As External Affairs Minister, Shri Salman Khurshid is set to host US Secretary of State, John Kerry, on his first visit to New Delhi from June 23rd to 25th, there is increasing debate on the key agenda issues that are likely to be discussed. The atmospherics and personal rapport will remain one of the key take away this being Kerry’s first visit to India as Secretary of State, and his first meeting with the External Affairs Minister, since both of them assumed their respective offices.
Kerry has visited India before as a Senator and as Chair of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Secretary Kerry is seen by some in India as not as warm towards New Delhi as his predecessor Ms. Hillary Clinton and one who is rather fond of the leadership in Pakistan particularly so the Army top brass in Rawalpindi. Thus it would take him some effort now that he has to have an even handed relationship between South Asia’s two troubled neighbors. Kerry also has to deal with another American foreign policy problem in the region Afghanistan Pakistan relations and how this will satisfy Washington’s long term partner India. Thus delicate balancing in personal preferences and strategic necessities is in the offing.
In his remarks before starting from Washington, Kerry described Indo-US strategic dialogue as one of the critical issues on the US foreign policy agenda. “It’s (the strategic dialogue) is one that demonstrates our firm belief that a strong India is in America's national interest. The United States not only welcomes India as a rising power, we fervently support it,” Kerry said in his nearly five minute video message, “That's why President Obama (Barack) and I support India's inclusion as a member, a permanent member, of a reformed and expanded United Nations Security Council (UNSC),” as an opening message before start of the visit.
For Mr. Khurshid, India’s Oxford educated External Affairs Minister the going may be easier as he has fitted into the job reasonably well with his soft pedaling nature which described a recent transgression by China in Ladakh as, “acne.” The Secretary of State will be meeting Prime Minister on Monday the 24th.
Mr. Vikram Doraiswami, Joint Secretary (Americas) in Indian Ministry of External Affairs gave a flavor of what is set to come about during the fourth round of the Annual Strategic Dialogue between the United States and India. While the main agenda of the dialogue will be to review progress in bilateral relations and ties over the past year and exchange views on regional and international issues, the focus will be in expanding cooperation in the areas of defense and security, trade and investment, science and technology, clean energy and environment.
Some of the key issues on the table are likely to be counter terrorism cooperation, cyber security, energy security, education particularly higher education, Afghanistan, space, nuclear liability law and the contentious one of US surveillance that has been raised by the revelations by American cyber sleuth, Edward Snowden.
The Secretary of State is traveling with a high-level delegation which includes the new Secretary for Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz. Also, the rest of the delegation includes the Science and Technology Administrator, the NASA Director, the USAID Director, the Pacific Commander Admiral Locklear, and senior officials from the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and so on.
On consultations on regional architecture in Asia the issues to be debated are likely to be the new mechanisms with which ASEAN deals with the countries of East Asia, with India, with the extra-regional great powers like the United States and Russia, that includes the East Asia Summit process, the Asian Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus Process, and the ASEAN Regional Forum. So, all these areas are now areas in which India and the United States are actually sort of associated partners in a sense as per Mr. Doraiswami.
Afghanistan is likely to be one of the core issues which may need some debate. India is interested to listen to the US since they are one of the lead players in the transition process in the country particularly the talks with the Taliban.
Indian official position as indicated by the Official Spokesperson on the talks with the Taliban is,
“Government of India has always called for a broad-based Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled reconciliation process, within the framework of the Afghan Constitution and the internationally accepted red lines. Such a process would necessarily recognize the centrality of the Government of Afghanistan in the process, and involve all sections of the Afghan society, as also the insurgent groups, including the Taliban, who wish to join the mainstream. The reconciliation process should not seek to create equivalence between an internationally recognized Government of Afghanistan and insurgent groups, confer legitimacy to insurgent groups or convey the impression of two competing state authorities for Afghanistan, which could undermine the legitimate Afghan State, Afghan Government and the political, social and economic progress witnessed in Afghanistan over the past decade, to which the international community itself has contributed in great measure”.
On visas, India is restricting the conversation to specificity of the US laws that apply to the temporary movement of highly-skilled personnel under H1B visa, which is highly-skilled nonimmigrant visas, and the movement of people on business intercompany transfers, which are L category visas in the US system. India feels that these are actually trade and economic relations matters rather than visa matters. It is not a consular matter.
In terms of nuclear liability law another contentious issue Mr. Doraiswami was clear when he stated that India is willing to engage in explaining the law to anybody who has specific queries but does not expect to change the law. Thus there can be only clarity and a common ground on the implementation of the law in terms of nuclear business, and nothing more.
Most interesting will be the engagement by Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command who in the American chain forms the defence link with India. Mr. K P Nayar, Daily Telegraph, Kolkata senior foreign policy correspondent based in Washington states in an article in the newspaper of 22 June that Admiral Locklear is likely to discuss with the Indian leadership the possibility of, “letting Indian forces use on a trial basis American equipment that is normally not given to non-treaty partners”.
The American gambit is that once the Indian military uses this equipment it would be attracted to buy the same thereby opening defense sales to India which at present are languishing at a total of about US $ 8 billion or so. As per Nayar an arrangement agreed upon between US Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon the trial afforded to Indian military will overcome the challenges faced in US legislation on arms exports. Will this lead to more sales remains to be seen, for the Americans and also other foreign sellers have underestimated the complexity of India’s procurement system which is multilayered?
Another contentious issue is the revelations by American whistle blower, Edward Snowden on worldwide electronic surveillance by the United States. India is the fifth most snooped on country in the world at one point despite claims of extensive security cooperation between New Delhi and Washington which has irked South Block and is thus due to flag the matter for discussion during Kerry’s visit. Though Mr. Doraiswami conveniently avoided a question fielded during the media interaction on the subject.
All in all the first Indo US strategic dialogue led by Mr. Salman Khurshid and Mr. John Kerry may not produce any earthshaking breakthroughs but would only firm up upward trajectory of Indo US relations that to Americans seems to be moving at an elephantine pace and one which may set in, “India fatigue”. Indians are however confident that the huge market afforded by over 500 million Indian middle class with limited domestic capability in manufacturing and services would imply that the country will remain an attractive destination for US business and consequently top leadership as the Secretary of State year after year.