What India Will Be Watching for During John Kerry’s Visit

From June 23-25, John Kerry will visit India for the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue (SD) – his first visit to India as Secretary of State. The bilateral relationship has been relatively stable and strong. However, potential dangers lurk: drift, disillusionment and the dominance of differences. A key concern has been that the relationship will suffer from inattention: on the Indian side, because of limited bureaucratic and political capacity, and its domestic preoccupations; on the U.S. side, because of the lack of a crisis or a single high-profile initiative focusing bureaucratic and political attention, other more-pressing domestic and international concerns, and the return on its India investment more likely to come in the medium to long term. Kerry’s visit and indeed the SD have given, and will give, the U.S.-India relationship some much-needed high-level attention.

The wide-ranging delegation accompanying Kerry reflects the breadth and depth of the relationship and the range of discussion the two sides are expected to have. Below are four aspects on which Indian policymakers and observers will be looking for answers:

India’s West: Afghanistan and Pakistan were always going to be on the agenda, given the recent election of Nawaz Sharif as Pakistani prime minister and the impending drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2014. There have been long-standing concerns in India about the impact of the latter on Afghanistan, India’s role and interests in that country, as well as India-Pakistan relations. The announcement this past week of the establishment of an Afghan Taliban office in Doha, as well as a recent article in the Pakistani press about Kerry’s relationship with Pakistani army chief Gen. Kayani, and the role of Pakistan in facilitating the setting up of the office have brought these concerns to the fore. These developments have only fueled the traditional Indian fear that U.S. actions in the run-up to the drawdown will compromise Indian interests, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan. They have raised questions about the U.S. willingness to negotiate with the Taliban, the status and future of the preconditions or red lines that had earlier been laid down for any reconciliation process, and what Washington might promise Islamabad in exchange for its cooperation and role in bringing the Taliban to the table. There will be a lot of questions for the Secretary about the U.S. attitude on these subjects.

Discussion on a region of much interest to Kerry – the Middle East, or what India refers to as West Asia – is also likely to be of interest to India. The trip to India takes place in the wake of elections in Iran, as well as the U.S. announcement that it would increase assistance to opposition groups in Syria. U.S.-Iran relations and the fate of the sanctions regime against Iran are of much interest to India. While India has significantly reduced the amount of oil it imports from Iran, that country continues to be a key supplier for an India that likes to diversify its dependence on external actors. Furthermore, India sees Iran as a potential route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Therefore, how the U.S. perceives the election of Hassan Rouhani in Tehran will be of interest to Indian policymakers. As Zbigniew Brzezinski recently noted, India is also interested in developments in Syria and their impact on the broader Middle East. That region continues to be where India sources the bulk of the oil it consumes. It is also where a large number of Indians reside. Furthermore, India has critical relations with countries on all sides of the equation, including the Gulf States, Israel and Iran. Perhaps most significantly, India does not want to see a Shia-Sunni conflagration – with one of the largest Sunni and Shia populations in the world, India worries about such a conflict spreading to its shores.  

India’s East: Kerry’s visit to India comes a few months after he called for a “special relationship” with China and on the heels of the Obama-Xi “shirtsleeves summit,” which some have called China’s coming-out party as a great power. Like many others in Asia, observers in Delhi have been watching these developments on the China-U.S. front closely. Indian policymakers consider India’s bilateral relationships with China and the U.S. two of its most important ones. But policymakers also consider those two countries’ bilateral relations to be consequential for India and its interests. U.S. concerns about China are thought to have played a role in increasing its interest in India. In turn, Beijing is thought to take Delhi more seriously because Washington does. When China and the U.S. seem to get closer, however, this sparks concerns about the potential adverse impact on India. These are reflected in anxieties that China and the U.S. will form a G2 and make decisions on key issues in a way that will compromise or ignore India’s interests. Such a grouping gets dismissed in Washington, but remains a concern in various Asian capitals.

There are also questions about the fate of the pivot or the rebalance to Asia both on the economic and military fronts. Kerry’s confirmation hearing raised questions about his interest in the region, as well as his view of the rebalance. Indian observers also have questions about what role the U.S. thinks India should have in the Asia-Pacific and, along with Kerry, Adm. Samuel Locklear, PACOM commander, who is also on the trip, might provide some answers. Observers will also be looking to see whether Kerry indicates support for Indian membership in APEC – a step that a number of Indian and American observers have been urging the U.S. to take.

Economics, Energy & the Environment: Unlike the China-U.S. annual dialogue, India and the U.S. have separate strategic and economic dialogues. However, economic issues are likely to be front and center at the upcoming dialogue – and not necessarily for positive reasons. As countries’ economic ties increase, often so do economic tensions. This has been true in the U.S.-India case. There are U.S. concerns about market access, intellectual property protection and the Indian investment climate and trade practices in general—concerns that have been getting attention on Capitol Hill. On the Indian side, there have been concerns, especially on the part of some companies, about the impact of U.S. immigration reform on their interests. In both cases, these issues are made all the more sensitive – and harder to deal with – because they crisscross foreign/domestic policymaking lines, with domestic politics playing a role.

On the energy side, Indian interest in the last few months was focused on the question of potential U.S. exports of LNG. The Department of Energy’s recent decision to approve another application for LNG export to non-FTA countries has heartened the Indian government, but it will have questions for Energy Secretary Moniz on future steps. There will also be interest in future cooperation in the clean(er) energy sector. The U.S. delegation is likely to be equally focused on the environment piece, with climate change being a major focus. It’s not been a subject of much U.S.-Indian agreement in the past. However, with President Obama’s emphasis on the subject in his inaugural address, Kerry’s own interest in it, Chinese commitments announced during the Obama-Xi summit and recent reports that Obama will announce a plan to combat climate change, there is interest in what the U.S. might ask of and expect from India on this front.

The Secretary: Kerry is no stranger to India, as he himself pointed out recently, but in some sense he’ll have to reintroduce himself to the country. In the public sphere, there has been some discussion about whether or not the secretary is pro-Pakistan or anti-India – the wrong question to ask, but one that, nonetheless, gets debated. Among Indian policymakers the question has been more about the Secretary’s level of interest in India – or indeed Asia broadly. It is not lost on observers there that Kerry’s trip seems sandwiched between trips to the Middle East. There is curiosity about whether and how India fits into Kerry’s worldview. With a number of personnel changes in the U.S., there are questions on this front with regard to Secretary of Defense Hagel and incoming National Security Advisor Susan Rice too, as well as where, if at all, India figures on the second term Obama administration’s priority list.

There will be no doubt be other areas of discussion and interest – education, defense, development, science and technology, cyber-security and homeland security – but, thus far, the expectations for the trip are fairly low. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – high expectations have after all been known to cause problems in the relationship. What the trip does offer both sides is the opportunity to take stock and talk substance on various issues, as well as to re-emphasize their commitment to the relationship.