This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to India to chair the fourth round of the U.S.-India strategic dialogue. In what has become an important annual meeting evaluating the state of our countries' relationship, the gathering couldn't come at a better time. There is an unspoken consensus in Washington and New Delhi that amid political distractions on both sides, our relationship is running on autopilot. Secretary Kerry's visit provides the Obama Administration with an important opportunity to re-energize the partnership.
Following the signing of the civil nuclear agreement in 2008, it was hoped that the United States and India could leave behind the Cold War legacy of mistrust, and open a new chapter in the U.S.-India story. Even though we've created that opening, it appears to many that both countries have lost momentum.
But that's not to say we haven't made great progress. We have.
When we established the Congressional India Caucus in 1994, there were more irritants than areas of agreement in our relationship, and no regular senior-level engagement.
What was once one of our biggest stumbling blocks - the nuclear issue, - has been transformed into one of the relationship's biggest successes, and a pillar of the U.S.-India strategic partnership.
Trade in merchandise goods between our two countries has increased from a modest $ 5.6 billion in 1990 to $ 62.9 billion in 2012, a 1023.2% growth in a span of 22 years. Unthinkable 20 years ago, India now does more defense exercises with the United States than with any country in the world, and our people-to-people ties are second to none. Engagement between our two countries is broader than it has ever been: - from homeland security and counterterrorism to clean energy and human rights, India has become an important economic, political and security partner.
Nevertheless, there are still areas where we can do better and engage in a more productive manner. I see the strategic dialogue as the perfect place to renew this effort.
Part of this conversation must focus on resolving the big bilateral challenges. There is a growing view on Capitol Hill that our economic partnership with India will hit a wall if New Delhi does not make meaningful reforms on trade. Market access, caps on foreign direct investment, forced localization and compulsory licenses are complaints often emanating from American industry.
Meanwhile, India's economic growth has slowed dramatically, from 9.8% in 2007 to 4.5% this year. Foreign direct investment into India is down -- by some estimates, declining 43 percent during the April-November 2012 timeframe. American industry wants to be in India, and it would appear to be in India's economic interest to show our companies an open door.
I understand that policies are not created in a vacuum. We must acknowledge Indian and other foreign companies' perceptions about barriers to their operating in the U.S., and our economy too has slowed during the last several years. Moving forward, if we are going to capitalize on bilateral trade opportunities with India, we should work with India to formalize a trade structure that makes the investment climates in the United States and India more attractive.
The business relationship has always been a cornerstone of ties between the U.S. and India, even when our governments were not on the best of terms. It's ironic now that the concerns about business have become one of the key hurdles.
We will, from time to time, disagree as any two nations, or as any two friends, inevitably will. Whether it's on how best to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program, or on enforcement of intellectual property regulations in the pharmaceutical industry, an important part of this transformation is that our two governments discuss and develop solutions to address disagreements.
We must tackle challenges head-on, and at the same time, take full advantage of opportunities to expand our cooperation, especially where our national interests clearly align. I can think of no better way to do this than to formalize India's role and its longstanding "Look East" policy in the context of the Administration's rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific.
During her visit to Chennai in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the bet the U.S. was making on India. The U.S.-India-Japan trilateral meetings and our own regular dialogue with India on East Asia is a good start, but now is the time to double down on that bet. We should make membership for India in the organization of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) a priority. This will not only make our bet on India that much clearer, but it will encourage the Indians to be a contributor and a guarantor of APEC standards.
The U.S.-India relationship has been fundamentally transformed thanks to the hard work undertaken by successive administrations in both of our countries.' However, I am under no illusion that our relationship with India is always going to be an easy one. In the past 20 years, I've seen simple initiatives made difficult. But, I've also seen seemingly impossible ideas made into reality. If this partnership is to be, as several before me have said, one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, giving the relationship the attention it deserves is going to be well worth the effort.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY-16) is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.