Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mr Kerry in India

Salman Haidar
The Statesman - August5, 2014

Internationally, this has not been a comfortable period for the United States. Cascading crises in different parts of the world threaten to undo what was achieved not so long ago under US aegis, at great cost of blood and treasure.

Destructive fundamentalist and authoritarian forces that seemed to have been firmly repressed have revived in more malevolent form than ever, and rebels now feel strong enough to challenge state structures in open combat. 

The perpetually simmering Israel-Palestine dispute has flared up again and the world has been shocked by the sight of massed Israeli armoured attacks on Gaza resulting in huge civilian casualties. Even in the USA, normally unquestioning in its support of Israel, domestic opinion is not as sympathetic as usual and unease has been expressed about the violence inflicted on Gaza.

At the same time, the USA is affected by the civil strife in Ukraine that has spilt out beyond the national boundary: Russia has become actively involved and is blamed for arming the rebels, thereby permitting atrocities like the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, an event that has shaken the world. 

The USA has imposed sanctions and the Europeans have followed in its train but Russia has not been outfaced and the confrontation between the contending parties remains unresolved.

Beyond these challenging crises there are other foreign policy issues to be added to the US litany of discontent, leading to a mood of public dissatisfaction that has rubbed off onto President Obama’s recent ratings. US State Secretary John Kerry’s visit to India thus took place at a time when US foreign policy preoccupations lay elsewhere and there was not much scope for the fresh initiatives that are now required to take the India-US relationship forward. 

Kerry himself has been on a virtually unceasing shuttle between trouble spots, trying to douse the fires and restore damaged diplomatic processes, and it says something for the priority he attaches to India that he found the opportunity in the midst of so many crises to call in at New Delhi. This was the first high-level contact between Washington and Modi’s government, so the main purpose for both was to get to know the other better, and to initiate preparations for the Indian PM’s visit to the USA later in the year. 

Given the numerous immediate challenges to be handled, Kerry’s visit was never going to be an occasion for re-telling familiar themes like the natural partnership between the two countries, of democracies bound by common values and eager to engage more closely with each other in many fields, especially economic. 

Indeed, the reiteration of such far-reaching concepts has been somewhat in abeyance recently and neither side has made much of projecting the other as its partner of choice for the future, something that was quite common just a short while ago.

The more restrained temper of recent exchanges has something to do with the fact that Indo-US ties have been going through an unexpectedly rough patch. 

The diplomatic contretemps relating to an Indian diplomat in New York did much to induce resentment on both sides, and the after-effects of the harsh exchanges of that time still linger. 

There are other disappointments also to be taken into account: the nuclear deal that was expected to bring a range of benefits has not delivered as much as was anticipated and while the deal remains a signal diplomatic advance in bilateral relations, its practical benefits have not been as sweeping as had been projected at the time. 

For reasons relating to its own internal procedures, the USA has been obliged to leave untenanted its embassy in New Delhi at an important time when a new government has taken over. Nor has India’s new government shown special haste in reaching out to the USA: from the swearing-in itself, priority has been accorded to the neighbourhood and the Prime Minister has made a point of visiting the closest neighbours before embarking on any other foreign trip, and he has taken several significant initiatives to develop regional ties. This is a useful set of priorities that for the moment seems to be the dominant theme of Indian policy.

A more delicate issue that has had an impact on bilateral relations is the US refusal to provide Modi with a visa at the time when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat and was accused of massive human rights violations. 

That particular issue has now taken a different turn with Modi being invited as PM to visit the USA, an invitation that he has accepted, so there are no practical consequences to be taken into account today, but yet there could be some residual effects affecting mutual confidence and goodwill.

There are thus quite a few matters to be ironed out in order to bring the two countries into proper alignment with each other and permit the further advance in their relationship that they desire. The Kerry visit can be expected to do much to restore mutual confidence. 

Unfortunately, the visit has also served to highlight a considerable difference between the two sides on a matter related to international trade, which has emphasized division even though it does not bear on their core relationship. 

India and the USA are at some distance from each other in the ongoing international negotiations on a comprehensive global trade treaty. It would seem that while he was in Delhi, Kerry pushed hard for Indian acceptance of the treaty text as it presently exists but India felt obliged to demur, considering that the text did not make proper provision for the food security programme that is central to its poverty alleviation strategy. As India’s holding out could upend the negotiations, there is pressure on New Delhi to find a compromise.

That may well happen in time but trade negotiations are notoriously tough to conclude and there can be no guarantee of an early end to the process. It seems odd, however, that this particular issue should have become the centrepiece of Kerry’s discussions in New Delhi: as events have shown, airing their predictable differences has done little to strengthen mutual confidence and could have detracted from the usefulness of the visit. 

Moreover, there is a further lurking multilateral issue, relating in this case to the environment, where comparable differences seem to have emerged.

Notwithstanding these features of his meetings in Delhi, Kerry’s visit merits welcome and it should do much to set the India-US relationship back on the rails. At the same time, it is evident that there is more work to be done if the top level meeting later this year is to set a new and more productive course for the future. 

(The writer is a former foreign secretary of India)

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