Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai told me in an interview last week that the only change he expected in India-US relations in the second term of President Barack Obama was that they would be “normal”, not “novel” anymore. The relationship had become stable, wide-ranging and mutually beneficial, with a large number of working groups contributing to its growth. The gains of the strategic dialogue in 2012 would be consolidated and expanded. Economic relations, described not long ago as flat like a “chappati” now looked more like a “poori”, he said.
We cannot be so sanguine about the next round of strategic dialogue primarily because the United States delegation will not be led by the familiar and friendly Hillary Clinton, but the new secretary of state, John Kerry, whose reputation on the Hill does not augur well for India. He has the makings of a non-proliferation ayatollah and a Pakistan enthusiast. Among the senators and congressmen, whom we met to explain the Indian position on the 1998 tests, Kerry stood out as the most negative. He was convinced that India had made a grave error by testing and that it should be reversed under the pressure of sanctions. He eventually supported the India-US nuclear agreement and also led a business delegation to India.
Kerry is known to be particularly friendly to Pakistan and he has been stressing the need for India to continue the dialogue with Pakistan, regardless of terrorist attacks and ceasefire violations. During his confirmation hearings, he declined to make US aid to Islamabad conditional to the release of Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who helped find Osama bin Laden. Pakistan had not gotten ‘credit sufficiently for the fact that they were helpful’, by allowing the Americans to search for Osama. Kerry said that he intended to raise the issue with Islamabad, but thought it would be unwise to cut assistance given Pakistan’s importance as a supply route to Afghanistan. “We need to build our relationship with the Pakistanis, not diminish it,” he said. He had no chance to speak on India because no question was asked on India at the confirmation hearings.
As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, he had said some time ago that India-US ties were “without doubt one of the most significant partnerships in US foreign policy.” Reflecting Obama’s own words about the significance of the relationship, he said “There are fewer relationships that will be as vital in the 21st century as our growing ties with India and its people.”
Kerry has already set the stage for the strategic dialogue by telephoning external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, in response to the latter’s message of congratulations, and telling him that he was looking forward to the visit. He recalled his past visit to India to promote business relations between the two countries. Kerry has, in other words, signalled that he would follow the Obama line on India and not be prejudiced by his own inclination towards Pakistan. Like Hillary Clinton, who adopted the Obama worldview once she lost her bid for the Democratic candidature for president, Kerry may also follow his master’s voice than his own.
Kerry and Khurshid will, however, find the going tough during the strategic dialogue more on real strategic issues that have arisen since last year than on purely bilateral matters. Primarily, Kerry will seek India’s cooperation in the increased US engagement in Asia Pacific. As former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has noted, there is “a potentially destabilising asymmetry between the emerging economic architecture and the lack of consensus on what the emerging security architecture should look like.” India has already opted for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China rather than the US sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excludes China. Ambassador Nirupama Rao said recently that India would welcome the US engagement in what she called “Asia of the Indo-Pacific” on the basis of a vision of “all powers in Asia and beyond work together to address the traditional and non-traditional challenges and to create a basis for a stable and prosperous Asia.”
Kerry will press for more forthright support from India for the intended rebalancing, considering our own problems with China. The success of the strategic dialogue will depend on the leeway that the US detects in the Indian position. One bargain we should seek in this context is India’s membership of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), from which India was deliberately excluded. While ASEAN should remain at the centre of the economic and security architecture in the region, our interests will be better secured with a greater understanding with the US.
Afghanistan could be an area, in which India may be able to secure guarantees for a post 2014 scenario in exchange for greater accommodation in Asia Pacific. The tendency of the US to exclude India from the dialogue on a future dispensation may prove costly for India. A possible return of Taliban as part of the new government in Kabul will be the beginning of the end of our involvement in Afghanistan. Indications that the US might be present in some form in Afghanistan may be welcome, but increase in violence may result in its sudden withdrawal.
The Arab world would receive attention in the dialogue. While both countries are in favour of democratic movements, the outcome has caused anxiety to both. India shares with the US a special interest in the stability of the Gulf and an exchange of ideas cannot but be beneficial.
The US had already indicated last year the ways in which the irritants such as the nuclear liability law and the purchase of fighter aircraft from Europe could be dealt with. Though the way out of the liability law has not been revealed so far, both sides have been optimistic on this score and tangible progress has been made in preparing the ground for the US nuclear sites. Much headway has been made in expanding defence cooperation. A review of the working groups will show much progress in cooperation in energy, education, agriculture and anti-terrorism. The next big development in bilateral relations is still elusive. For that very reason, a second visit by Obama to India may not be an outcome of the talks.
Both Kerry and Khurshid are new to the strategic dialogue, but the change in personalities may not make much of a difference as long as their principals remain committed. If anything, Khurshid’s extraordinary skills may make up for the absence of Hillary Clinton.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA.