The 117th Congress and U.S.-India Relations
February 11, 2021
The new 117th Congress commences its work at a time of U.S. turmoil and crisis. The challenges created by the ongoing partisan disputes over the presidential election and the Covid-19 pandemic mean that the Congress will concentrate on domestic matters to the detriment of any but the most prominent foreign policy concerns. Relations between the world's two largest democracies unfortunately are not widely considered a prominent foreign policy concern in the Congress. Therefore, U.S.- India relations are likely to be be viewed in the Congress through the lens of other foreign and domestic issues rather than being considered on their own merits. This focus will affect security, economic, and values aspects of the U.S.-India relationship.
On the security front, China policy will be a primary lens through which U.S.-India relations will be viewed. The 116th Congress made this plain in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 (NDAA), which is replete with concerns about China, including the attempts by China to expand into Indian territory. The section “Matters Relating to the Indo- Pacific Region” mandates that the secretary of defense formulate a report back to Congress on a “Pacific Deterrence Initiative.” The Congress will remain involved with this initiative, since a plan for its implementation must be submitted to the defense committees of Congress by February 15, 2021 and annually thereafter. The United States and India have a confluence of strategic interests in regard to China. Thus, congressional interest in and actions toward India that affect the U.S. posture toward China are likely to be positive for the U.S.-India relationship. With regard to Pakistan, the Congress is likely to continue its expressions of support for India in regard to cross-border terrorism. Insofar as Pakistan grows closer to China, the support for India in the Congress on strategic issues related to Pakistan is likely to increase.
The Congress is also likely to become involved again in the question of sanctions against India for purchase of the S-400 antimissile system from Russia and the aftermath of the sanctions decision. Having sanctioned Turkey for purchasing the S-400 system, the question now arises as to whether similar treatment is required for India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), or if India will secure a waiver. Even if the waiver is granted, the purchase of the S-400 system will affect defense technology transfer to India. The Congress is likely to become involved in this issue particularly as it relates to moving the defense supply relationship away from Russia and toward the United States.
U.S.-India economic issues will continue to be influenced by the rise of protectionism in both the United States and India. Little progress has been made during the Trump administration in resolving the myriad trade disputes between the two countries. The degree to which Congress becomes involved in these disputes will be driven by the extent of U.S. business concerns. More likely on the economic front will be an expansion of action by particular senators and representatives to promote U.S.-India cooperation on 5G, energy, climate change, and pandemic response. With the advent of the Biden administration and its vows to become involved in international climate change and energy matters, there is likely to be an increase in congressional interest in these areas. The United States’ rejoining of the World Health Organization will open the door for further U.S.-India cooperation on pandemic response. Given the prominence of the pandemic, there may be congressional involvement on this issue.
The change in presidential leadership is also likely to promote among Democratic members of the Congress a renewed interest in democratic values and human rights. In the past, India has bristled at congressional criticism on these issues. This could be an area of increased U.S.-India interaction within the Congress. The political turmoil in the United States over George Floyd’s death and the broader Black Lives Matter movement may well be reflected in increased interest in Congress on actions in India that affect democratic values and human rights.
In summary, U.S.- India relations have never been a major concern within the Congress. With the exception of the issues cited above, this is likely to be the situation with the 117th Congress. This is ironic given the wide membership of the Senate and House India caucuses, which are the largest caucuses in their respective legislative chambers. Whether this situation changes in the new Congress is dependent on circumstances and whether a few key legislators within these caucuses, including the Indian American members of Congress, see it in their political interests to expand and deepen congressional action on U.S.-India relations. This perception is in turn dependent upon the degree to which Indian American and U.S.-Indian business constituencies take an interest in moving U.S.-India relations from the congressional backburner to the forefront of legislative concerns.