Differences persist

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to India for the fourth bilateral strategic dialogue came at a crucial time.

Relations between the two countries are in a state of drift for the past four years and both sides would have been looking to the dialogue to breathe fresh momentum into the partnership. The visit came just a week after Washington’s attempts at initiating talks with the Taliban created a furore not just in Kabul but other regional capitals including Delhi.

A political office the Taliban set up in Qatar with the US’ blessings was an issue of grave concern to Delhi.  It raised questions whether the US, anxious to exit from Afghanistan next year, was sealing a Pakistan-facilitated deal with the Taliban. The face-to-face interaction with Kerry was seen in South Block as an opportunity to clear the air. During the visit Kerry assured the Indian government that the US would be sensitive to India’s concerns and act only after “consulting India and other regional powers.” While this is heartening,
Washington will have to go beyond verbal assurances to convince New Delhi.

Consultations must go beyond mere provision of information post-facto. They must be substantive.
The coming months will see enhanced engagement at the highest level between India and the US. Vice President Joe Biden will be in India next month. It appears that the Americans are stepping on the gas to ensure that the stalled India-US nuclear agreement makes substantial progress and soon.

If the joint statement issued at the end of the third strategic dialogue spoke of “full implementation” of the nuclear agreement, this time it emphasises “timely implementation.” At Delhi, Kerry clarified that “timely implementation” would mean execution of the civilian nuclear deal ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US in September.

Kerry’s visit reveals a chasm between India and the US, notwithstanding the fact that they claim to be strategic partners. The joint statement avoided mention of some major issues, underscoring the lack of agreement on them. While Kerry issued statements on Washington’s talks with the Taliban, the joint statement was silent on the matter.

Neither did it mention US support for permanent membership for India in a reformed UN Security Council, a point that has found mention in joint statements with other countries. Much work is needed to give this ‘strategic partnership’ substance.

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