This post is part of a series looking at how India and South Asia will feature in the American presidential election of 2016.
Among the Republican field, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has a well-known interest in foreign policy. Since his election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, he has served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He has made his voice heard especially in the debate over policy toward Cuba, from where his parents fled. What’s lesser known, and a bit more surprising, is this: the junior senator from Florida also has a declared interest in India.
Last September, coinciding with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, Rubio penned an op-ed in the Daily Signal. He faulted the Obama administration for having “neglected” India after the George W. Bush administration’s opening to New Delhi. According to Rubio: “India, the world’s largest democracy, has the potential to become a key U.S. partner in the decades ahead.”
Rubio wants to strengthen security cooperation with India, especially through joint naval exercises bilaterally and with other partners, and collaboration on “emerging technologies” in missile defense and in space. He advocates deeper cooperation with India, not just in South Asia, but also by “encouraging greater Indian involvement” in the Middle East and East Asia. He notes India’s large Muslim population and its stake in combating radical Islam. Finally, he uses the example of Florida’s $1 billion annual exports to India to illustrate why trade ties with India’s large and growing market matter to Americans.
In addition, Rubio’s role as one of the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” working toward comprehensive immigration reform established his leadership in an area of high priority for the Indian government. The Senate bill, which never found a companion in the House of Representatives and therefore languished, proposed an expansion of the annual limit on highly-skilled worker visas (H1-B visas). India, which already accounts for well more than half of all H1-Bs issued worldwide, would welcome the higher cap.
India’s technology companies opposed the bill’s restrictions on these visas for companies with high percentages of H1-B workers. They saw the bill as unfairly penalizing their business model. That apart, Rubio favors welcoming highly skilled workers (“stapling green cards to their diplomas”) and expanding the H1-B program.
The Daily Signal op-ed notwithstanding, Rubio has yet to engage deeply with the world’s largest democracy. Rubio has traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not yet visited India. Nor has he joined the Senate India Caucus, a bipartisan group thirty-five senators strong. Though he met with India’s ambassador to the United States in 2012, and issued a statement noting the role India could play in stabilizing Afghanistan, he did not meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the United States.
But he has given India greater priority than other Republican candidates in the field thus far, and is on the record with his goals. His Senate press secretary Brooke Sammon stated that Rubio “intends to continue to advocate for policies that advance our shared security and economic interests and reflect the changing strategic landscape in South Asia and the broader region.”
In policy terms, Rubio’s approach to India hews closely to the Republican argument for a strategic opening that led to the civil-nuclear agreement and a rapid expansion of the bilateral relationship. However, India has by and large been a rare issue of bipartisan agreement, and many Democrats (including Hillary Clinton) have expressed the same policy views. No one expects India to be a major campaign issue, but it would be interesting if Rubio emerges as the nominee and accuses the Democrats of not doing enough to further ties with New Delhi.
Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa