In US House, a key push for closer ties with India

Updated on Jul 08, 2022 03:34 PM IST

Congressman Ro Khanna, a member of HASC, Andy Barr, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ronnie Jackson, a retired rear admiral and member of HASC, have proposed the India-specific amendments.


Washington: In separate amendments to the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), three US Congressmen have proposed that the US deepen defence ties with India, waive off sanctions that may be triggered by India’s acquisitions of Russian weapons under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), enhance the energy partnership with India, and work to reduce Indian dependence on Russian military equipment and energy sources and replace it with the US sources.

NDAA is the umbrella legislation that defines the agencies responsible for America’s defence, determines funding for these agencies, particularly the Department of Defense (DoD), and frames the broad policies for the use of the funding. In June, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved the Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. NDAA 2023, if and when passed, will provide over $800 billion for US national defence.

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Congressman Ro Khanna, a member of HASC, Andy Barr, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ronnie Jackson, a retired rear admiral and member of HASC, have proposed the India-specific amendments.

Khanna, a progressive Indian-American Democrat from California, has highlighted the threats posed by China’s aggression against India, lauded the bilateral cooperation on emerging technologies, and sought an India-specific waiver under CAATSA. Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, has sought a report from the administration on reducing Indian dependence on Russian energy sources but also ways to deepen cooperation on clean coal technology and identify benefits to the US from enhanced energy partnership. Jackson, a Republican from Texas, has sought a report on ways that the US can support Indian defence.

The amendments, submitted to the House Committee on Rules, are only the first step of a long legislative process — the committee will meet next week to decide on a structured amendment process to be presented to the full House; the House will vote on amendments; the Senate will pass its own version of the legislation; the White House will then issue a statement of administrative policy indicating support or opposition for the legislations and specific provisions; and then the concerned members of the Senate and House will work on reconciling the two versions of the bill to come up with a final compromise version.

But people familiar with developments on the Hill believe that the amendments, in themselves, indicate the bipartisan support in the Congress for the India-US strategic relationship. At a time when two resolutions have been introduced in the House expressing concern over India’s human rights record — both resolutions have little chance of being taken up or passing — the substantive defence-related amendments are being seen as a sign that there are strong political constituencies on the Hill invested in the relationship with India.

In line with the US effort to encourage India to diversify its defence ties in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the amendments also represent hope in American political and policy circles that the differences on Ukraine can be converted into an opportunity to deepen US-India defence partnership. The tone of the proposed amendments, which seek deeper ties with India, also stand in stark contrast with the dozens of amendments proposed with regard to China, which largely seek to impose costs on the Communist Party of China and enhance US support for Taiwan.

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The Khanna amendment: CAATSA waiver

In his amendment, Khanna has a proposed a subsection that says the strong US-India defence partnership, “rooted in shared democratic values”, is critical to advancing US interests in the Indo-Pacific. The partnership must be strengthened “in response to increasing threats in the Indo-Pacific regions, sending an unequivocal signal that sovereignty and international law be respected”.

Khanna’s amendment then goes on to laud the US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) — announced during the Tokyo meeting between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi — as a “welcome and essential step” to forge closer partnerships between the two countries in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, aerospace and semiconductor manufacturing. “Such collaborations between engineers and computer scientists are vital to help ensure that the United States and India, as well as other democracies around the world, foster innovation and facilitate technological advances which continue to far outpaceRussian and Chinese technology.”

In a section titled “Border Threats from China and reliance on Russian weapons”, Khanna’s amendment proposes that Congress recognise that India faces “immediate and serious regional border threats from China, with continued military aggression by the Government of China along the India-China border”. It adds that the US should take additional steps additional steps to encourage India “to accelerate India’s transition off Russian-built weapons and defence systems” while strongly supporting India’s immediate defence needs.

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But it is in the final section of his amendment that Khanna intervenes in a key issue that has dominated headlines over the past few years, triggered by India’s acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia. It proposes that while India faces immediate needs to maintain its “heavily Russia-built weapon systems”, a waiver to sanctions under CAATSA is in the best interests of the US and US-India defence partnership “to deter aggressors” in light of Russia and China’s close partnership. While the authority to waive off sanctions under CAATSA lies with the executive, the support within the Congress for an India-specific exemption under a legislation will send a political signal.

The Barr amendment: Energy partnership

In his amendment, Representative Andy Barr has asked that the Secretary of State, in consultation with both the US Trade Representative and Secretary of Energy, to submit a report on the US-India energy partnership to the concerned committees of both the Senate and the House within 90 days of the passage of the Act.

This report, according to the amendment, should have a description of the following elements — opportunities for the US to replace Indian dependence on Russian energy with US energy sources; opportunities for technology sharing “to foster cleaner processing of fossil fuels, including clean coal technology”; the potential benefits to both US national security and economy from an enhanced energy partnership with India; and potential non-governmental partners, including universities, which could help assist with research on increased energy cooperation between the two sides.

Among other reasons, Barr’s interest in energy is also understood to emanate from the fact that the University of Kentucky, located in his home state, is home to the Centre for Applied Energy Research which works in fossil fuel research. A state legislation also funds and supports carbon storage research at the University of Kentucky.

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The Jackson amendment: Defence boost

In his amendment, Ronny Jackson has sought a report from the DoD on three issues.

These include the capability of the US industrial base to support projects, activities, and programmes anticipated to be taken up by Indian counterparts; the current platforms used by India that could hinder interoperability between the US and India; and the ways in which US support can serve as a viable alternative to any support offered by Russia or China.

Jackson’s amendment is seen as an acknowledgment of the “Make in India” effort of the government. It is also a reflection of the concern that persists within the US system of India’s ties with Russia, but also a willingness to do more to offset those ties.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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