Trump administration wants Indian leaders to condemn religious violence

Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells, right, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass attend a press conference during the UN Conference on Afghanistan on November 27, 2018 in Geneva. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON D.C. — The Trump administration would like to see India’s democratically elected leaders and institutions move swiftly to condemn acts of religious violence and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Alice Wells, the administration’s point person for the subcontinent, Acting Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation on June 13, said that such action by India’s leadership and institutions would be a major boost to India’s security and economic interests and further help strengthen the U.S.-India relationship.

While acknowledging that “India’s election was free and fair and the largest exercise of democracy in human history,” and reiterating the administration’s congratulations on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “decisive victory,” the senior U.S. official assured the U.S. Congress that “in our engagements with India, we will continue to highlight the importance of preserving a diverse and inclusive society.”

Wells pointed out that “India’s constitution provides strong protections for fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom,” and said, “We look to India’s democratically elected leaders and institutions to swiftly condemn acts of violence on the basis of religion and hold perpetrators accountable.

“This will help further India’s security and economic interests and strengthen our bilateral relationship,” she predicted.

Wells recalled, “We took note of Prime Minister Modi’s comments following his reelection highlighting his government’s commitment to inclusiveness and that ‘…a representative of the people cannot show favoritism towards anyone. We have to work for those who supported us and also those who did not in these elections with the same spirit.’”

During her interaction with members of the subcommittee, where she urged continued Congressional support for the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the senior official said that “with India at its center, we’ve made good incremental progress in the Indo-Pacific vision since I last testified …and we support India’s rise as the fulcrum of this strategy.”

Wells pointed out that “70 percent of global commerce passes through the oceans of the Indo-Pacific, and the United States will protect its seas and skies through our diplomatic engagement, development efforts, and security cooperation.

“At the same time, the United States, alongside India, Japan, Australia, and other trusted allies and partners, will support the political and economic autonomy of Indo-Pacific countries to ensure they can chart their own path to freedom and prosperity, as satellites to none.”

In this regard, Wells said, “We cannot allow China, or any other country, to subvert our partners through unsustainable infrastructure projects that push economies into unsustainable debt, or by contributing to an erosion of transparency and democratic norms.”

She pointed out that “since I last testified, Congress demonstrated its bipartisan support for this Indo-Pacific vision by passing its Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. With that act, the administration stands together with Congress by signaling to the region that America, itself an Indo-Pacific nation, is committed to promote mutual prosperity.” Wells, who was testifying before the subcommittee to make a pitch for the administration’s foreign aid request for fiscal year 2020, said, “The (State) Department requests $468 million for South Asia, which increases regional economic and security assistance, as well as development funding for India and Maldives.”

She acknowledged that “this more than doubles our FY 2019 request,” but said it looked to Congress to support “the department’s new security cooperation program in South Asia, the Bay of Bengal Initiative, with $30 million in foreign military financing that will build maritime and border security capacity for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Maldives.”

“We also request $64 million for regional activities to support raising infrastructure standards, supporting regional energy and digital connectivity, and bolstering cyber security,” Wells said, and added, “The department continues to explore options for providing additional resources to support the Indo-Pacific Strategy in line with this request, and if available we intend to return to Congress to discuss them.”

When Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA operations officer asked Wells if the recent trade frictions with India and the administration’s termination of GSP (General System of Preferences) benefits to India — the largest beneficiary of this program ever since it was initiated could torpedo the bilateral relationship and put paid to visions such as the Indo-Pacific strategy, Wells pooh-poohed any such concerns, arguing that “we have a multi-faceted relationship with India.”

Wells said it’s imperative to look at the entire gamut of the trade relationship and pointed out that “we have a $142 billion trade relationship that increased 12 percent last year — U.S. exports increased 28 percent, the trade deficit went down 11 percent to $24 billion.”

She also said that “we see India making strategic purchases of defense weaponry, of aviation, energy,” and assured Spanberger that her concerns that these trade frictions would push India into the hands of China, Russia, or even potentially Iran, totally misplaced.

She also noted that “there’s India’s foreign direct investment in the U.S., and there’s huge interest by U.S. firms in India and as Prime Minister Modi begins his second term and he is preoccupied with jobs creation and attracting foreign direct investment, that’s going to be a key part of that strategy.”

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