Juster pledges to “advance the strategic partnership with India” which is critical to US “national security and economic interests”
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, October 4, 2017 – In a Senate hearing Tuesday morning, Kenneth Juster, President Donald Trump’s nominee for US Ambassador to India, fielded a number of questions on trade, human rights, and security.
It was a long overdue event as the US ambassadorship in New Delhi has been vacant ever since Trump took office in January. It may now be filled by an official with impeccable credentials, enjoying bipartisan support. A vote on the nomination is expected later this month after the Senate recess, October 7-16.
Juster, 62, was accompanied to the hearing by his mother Muriel Juster who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, cousins and a number of close friends. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Democratic Co-Chair of the influential Senate India Caucus, introduced the nominee noting that “he has an extraordinary distinguished career” which includes working on US-India relations for over 16 years. “This relationship between the world’s two largest democracies is absolutely critical”, Warner said.
Presiding over the hearing in his role as Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Bob Corker acknowledged, “As the two largest democracies in the world, the United States and India share a strategic interest in promoting and maintaining stability in the region”. Still, he dwelt on “roadblocks” in bilateral ties citing trade barriers, the slow pace of Indian reforms, lax intellectual property protections, among other challenges.
“Nearly a decade ago, the US-India civil nuclear agreement was heralded as the beginning of a new era in our relationship”, he said. “While there has been steady progress in relations between Washington and Delhi, the aspirational nature of the civil nuclear deal has left both countries struggling to meet unrealistic expectations”.
The Republican Senator from Tennessee urged the Ambassador-nominee to “seek a level playing field for American companies”.
Testifying before the Committee, Juster pledged, if confirmed as Washington’s top diplomat in Delhi, he will work to “advance the strategic partnership with India, a relationship that is critical to our national security and economic interests”, he said.
A top economic aide and one of the key architects of the historic civil nuclear deal, Juster acknowledged that there are trade barriers which must be removed.
“There is enormous potential in the economic sphere, but we have only begun to scratch the surface”, he said. “We need to continue pressing forward to make sure that India adheres to its WTO (World Trade Organization) obligations” and intellectual property enforcement. If confirmed by the Senate, he promised to be “a strong advocate for US business interests in India”.
During the first six months of the Trump administration, Juster served as Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs and at the hearing he told senators, “The administration firmly believes that a strong India and a strong US-India relationship is in America’s interest”. He noted that India and the US share common values which include a commitment to democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law.
“The remarkable evolution of US-India relations truly has been a bipartisan undertaking and has benefitted from strong leadership and support in the Congress”, he told members of the SFRC.
On enhancing the bilateral partnership, he mentioned that one of the key pillars is security cooperation, and that the US recognizes India as a major defense partner. He also spoke of the “growing threats that terrorism poses to our people”.
If confirmed by the Senate, Juster vowed to “work closely with New Delhi to promote security and stability in Afghanistan”, while recognizing and appreciating India’s economic support.
“India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region and globally will be critical in advancing security and economic growth over the course of this century”, he underscored.
“An essential element of our relationship is our people-to-people ties”, he said, noting the contributions of four million Indian-Americans, “a community that exemplifies the spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship and the strong values that our countries share”.
During the course of the hearing which lasted about 40 minutes, a number of senators brought up the sensitive issue of human rights.
In opening remarks, Senator Corker lamented, “The space for civil society in India continues to shrink as Hindu nationalism rises and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) face undue scrutiny. I also remain concerned about the scale of India’s human trafficking problem including bonded labor”, he said.
Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland), Ranking Member of the SFRC, noted that while the India-US “relationship has grown stronger over time”, challenges remain. “Trafficking is a significant problem in India”, he said, referring to an estimated 18 million people in bonded labor.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Democratic nominee for Vice President in the 2016 election, told Juster that India is “a great ally” and underscored the importance of the US-India relationship. “I congratulate you for your nomination”, he said.
“One of the areas where my constituents reach out to me occasionally is the human rights area, dealing with religious diversity — the treatment of religious minorities especially Sikhs. Not being on the ground, I don’t reach fixed conclusions about this. How could you use your position as ambassador if confirmed to advance religious tolerance”, Kaine asked.
Responding to the concerns of senators, Juster replied that he “would want to work on improving the situation” and finding the most productive way to pursue human rights issues.
“India has a great tradition of tolerance”, he noted. “It is a multi-religious country. It has the values that we have in that area”. He pointed out that India has a vibrant press, a very active civil society that raises these issues, discusses them.
“Ultimately, as a democracy, they will have to come to grips with it. We can play a supportive role”, he said.
Speaking of the H-1B visa program which allows highly skilled workers to come to the US (with most of the beneficiaries hailing from India), Senator Christopher Coons noted that President Trump and some members of Congress have been critical of it. The administration had temporarily suspended premium processing of H-1B visas in early March which led to some concern in India as well as the US.
“What is your opinion of the H-1B program? How do you see it playing a role in the US-India relationship and will you work to support ongoing opportunities for highly skilled workers to come to the United States”, Senator Coons asked.
Juster pointed out that the Embassy in India processes more visas than any other US mission in the world. “It’s an enormous effort, part of it has to do with protecting our homeland, getting qualified people to come to our country”, he said.
“President Trump issued an executive order in April to look overall into these policies and that inter-agency process is still not complete. So, I’m not in a position to represent the administration as to where they are. Obviously, the H-1B visa program is an important part of the India-US relationship. However, actual details on what will be the final policy have not been determined”, he said.