Kerry in India: Steady Steps toward Partnership

From Wikimedia, Dept of State photo, Secretary Kerry and Minister Khurshid

June 25, 2013: On his maiden voyage to India as secretary of state, John Kerry put his own stamp on an ambitious agenda for reinvigorating U.S. – India ties and strengthening the staying power that this high-maintenance relationship requires.  The next few months will feature further high-level contacts: in July, the Indian ministers of commerce and finance will visit Washington and Vice President Joe Biden will go to New Delhi; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travels to Washington in September. The challenge for the United States will be to build on the issues that Kerry stressed – the economic relationship, but also Afghanistan and Pakistan, and furthering our engagement in East Asia. This series of action-forcing events should reinfuse the India-U.S. partnership with more of the “can do” spirit that brought about the 2008 nuclear deal.

Strategic Dialogues between the United States and India in recent years have not electrified the news cycle, but keeping the ship of state steady is valuable in its own right. Kerry postponed two other international visits to attend to the crisis in Syria, but kept his commitment in New Delhi. He had an experienced and sophisticated opposite number in India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid.

Both men set the right tone for the occasion. Kerry’s remarks soon after his arrival sketched out a lofty vision of what India and the United States could accomplish by working together, focusing especially on environmental issues but also on economics and security. Khurshid, in an eloquent op-ed in the New York Times’s India Ink, traced the history and the building blocks for the relationship, arguing that it needed “a sense of adventure” to realize its potential.

The discussions themselves took note of a dizzying array of bilateral dialogues, attested to by no fewer than 10 “factsheets” released by the U.S. government. These are important channels for connections between officials and ordinary people across two enormous and diverse countries. The discussion on economic and commercial relations, which the United States had billed as the centerpiece of the discussions, seems to have been disappointing. According to Indian press reports, senior officials told Kerry that issues requiring Indian legislative action were unlikely to move forward before the elections, due by May 2014. Most of the items on the U.S. commercial agenda fall into this category (such as the long-delayed increase in foreign direct investment caps for the insurance industry). And Kerry basically deflected India’s plea that the administration beat back provisions in the coming debate on an immigration bill that would penalize Indian IT companies and workers. This issues will be reviewed when the CEO Forum meets in July. The environmental discussions, which got top billing in Kerry’s arrival speech, found a common chord in Khurshid’s op-ed, but did not produce any headlines.  By contrast, the news that Westinghouse had finally started negotiations on an early works agreement for a prospective U.S.-supplied nuclear reactor was welcome, though the road ahead will at best be long and filled with potholes.

High level attention is like oxygen for U.S.-India relations, so the upcoming visits provide big, important opportunities to follow up what Kerry and Khurshid began. The two governments should aim at two things: some concrete agreements as well as a strong sense of direction on the long list of economic issues; and a dose of candor, realism, respect, and top level understanding on the two major international issues Kerry and Khurshid discussed, Afghanistan/Pakistan and East Asian security.

Economic ties are a key foundation for the rest of the U.S.-India relationship, and unless they keep growing there is a real danger of drift. Before the Strategic Dialogue, the U.S. administration received no fewer than twelve letters from members of congress, with signatures from over half the membership. U.S. politicians want to build up relations with India, but they are getting restive. Between now and the prime minister’s visit, the two governments should identify for accelerated action a couple of concrete issues that can be resolved without parliamentary action. High on that list would be a moratorium on new local content requirements – it seems that new requirements come out every few days – and replacing them with a much more selective and less burdensome policy. Other examples might include clarifying confusing and contradictory statements on business taxation, and taking some larger steps toward actual nuclear commerce. Streamlining both countries’ policies and procedures on defense procurement could benefit both sides.

Beyond these specific “deliverables,” the prime minister and the president need to give the economic relationship the kind of leadership commitment that made possible the nuclear agreement – a “sense of adventure,” as Salman Khurshid wrote in his op-ed. One way to do that would be to give a major high level push to the long-stalled idea of negotiating a broad economic agreement that can serve as the vehicle for a real expansion of economic ties. Both sides have spent time perfecting their model Bilateral Investment Treaties. But these will inevitably have differences. With a push from the top, both governments can move from the quest for a perfect draft to a joint search for an agreement that will dramatically facilitate trade and investment on both sides of the ocean. Both sides would need to put together a package that addressed each other’s big concerns, such as immigration and intellectual property. Without it, the path forward will be full of mutual frustration.

To supplement this burst of economic energy, the leadership in both countries needs to extend the strategic conversation that has been going on for some years, recognizing the areas where our concerns may differ, but discussing candidly how we can work in parallel to achieve important common goals.

Regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan, all eyes are on the U.S. drawdown in 2014. India has deep concerns about the role of Pakistan and the impact of Afghan-based extremists on terrorism in India. Their nightmare is dominant Pakistani influence in Kabul, facilitated by a timid U.S. policy. India’s worries are mirrored by Pakistan’s fear of an “Indian pincer movement,” generated by Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Kerry in Delhi spoke about U.S. hopes that India could support Afghanistan’s economy and its ability to conduct decent elections in 2014. During the Obama years, U.S. policy has become much more welcoming toward a continuing Indian role in Afghanistan, including a security relationship. The United States and India share a common goal – a reasonably peaceful and stable Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the path is anything but clear. The United States will have to work with Pakistan. Its cooperation would transform the process and in any case geography and politics make it easy for Pakistan to play the spoiler. U.S. leaders need to talk about this with the Indian leadership, but also to share candidly their concerns about Pakistan’s relationship with extremist organizations and how they hope to reduce the dangers. The U.S. underestimates the difficulty of persuading India and Pakistan to step back from their thinly veiled confrontation in Afghanistan, but India and the United States can to a better job of identifying how their policies can reinforce one another. The hoped-for trade opening to Pakistan offers tantalizing possibilities – but we should not look for a role in this dialogue: quiet support will be more effective.

Common ground is easier to identify when it comes to the Indo-Pacific region. Kerry made a point of saying that the India was a key part of the U.S. rebalance in Asia. Two years of close consultations by senior officials have made the foreign policy machinery in India and the United States comfortable with this idea. India’s security and economic relations with East Asia have been growing for a decade and more. Despite this progress, commentary during the recent U.S.-China summit suggested that Indians worry about being upstaged by a rising China in Washington policymakers’ eyes.

The remedy is in Delhi’s hands. Rather than wait for the United States to reaffirm India’s importance, India’s leadership needs to take the initiative in increasing its salience for U.S. Asia policy – and reminding their U.S. counterparts of it. India shouldn’t wait to be asked before deepening its participation in regional institutions and bringing the United States regularly brought up to date on its interests, policies and concerns. The United States and India both want to help build a network of friendly and self-confident states to assure the peace and prosperity of Asia. The more substantive and candid India’s dialogue with the United States on the future of this strategically vital region, and the deeper its engagement there, the more important India will become to U.S. strategic thinking about how this network should develop.

One could easily expand this list. But further progress on the ingredients mentioned above are vital if the United States and India are to complete the task they started fifteen years ago: developing a working model for a vibrant strategic partnership of great importance to both.

Teresita C. and Howard B. Schaffer

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