its expanding global leadership, and important role as a net security provider in the region.  It played a key role in civilian evacuations from Yemen, including many Americans, for which we remain grateful.  We view our historic relief collaboration after this spring’s Nepal earthquake as a springboard for increased joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the region, and beyond.

Yesterday, Secretary Carter referred to the U.S.-India partnership as “an anchor of global security.”  He went on to say:  “As we work towards a common future … between the United States and India … this is a relationship that will be critical in strengthening the Indo-Asia-Pacific security architecture so that everyone there can continue to rise and prosper.”  I have been saying over the course of the year that if we had a strategic partnership with India over the past 10 years, we now have something higher, bigger, and stronger – we’ve called it “strategic plus” to denote cooperation in more areas of common interest and in more geographic areas of the world.

Economics, Trade, and Innovation 

India and the United States need each other economically.  We both need to help power global economic growth; we rely on the collaborative science, exploration, and innovation that will bring new discoveries for our people; and we both need to create economic opportunities and jobs for our people.  So, how are we doing on this critical set of issues?

We need only go back a decade to demonstrate the dramatic progress we’ve made.  The fact is, over the past 10 years in virtually every category of cooperation we track and measure, the statistics are compelling.  In 2005, our two-way trade numbers were around $30 billion.  Today, they stand at $104 billion, and we are aiming to get that number up to $500 billion in the near future.  In just the last three months, bilateral trade increased by well over $5 billion with the conclusion of Boeing’s $3.3 billion Apache/Chinook deal and the $2.6 billon GE agreement to provide India’s vast railway network with next-generation locomotives, many of which will be made and assembled in India.

Ten years ago, there were around 30,000 Indian students studying in the United States.  This year, the number of Indian students in the United States increased by almost 30 percent over last year to more than 132,000.  The growth in Indian students was greater than from any other country, and India is second only to China in the number of students currently in the United States.  The same goes for visitors – in 2005, we had close to 400,000 Indians visiting the United States.  This past year was the highest on record.  We processed over 1 million visa applications.  Our Mission in India processes more H and L employment visas than anywhere in the world.  Last year, Indians received 69 percent of H and 30 percent of all L visas issued worldwide.

Cumulative Indian foreign direct investment in the United States totaled $7.8 billion in 2014.  U.S. foreign direct investment into India was $28 billion.  An increasing number of Indian-owned firms contribute to U.S. jobs, exports, and growth.  Ongoing government actions to facilitate trade in both directions and open new sectors to private investment will continue to accelerate not only economic growth and development, but also increase prosperity for the citizens of both our countries.

While we’ve achieved a strong, solid record of performance, our leaders believe we can do more, and I know we can do much more.  That’s why we are redoubling our efforts to increase two-way trade, taking on the “ease of doing business” factors that tend to deter U.S. companies and investors, such as tax and legal uncertainty and easing the regulatory burden.  To accelerate progress on these issues, we included these commercial topics at our Strategic and Commercial Dialogue this past fall.  We also eagerly await India’s updated draft of its bilateral investment treaty text, and its new intellectual property policy, both of which could help spur increased investment, trade, and technology transfer.

On the science and innovation front, the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Silicon Valley highlighted the great promise to improve people’s lives and solve pressing development challenges.  Today, engineers in Bangalore are collaborating with engineers in Silicon Valley to create a portable ventilator that can work on power supply as well as batteries, in the process reducing the cost and size of the ventilator and allowing hospitals and clinics in rural areas to deploy them.  We are working together to change lives through the Jaipur knee project.  Again, design engineers from Silicon Valley have collaborated with the famous Jaipur Foot organization to design, test, and refine an affordable, robust artificial knee for above-the-knee amputees.  Watching young men and women once again walk on two legs is a moving experience, for this simple device allows them to reclaim their dignity and live richer, fuller lives.

Note as well that these are not one-off or two-off projects.  Back in 2009, before innovation and startups became the buzzwords they are today, our leaders came together to set up the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund.  Seeded with a $10 million endowment at the U.S. Embassy, the annual interest earnings from this endowment are matched by the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology to help fund Indian and American innovators with impactful ideas to collaborate and commercialize their solutions.

Every year there is a call for proposals and thus far we have funded 18 such ideas with more in the pipeline.  We cover the gamut of solutions that our innovators are currently pursuing:  simple technologies to remove toxic arsenic from groundwater in Bengal and Bihar; a low-cost portable auto-refractor to help people prescribe corrective eyeglasses in areas without eye doctors; a simple device to resuscitate newborn babies who can’t breathe; a solar electric tractor; novel biological seed treatments to confer abiotic stress tolerance in crops; seaweed-based bio-stimulants for increased crop productivity; affordable, robust modular roof panels; and many more.  These collaborations are a testament to the innovative spirit of our two great nations, combining both commercial ambition and remarkable altruism.

Clean Energy and Climate Change

No global challenge will have a more profound impact on future generations than the issue of climate change.  There is no doubt that this issue is one of the most consequential threats to the global commons that we will address together.  How the United States and India jointly confront this grave matter will impact the future viability of human economic activity.  President Obama and Prime Minister Modi share an appreciation that without U.S.-India leadership on this issue, no proposed solution to climate change can succeed.  And both leaders believe it is the obligation of our governments to find common ground.

President Obama and Prime Minister Modi held a constructive meeting at the opening of the Paris climate conference, and as I noted have been in touch since to discuss the negotiations, and our teams have held daily senior-level discussions to identify a path forward.

There is no greater measure of a mature and functional partnership than persevering in our consultations – despite concerns on both sides – because of a shared sense of duty to future generations.

And let us remember that what happens after Paris is just as important as what happens in the Paris negotiations.  That is why President Obama and Prime Minister Modi announced last week that the United States, India, and 18 other nations are seeking to double our investment in clean-energy research and development over five years.  This initiative, called Mission Innovation, seeks to ensure continued improvements in energy technology decades down the road.  And at the same time, Bill Gates and 27 other billionaires launched a private-sector component of Mission Innovation, to invest substantial private capital in early-stage technology development in Mission Innovation countries.  These clean energy efforts build on the already substantial work effort at the Mission to strongly support India’s move to a renewable future and help reach its 175 GW target for renewables – the world’s highest such target.


In Ambassador Bowles’ era, New Delhi charted a course of strategic autonomy and inward-looking economic policies.  Today, Indian leaders speak of their country becoming a leading power of the 21st century – something we heartily welcome.  These days politicians and strategists in both capitals describe Washington and Delhi as “natural allies” dedicated to upholding the rules-based international system that has served us well for the past seventy years.  Today, our leaders discuss how to tackle the most pressing global challenges of our time on a dedicated hotline.  And Prime Minister Modi counsels us to think beyond what the United States and India can do for each other, and look at what we can do together to advance global peace and prosperity.  It wasn’t long ago that the United States was racing the Soviet Union to the moon.  In our time, NASA collaborates closely with the Indian Space Research Organization on joint endeavors to explore the red planet.  Times certainly have changed.

And if our governments get bogged down as they engage in so many new areas, as they might at times, I know our people-to-people ties will continue to flourish and deepen, as they have for decades.  I can speak from some personal experience here.  Two of the 30+ trips I have taken around India were back to Punjab to visit the house where my grandmother and mother settled following partition, and to see the village where my dad grew up, as the eldest of 11 children and the first one in his family to be formally educated.  I know well the stories of migration, starting over with nothing in a new country, and the great support that our family received from the people and institutions of India and the United States.  This story has been repeated time and again by countless numbers of our citizens, forging deep and lasting ties between our countries – ties that are bound by so many shared values.

You can be sure that as we go about our work on the government-to-government level, we will continue to do everything we can to hasten these people-to-people connections, and help ensure that ordinary people are given a chance to pursue their dreams and live up to their full potential.  That’s a guaranteed way to ensure this new era in U.S.-India relations continues to remain strong, and remains one of the most critical relationships of the 21st century.