By Ambassador Paramjit Saha, Former Indian Ambassador and Faculty Member, Diplo and CRRID.
John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State visited India during June 23-25 to participate in the 4th India-US Strategic Dialogue. This was not only his first visit to India after assumption of his new charge, but also first visit by an important US dignitary, after the commencement of the second term of the Obama Presidency. This was also to be his first encounter with his Indian counterpart, Salman Khurshid, who had also recently taken up his post as India’s External Affairs Minister. The visit was, therefore, loaded with expectations as well as an opportunity to ‘size up’ the new Secretary of State. The visit’s importance was enhanced, as it followed the visits of the Chinese Prime Minister to India in May 2013 and that of the Indian Prime Minister to Japan in early June.
In India, the visit was a part of the process to take forward the India-USA relationship, which was perceived to have turned ‘flat’. This relationship is considered to be one of India’s ‘more intense and more in-depth partnerships’, having a multifaceted cooperative governmental network, covering a number of areas. It had a number of thematic pillars, covering bilateral economic and security aspects, political consultations on regional and other issues, exchange of views on global issues and evolving regional security architecture.
From the American side, the visit was loaded with expectations, as the leadership had come under pressure from the US Congress and Business leadership, to ensure delivery of commercial projects under India-US Civil Nuclear deal, greater access to Indian markets and better protection of intellectual property rights. The Snowden cloud, of US snooping into India was also hovering over the visit, as India reportedly was placed fifth among the countries, which had come under surveillance.
India-USA economic and commercial links, however, define the bilateral relationship. It was, therefore, not surprising that John Kerry was accompanied by a large business delegation and other senior officials. While noting the growth of bilateral trade which had touched US $ 100 billion, he highlighted the need for reduction of trade barriers, as he pushed for a bilateral investment treaty. USA got assurances on a commercial agreement on civil nuclear energy project, likely to be arrived at by September 2013. India, on its part, placed its concerns over the H1B and L1 visas for its IT industry, as the same would have impact on growing commercial linkages.
On the emerging Asian Security Architecture, the leaders took note of the US role, which was more of ‘rebalancing’ rather than a ‘pivot’ and was, therefore, not likely to raise concerns, as it was not aimed at against other powers. On Afghanistan, Kerry tried to allay India’s concerns on the involvement of the Talibans, by stating that this was an Afghan led process and negotiations would proceed after fulfillment of certain conditions. He said that he would ‘ensure that none of the concerns of India are overlooked or undermined’. He saw a role for India and other regional powers.
On Iran, Kerry acknowledged India’s efforts in reducing dependency on Iranian oil, while wanting India to play a role in preventing Iran from going to the nuclear path. On the Snowden issue, Kerry managed to get Indian understanding, with Salman Khurshid making a distinction between getting ‘access to content of communication’ and studying ‘of computer software patterns of communications’. This is a fine theoretical distinction, but is likely to fall flat, whenever it gets tested in practice.
Another important component of the visit was its linkage to the development of ties in the field of education and human resource development. This was to further advance the ‘Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative’ of 2009, by focusing on ‘innovation’. There is now a growing connectivity between India and the United States at the level of students, academia and educational institutions. This results in greater connectivity among peoples, turning them in to Ambassadors, while they receive knowledge through various initiatives, which are acquiring a structural basis.
How commitments would be converted in to deliverables, by USA on Afghanistan and by India on civil nuclear energy commercial project? This would be the key challenge, as everything is not within the pale of governments, as they contend with other demanding interests and pressure groups. It would also depend on how India and USA negotiate a new Asian Security Architecture, without upsetting China.
The comments on the visit varied between ‘what was missing’ and the ’significant ground covered’. The Kerry visit was seen as a positive step in the India-US relationship, which is considered a ‘Defining Partnership for the 21st Century’ by President Obama. It was not expected to be a sensational one, as no new big ticket projects were expected to be announced. An incremental growth and not sensationalism is to guide the course of relationship, between the ‘world’s oldest democracy’ and the ‘world’s largest democracy’, which were earlier considered ‘estranged democracies’. It was in the nature of consolidation of existing areas of cooperation as well as exploration of new horizons in the energy sector. India and USA view each other as ‘natural strategic partners’, but the strength of the relationship lies in its getting sustenance that comes from ‘vibrant diaspora’, ‘vibrant free press’ and ‘civil societies’, as alluded to by Kerry.