John Kerry, the US’ secretary of state, arrives in India for the fifth India-US strategic dialogue to be held in New Delhi on Wednesday. India-US ties have, in recent years, been marked by lofty rhetoric, high ambition, intensive engagement and underwhelming outcomes. US President Barack Obama described the India-relationship as one of the “defining partnerships” of the 21st century.
Both sides share perspectives on issues like China and Afghanistan and consult on a range of subjects including strategic cooperation, counterterrorism, science and technology, health, education, energy and climate change.
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Bilateral trade is worth $100 billion and there are hopes of attaining $500 billion. Around 100,000 Indian students study in the US; India is a major weapons importer while investments by Indian companies create jobs in America. And yet there is a discernible sense of dissatisfaction about bilateral ties.
This has to do with the bumps that have emerged recently, which Mr Kerry and the Indian political leadership need to get past. The Edward Snowden revelations about the US’ snooping activities, which included spying on the BJP, are an irritant.
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Atmospherics were marred over the case against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade and the confrontational approach that New Delhi took late last year. Mr Kerry will want to discern Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outlook towards Washington, as he’s an Indian leader more personally acquainted with China than the US.
Washington will also want to gauge the appetite for reform in New Delhi, which they see as key for unlocking American investment in India. Mr Kerry pointed to this in a speech on Monday: “If India’s government delivers on its plans to support greater space for private initiative, if it creates greater openness for capital flows, if it limits subsidies that stifle competition, if it provides strong intellectual property rights, believe me, even more American companies will come to India.”
For now though, Mr Kerry and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj have to contend with bilateral differences on several key issues. American companies continue to complain about India’s nuclear liability law.
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Both sides differ on climate change and India’s stance on the trade facilitation agreement at the WTO, which New Delhi refuses to endorse unless its food security policies are protected. Washington has also put India on a watchlist of countries that don’t do enough to protect US intellectual property.
These issues can only be resolved through close political attention and assiduous bureaucratic deal-making. The Kerry visit is a good opportunity for both to discern if the other side is game for the torturous road ahead.