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How Congress can strengthen US-India relations amid rising trade tensions and curb China threat

Mukesh Aghi, CEO of US-India Strategic Partnership Forum
Key Points
  • India faces the threat of U.S. sanctions for buying the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
  • Washington piled on its steel and aluminum tariffs and canceled India's preferential trade benefits on approximately $5 billion of exports. India responded with retaliatory tariffs.
  • Passing a crucial amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would provide India the same status as America's NATO allies and Israel, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan for the purposes of the Arms Export Control Act.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) attends a meeting with US President Donald Trump during the G20 Osaka Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in India on Wednesday amid at a tense moment in U.S.–India relations. On the strategic side, India faces the threat of U.S. sanctions for buying the Russian S-400 missile defense system and has been pressured into zeroing out imports of Iranian oil.

On the economic front, Washington piled on its steel and aluminum tariffs and canceled India's preferential trade benefits on approximately $5 billion of exports. India responded with retaliatory tariffs.

The United States is hinting that it will pursue the same strategy used with China by potentially starting investigations into India for harming U.S. commerce, which would likely result in additional tariffs.

Against this dreary backdrop, there has been one positive story.

Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA)—co-Chair of the House India Caucus and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation—submitted a critical amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week.

I have championed this bipartisan legislation since it was first introduced by Congressman Joe Wilson in 2018. If enacted, the Sherman amendment would provide India the same status as America's NATO allies and Israel, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan for the purposes of the Arms Export Control Act.

The House Committee on Rules will decide the week of July 8 whether the Sherman amendment will get a vote on the House floor. Congressman Sherman's amendment included the following group of bipartisan co-sponsors: Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC); Congressman George Holding (R-NC); Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL); Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA); Congressman Ed Case (D-HI); and Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL).

The amendment encourages the State Department—the lead U.S. agency that approves U.S. defense sales to foreign countries—to be more forward-leaning when it comes to the U.S.-India relationship and approve U.S. sales to India in a timely fashion. After all, there is significant upside for the United States strategically and economically. Defense sales from U.S. companies to India accounted for over $18 billion over the last decade.

India remains the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific region that can balance China's military and economic advances.

It should be noted that the legislation is not a creature of the House alone. It also has powerful sponsors in the Senate. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Mark Warner (D-VA)—Co-Chairs of the Senate India Caucus—offered the same amendment to the NDAA in the Senate, though the amendment did not make it into Thursday's Senate-passed version of the bill.

Members of Congress from both parties appreciate India's role as America's major defense partner. On the strategic side, India serves as a counterbalance against a rising China. The Senate's NDAA report recognized that U.S. military supremacy is being undermined and eroded by threats from China and Russia, with the world in its most unstable and dangerous period in recent times.

It highlighted a number of threats posed by China and Russia, including the risk of technology transfer; ownership, control or influence over DoD contractors through proxies; and threats to space assets critical to national defense and the global economy.

The report also observed an emerging threat to U.S. economic competitiveness and national security by the unprecedented growth of China in the commercial space sector. State-sponsored espionage, intellectual property leakage through Chinese government investments in U.S. companies, and major national initiatives such as the "Belt and Road" were cited as key reasons behind this growth.

The underlying logic behind the Sherman amendment to elevate India under the Arms Export Control Act is that America needs to bolster its relationship with India as China entrenches its power in the Indo-Pacific. India remains the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific region that can balance China's military and economic advances.

America refused to offer India a weapon system that could compete with the S-400 until it was too late—approximately three years after India asked and Russia made its offer. India's long legacy of dependence on Russia for strategic systems—no other country will lease India a nuclear submarine, for example—can only be changed through time and with a steady partnership, not through threats and sanctions.

As the world's largest democracy and a solid partner in the Indo-Pacific region, India is ideologically congruent and strategically central to U.S. interests. As one of the fastest-growing economies and one of the largest military forces in the world, India is and will continue to be a powerful partner in the region.

Secretary Pompeo's visit reinforced the importance that the U.S. places on the relationship with India, but we cannot resolve the many challenges with just one visit. The U.S. Congress could help protect America's interests in Asia by firmly drawing closer to the one country that can counter America's biggest competitor. Enacting the Sherman amendment would be a significant and concrete step in the right direction.

Mukesh Aghi is president and CEO of US-India Strategic Partnership Forum.

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