Kerry visit fails to enthuse, sluggish ties continue

About six months after becoming the US Secretary of State, John Kerry landed  in New Delhi to carry forward the strategic partnership between the US and India. His visit failed to create much excitement in India and the scant media coverage indicated that India had very little expectation from Kerry’s visit. Similar was the situation during the first six month of the first Obama Administration when doubt over the longevity of Indo-US strategic partnership was dominant in the thinking of Indian strategic community.

Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Delhi in July 2009 erased many misgivings from the Indian mind. Clinton set at rest uncertainty over implementation of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and the Indian apprehension that the new Obama Administration would revive its non-proliferation agenda, and by implication, the fate of the 123 agreement will hang in the balance.
 
Before Kerry arrived in Delhi, many in India and the US had developed a feeling that the momentum in this bilateral relations had met with a logjam.

Respective domestic politics had gripped both President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thus disabling them from nurturing the bourgeoning defence and security ties and trade and investment relations between the two countries.
Slow recovery of the US economy and too little forward movement in Indian economic reforms were also responsible for lacklustre partnership between India and the US. In addition, there were diplomatic differences between Washington and New Delhi on host of issues involving developments in Syria, Iran, China and Afghanistan.

In the backdrop of an apparent sluggishness in the bilateral relationship, Secretary Kerry visited Delhi. His focus was on selling the American idea of tackling climate change, marketing US energy resources and technology in the energy sector and assuring India that the peace processes aimed at ending US and Nato military operations in Afghanistan would take into account Indian concerns. 

Although John Kerry emphasised that India-US trade had increased five times in a decade, several US corporations and traders had approached him before his departure to Delhi with complaints about inadequate opportunities in India to do business and slow pace of economic reforms. The US nuclear industry too was dismayed over lack of progress in implementation of the 123 agreement largely due to the Indian Liability Act. The US arms industry and the Pentagon were already discontented about the Indian decision to keep the American companies out of the tender to sell 126 multirole aircraft.

Major worries

On the Indian side, hike in the visa fee for IT professionals, pending new immigration bill in the US congress that  could affect Indian IT sector, the decision to directly hold talks with the dreaded Taliban forces in Afghanistan and the uncertainty over the fallout of US withdrawal from Afghanistan were the major worries.

Kerry made a good diplomatic effort to convince his counterpart that the “strategic partnership” is very much on track. He reiterated the Obama Administration’s support for India’s membership in the UN Security Council and non-proliferation regimes, India’s critical role in the Asia “pivot” strategy, and joint US-Indian efforts for evolving security and economic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.  Delivering a speech, he said little on China’s assertiveness but promoted the idea of US-China-India cooperation in tackling climate change.

He pressed for Indo-Pakistan economic and trade cooperation for peace, stability and development in South Asia. Kerry’s assurances about considering Indian concerns while negotiating peace with the Taliban can be accepted with a large pinch of salt. India has been kept out of the Afghan peace process, Pakistan vehemently opposes inclusion of India in the dialogue process and the US itself does not have very many leverages over the Taliban.

India’s problem lies in the fact that it is not prepared to dialogue with the Taliban. India has developed cordial ties with the Hamid Karzai Government that has been fighting the Taliban insurgency for years. The big question is: will India change its policy after Karzai government begins negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban? If Indian reservations about the Taliban continue even after the Americans, the present Afghan Government and Pakistan seek a compromise deal on Afghan peace, there is no way India can run away from the large possibility of direct or indirect role of the Taliban in the formation of the next Afghan government.

India has to debate seriously its role in the Indo-Pacific and Asia “pivot” strategy of the US. India can neither afford US-China cold war nor Sino-US condominium in the region. Accepting a role in the emerging American strategy is almost certain to rub China on the wrong side. Rejecting any role may please China, but will certainly not lead to any great friendship with China. Maturing strategic partnership with the US needs more intense and careful examination.  

(The writer is Chairperson, US Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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