“Strategic Plus: Taking U.S.-Indian Relations to a New Level”: Remarks by Ambassador Richard Verma at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Secretary Burns, thank you for the generous introduction.  It is an honor to have one of the principal architects of today’s U.S. – India relationship here with us, not to mention one of the great Foreign Service Officers in the history of the State Department.  I’d also like to recognize Dr. Ashley Tellis, a good friend and one of the most respected voices on U.S. – India relations.  Carnegie’s Milan Vaishnav, another acclaimed India scholar, is also here.  If you’re not on Milan’s e-mail list, you are missing out on some of the best political and economic analysis about India that’s out there.  I’d like to thank everyone on the South Asia team here at Carnegie for their leadership, research and scholarship on the region, and for inviting me to share some thoughts about my first few months in India.

I believe we are witnessing a transformative time in US – India relations.  When I travel around the country, I can feel the enthusiasm and excitement about our renewed ties.  I’ve made 9 trips in my first 9 weeks – and my 10th trip, this one to Mysore, is coming up next week.  From government officials, to business leaders, to civil society groups and ordinary citizens, people are genuinely excited about the resurgence in US and Indian relations.  So, how did we get here?  It was through the important statecraft of diplomacy, the tireless efforts of leaders on both sides, and frankly, a renewed sense of optimism for the bilateral relationship in both DC and Delhi.

It’s rare for two leaders to come together twice in a five month period and agree on a comprehensive and sweeping set of activities, initiatives, and architecture for cooperation, but that’s exactly what happened, and that’s why we have such a strong wind at our backs.  The September visit of Prime Minister Modi to Washington helped begin the process of breaking deadlocks in key areas.  For example,

  • the civil nuclear contact group was launched and took on the long-standing differences regarding shipment of nuclear materials and nuclear liability;
  • the trade policy forum moved forward, tackling hard issues such as intellectual property and trade in services matters.  A deadlock at the WTO blocking trade facilitation was resolved.
  • the Defense Policy Group and Under Secretary Kendalls’s team from the Pentagon met repeatedly with Indian counterparts, moving forward with six different initiatives under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and agreeing to another 10 year defense framework agreement.
  • In health, science, climate, development, education and so many other areas, we signed new agreements and forged new partnerships.   In fact, since the Prime Minister’s September visit, some 30 different agreements and dialogues have been launched or reinvigorated.

And, then came the January visit of President Obama.  Yes, it was symbolically important and it was rich in pageantry, but it delivered on the substance and the merits as well.  There are in fact 70 different lines of effort coming out of the January visit, spanning all the areas of cooperation, from smart cities to cyber security to nuclear security to vaccine research, from the depths of the oceans to the farthest reaches of the stars, to Mars and beyond.

But the January visit also set in motion a reframing of our bilateral relationship – in a word, it was elevated.  If we were natural partners prior to January, we now aim to become India’s best partner.  And if we had a strategic partnership, we now have what I would call a “strategic plus” partnership – it is bigger, it is more ambitious and it reflects the true convergence of interests between our two nations not only for today, but for the years and decades ahead.   The reinvigorated relationship is built on a simple premise:  if India and the United States are the closest of friends and partners, not only will our two countries benefit, but the world will be a safer and more prosperous place.  That’s the strategic bet we have made on each other.  It’s a bet for the future and one with huge potential gains for our people and their aspirations.

There were two important documents coming out of the January visit that helped reaffirm and spell out this change in status.  The first was the Delhi Declaration of Friendship, and the second was the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region.  Let me say a few words about each.

The Friendship Declaration, while reaffirming our longstanding ties, also made clear that business as usual was not sufficient.  The Declaration called for regular summits, for the establishments of hotlines between our heads of state and national security advisors; and it built on our already strong business and commercial ties by adding a specific commercial component to our existing Strategic Dialogue.  We are excited for Secretary Pritzker and Secretary Kerry to co-lead the inaugural  Strategic and Commercial Dialogue – a first for both of our nations.

The Joint Strategic Vision document sets forth a framework for cooperation beyond South Asia.  It reaffirms our two nations’ support for the rule of law, for the peaceful resolution of disputes, for maritime cooperation, and for regional economic integration.  We have to work hard to spell out the modes of our work together and to show demonstrable progress for our people as this Joint Vision goes from a set of ideas and principles to implementation.  But again, the underlying concept is quite straightforward – when the two largest democracies come together, security can be bolstered, democratic principles upheld, the rule of law enforced, and disputes settled peacefully.

Strategic Plus

So, strategic plus is about an enhanced partnership, a new way of operating and thinking, a commitment to see the larger objectives for global peace and prosperity, even as we may periodically get bogged down in our day to day disputes.  It is a way of describing and visualizing a relationship on the ascent.  Strategic plus does not mean we will be free from disputes or disagreements.  But it does mean that when we have such conflicts or see situations differently, perhaps rooted in our historical perspectives or within our own self-interests, that we remain committed to our larger goals and strategic interests.

Last week in New Delhi, I outlined three elements of our strategic plus relationship – our regional cooperation, including the importance of coordinating closely on Afghanistan, our space cooperation, and our defense relationship.  Today, let me spell out three other areas that are also fundamental: (1) economics and trade; (2) climate and clean energy; and (3) people to people ties.


The economic relationship is a cornerstone of our partnership.  As many of you know, India needs to create about 1 million new jobs each month for those entering the workforce, and it must simultaneously grow its economy at a rate that continues to propel its people from the base of the economic pyramid to the middle class.  India can’t get there alone – but neither can the U.S. power the global economic recovery on its own – we need each other.  Bolstering our economic and trade relationship is good for businesses, for our collective growth needs, for job creation, and will ultimately continue to pull our two countries closer together.  Greater economic security is also a source of national security.  That’s why we are committed to increasing our two-way trade levels from $100 billion to $500 billion.  We know obstacles still exist – the business climate is often uncertain, intellectual property concerns are real, and many sectors remain closed, but many of the trend lines are moving in a positive direction.

  • The Indian Parliament passed an increase in foreign direct investment in insurance during its current session and there are several other legislative reforms in the works.
  • In December, the Government of India released its first ever draft of a national intellectual property rights policy. They allowed all stakeholders, including the U.S. government and American industry, to provide input on the policy.
  • For the first time in more than four years, we convened the Trade Policy Forum where the United States Trade Representative met with his counterpart while leading a delegation to New Delhi.
  • On the eve of President Obama’s January visit to New Delhi, we signed a bilateral Joint Declaration of Intent for Information and Communication Technology cooperation. This should help enhance trade in goods and services, investments, joint initiatives, and joint ventures in the ICT sector. This sector, if trade and investment are not limited, has the potential to become a $400 billion market.

What is promising about each of these examples is that there has been follow-up after the President’s visit.

We are also working hard to assess the prospects for moving forward with high-standard bilateral investment treaty (BIT) discussions.  A high standard BIT would further enhance investor confidence.   We also intend to be better aligned with India’s needs and its priorities – we know we can be critical partners in supporting Make In India, Digital India, Clean India, Smart Cities, and so much more.  Our companies and our innovators want to be part of India’s growth story. As the Indian government does the hard work of implementing economic reforms and removing barriers to trade and investment, it will allow U.S. companies to play a more active role, to the benefit of both countries. And, increasingly, India’s companies are helping to power America’s growth and job creation, and you can be sure we will be selling the attractiveness of investing in the US – as was done this past week in the Select USA Summit, where nearly 80 Indian companies were represented.

Clean Energy

Another priority is our clean energy and climate change cooperation. Prime Minister Modi and President Obama agreed to support India in meeting its renewable energy goals by enhancing clean energy and climate cooperation.  For example, since the President’s visit, we launched the bilateral India Clean Energy Finance Forum. This Forum mobilizes private-sector stakeholders and financing in an effort to expand clean economic development and combat global climate change. Over 40 industry leaders from Indian and international financial, investment, and renewable energy sectors, as well as government policy experts, met in February. We are expecting an initial set of policy recommendations by May of this year.

President Obama and Prime Minister Modi also agreed to partner on the U.S. EPA’s AIRNow-International program.  This program disseminates air quality data to enable the public to reduce exposure to harmful levels of air pollution. This information enables urban policy planners to create and implement strategies to improve air quality, including with climate change co-benefits.  The EPA had a productive visit to New Delhi earlier this month. The Indians appreciated our story of how Southern California improved its air quality over the last 40 years. Applying similar techniques in Indian cities can improve health and lower health care costs, draw in outside investment, and increase tourism. I am optimistic we can help them achieve these goals. In too many parts of the world, tackling air pollution takes a backseat to development. We think the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, when the health costs of unsustainable development are included in the equation, the benefits become severely diluted. We recognize and commend India’s leadership for thinking about ways to secure its future and its environment.

People to People

Can Strategic Plus also be about bolstering our people to people ties?  It can and it must.  The rich fabric of connections between our two countries is well known, and frankly, the people have outpaced the governments in many respects.  There are now over 3 million Indian Americans who have contributed to every facet of American life.  There are over 100,000 Indian students studying here, and more on the way.  And, in India too, Americans are playing an essential role in medicine, in science, in technology, and helping to power India’s growth and improving the lives of ordinary Indian citizens.  I saw this first-hand in Kolkata, where a few courageous American innovators started a business for women who had been victims of sexual trafficking.  Using the fabric from saris that had been discarded, the women convert the material into purses, handbags and accessories that are now being sold in department stores in Europe and the US. The women now have a future brighter than before.  I also saw firsthand how a few U.S. dollars could go a long way in helping to provide an education and a new start for young people. In Hyderabad, I was honored to inaugurate a program for young students – many of whom were former victims of child trafficking or otherwise abandoned on the streets – to receive English language training and participate in after school enrichment activities, with funding from the U.S. government.   We call it the English Access Microscholarship Program.
These are the small, often untold stories, about how our partnership can help make a difference for so many.  This is a critical line of work for us, it represents the future, and it is very much part of our strategic plus framework.

The Challenges and the Road Ahead

My friend Foreign Secretary Jaishankar gave a speech in New Delhi last week. In that speech, he wisely counseled that we need to be cautious about overstating progress and raising expectations.  I agree completely with that sentiment.  It is natural that two dynamic countries like India and the United States will not always have the same approach.

As Ashley wrote a few weeks back, we need to understand that this partnership can often be about “unity in differences.” We need to be prepared for these differences and be prepared to adjust our approach if necessary to keep moving forward.

We’re going to need patience and flexibility and mutual understanding to get to where we want to go, along with sustained engagement.  Our Contact Group on civil nuclear cooperation is an excellent example of this approach.  The Contact Group’s work didn’t stop with the President’s visit. Consultations and formal meetings have taken place since, including in Delhi last week. Another meeting is in the works. We signed the Administrative Arrangements and expect the Indian side to sign any time.  The Indians also held a very useful seminar with industry on an insurance pool for suppliers, and committed to join the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. These are real results and are due to the hard work and focus of a committed group on both sides.

In order to be successful, we also have to recognize and support where India is going.  In a speech to India’s Ambassadors and High Commissioners representing it overseas, the PM asked how India could change from a balancing power to a leading power. The Foreign Secretary also discussed this goal in his speech last week. He rightly said that as India becomes a “leading power” there are a lot of “downstream possibilities” if we get the U.S. – India relationship right.

As India’s strategic plus partner, we support India’s aspiration to become a leading power.  We also welcome India’s constructive leadership on global challenges. We support greater Indian participation in multilateral institutions, including its candidacy for permanent membership on a reformed UN Security Council and its eventual membership in all four multilateral export control regimes. We support its robust engagement with ASEAN and leadership role in the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

We’ve seen that India can be a valuable partner in multilateral institutions. We can work towards civil nuclear cooperation today because India implemented IAEA safeguards for their civil nuclear program, including the Additional Protocol. India also demonstrated its leadership by upholding and supporting the July 2014 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea delimitation of the maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. These are the actions of a constructive and responsible global actor that respects a rules-based system.

But we won’t always agree.  We were disappointed, for example, by India’s support this week for the attempt to strip benefits from UN staff in same-sex relationships.  We will continue to support the rights of LGBT individuals in India, in international institutions, and around the world.


In closing, it is fair to say that we’ve got a big agenda and big goals for this partnership.

We’re focused on finding creative, realistic ways to move them all forward. We’ve started a Joint Implementation Working Group with our partners at the MEA to make sure we make consistent progress in all of the issue areas we are addressing.

As I’ve noted, our leaders recognize that a robust U.S. – India partnership can be a force for greater peace, prosperity, and security in the world. Those of us in this room recognize it, and so do many in India.

But from my time in Delhi I’ve also seen that there is still a broader strategic and economic debate going on about whether India should focus globally or whether it should focus inward and limit its foreign policy to the region. There is also a debate going on about speech, rights, and openness.  To be fair, these debates are a hallmark of a democratic society.  We have similar ones here.

So as we move forward, we will also need to manage our expectations.  We have to be cognizant of the speed and scope of our initiatives; we have to prioritize.   When we disagree, we will do so with respect and in a spirit of partnership and an appreciation for the immense value and promise for our relationship.  If we continue to move forward on such terms, there will be few limits to how far we can advance, and how much we can achieve, in the years and decades to come.