Trade in focus at hearing for Trump's nominee as ambassador to India

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators stressed trade and other business issues when questioning President Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to India at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, while expressing strong support for posting him to New Delhi.

Trump nominated Kenneth Juster as ambassador to India on Sept. 1. The 64-year-old, an economic adviser in his administration, also served as under secretary of Commerce under former Republican President George W. Bush.

Known as an expert on India, Juster was praised by both Trump’s fellow Republicans, who control Congress, and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, although they raised some of the issues complicating relations.

Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” platform, has forcefully expressed his displeasure with the growing U.S. trade deficit with India. He has also called for reform of the H1B visa system that has benefited Indian tech firms.

Indian officials reject suggestions that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” platform is protectionist and complain in turn about U.S. regulations on products such as generic drugs and fruit.

Senator Bob Corker, the panel’s chairman, said he was frustrated with the slow pace of India’s economic reforms.

Republican Senator Rob Portman, a former U.S. Trade Representative, struck a similar note, saying he has “deep concerns” about market access in India for some U.S. products and services.

“We need to continue pressing forward, make sure that India adheres to its WTO (World Trade Organization) obligations and that we can push the range of economic issues,” Portman said.

Senator Ben Cardin, the panel’s top Democrat, said India had not been as strong as it could have been in enforcing sanctions laws.

Juster said he would make business issues a priority in New Delhi, but also promised to work with New Delhi on issues such as North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, counter terrorism and working with India toward security in Afghanistan.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis held talks in India last week, seeking India’s greater involvement in helping stabilize Afghanistan, as the Trump administration steps up pressure on Pakistan to do more against militants operating from its soil.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked Juster about H1B visas, but he said he was not in a position to characterize the administration’s current position. The U.S. mission in India processes more visas than any other.

A vote on Juster’s confirmation has not been scheduled. Corker called him “extraordinarily well-qualified,” and said he hoped he would be confirmed quickly. Cardin praised his “incredible credentials.”

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Phil Berlowitz