An old relationship in a new climate

Allaying Indian concerns is necessary so that India does not take counter-measures in combination with Russia, or even Iran

US secretary of state John Kerry finally arrived in India on June 23, four and a half months after assuming office, for the fourth India-US strategic dialogue. From the euphoria of the last decade this was a delayed attempt to infuse some enthusiasm into a relationship flagging due to the altered domestic agendas of both and the US’ preoccupation with wrapping up its intervention in Afghanistan and addressing new crises in West Asia.

Moreover China, a factor tilting former US President George Bush towards India, was being re-engaged by the US, its “Asian Pivot” rechristened as “rebalancing”.
The strategic dialogue was created for a yearly review of a diverse relationship. In 2012 there were 112 senior and high-level visits between the two nations. There are eight fact sheets updating the status of cooperation in science and technology, culture, economic engagement, health, space and higher education. But foreign ministers do not just meet to receive audit reports of departments. While undoubtedly larger issues of concern to either side were discussed, Mr Kerry used two platforms to argue his case: a public address at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi and a joint press conference after the talks. Following are the bigger issues that were lurking to be discussed.
First was the revival of Indian fears that Pakistan was beginning to drive the US’ Afghanistan policy and was behind the recent opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar. However, the manner of its opening, i.e. hoisting of the old Taliban flag and the affixing of a plaque proclaiming it as literally the embassy of the old Taliban regime made Afghan President Hamid Karzai to correctly denounce it and call off talks with the US on the issue of US troops in Afghanistan post-2014. India, too, reacted sharply through the spokesman of the ministry of external affairs. Mr Kerry, who arrived via Doha, obviously ensured some roll-back of the provocative acts. In the joint press conference, it was Salman Khurshid, India’s external affairs minister, who explained that Indian concerns “would not be overlooked or undermined”. The US was obviously trying to ensure that India remains on board while they calibrate their Afghan exit. The US special representative for AfPak, James Dobbins, is arriving this week to further brief India. Allaying Indian concerns is necessary so that India does not take counter-measures in combination with Russia, or even Iran.
Mr Kerry assured that the red lines — Taliban accept the Afghan Constitution, sever links to Al Qaeda and promise that Afghan soil will not be used to export terror — would not be compromised.
Secondly, the US’ cribbing over Indian lethargy in opening Indian markets to their goods and services while ignoring Indian concerns about the US employing immigration policy for protectionism was discussed. Mr Kerry plugged for a bilateral investment treaty, probably raised the Indian intellectual property protection law, which India claims is TRIPS compliant, and pushed and got a September deadline for the nuclear reactor agreement between Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. It is not clear how the government proposes to dilute the nuclear liability law to the extent the US seeks.
Surprisingly, when Mr Kerry envisioned three futures for India-US relations resting on the planet’s climatic stability, security and economic relations, he reverted to climate change repeatedly. For a nation that refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, containing developed nations’ commitments, the new-found evangelism was surprising. Apparently, a slowing US economy, milder winter and shifting to shale gas from coal for power production has actually brought the US in 2012 in compliance with Kyoto commitments, as carbon dioxide emissions in the US are lower than in 1997. The India-US Clean Energy initiative, vital for technology transfer and financing, can enable India to balance its energy needs, developmental priorities and climate change imperatives.
On terrorism India would have preferred some public pressure on Pakistan, considering the recent dole by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Mr Kerry instead lectured on the new silk route, connectivity via Pakistan of South Asia to Central Asia, finally recommending for India and Pakistan to “invest in each other”. He sensed a new dynamic in Pakistan for economic recovery following the victory of Nawaz Sharif. There are some in India who may share Mr Kerry’s vision, but most would await
Mr Sharif first working out his relationships with the Army and militants. The attack on unarmed Indian soldiers in Srinagar during Mr Kerry’s visit to the country was a reminder of the complexities that defy philosophical yearnings.
The elephant in the room was China. At the Habitat Centre Mr Kerry did bring it up by saying that India was a key part of the “re-balancing in Asia”. The recent Sino-US summit in shirt sleeves in California is a tentative beginning to what China calls a new kind of great power relationship. Queering the pitch was the Snowden affair, whose revelations took the bite out of US haranguing of China about cyber theft of US technologies. Replying to a question about its impact on relations with Russia and China, Mr Kerry said the consequences were inevitable.
Clearly this was a new secretary of state, reflecting new US priorities. There is still immense promise in India-US relations, but both sides have electoral and other distractions. This is a time for consolidation, ring-fencing of irritants and, like China, India, too, crafting a new kind of relationship. Vice-president Joe Biden’s visit, as a precursor to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s subsequent Washington trip should be used not to press for what the US demands or India expects but what both require to do for a stable and secure Asia-Pacific.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry.

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