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Kerry visit to India: Preparing for Modi’s pivotal visit

Dr. Evan A. Feigenbaum

(South Asia Monitor) – John Kerry visits India Wednesday as a raft of crises consume American diplomacy. By contrast, US-India relations are at a moment of opportunity, but the US Secretary of State faces challenges in New Delhi that are significant in their own way.

For one thing, after a decade of disengagement with Narendra Modi, Washington is eager to make a fresh start. The US is sending three cabinet secretaries to India in quick succession – Kerry (State), Penny Pritzker (Commerce), and Chuck Hagel (Defence) – and Washington is preparing to host Modi himself in September. From the US perspective, Modi’s government offers a welcome respite from years of perceived strategic and economic drift under UPA-2.

But Kerry’s visit is also very well timed:
First, the NDA government has been in office for nearly two months. Modi has met Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, among others, so it is high time for cabinet-level US engagement.
Second, as Kerry himself argued in a speech this week, relations with strategically important countries cannot be shunted to the sidelines by crises. For over a decade, India has been among the small group of countries vital to American strategy. And the US has a strong stake in continued Indian reform and success-especially as they contribute to global growth, promote market-based economic policies, help secure the global commons, and maintain a mutually favourable balance of power in Asia.
Third, Kerry and others, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, just attended the US-China strategic and economic dialogue in Beijing. Continued absence from New Delhi at the cabinet level would invite unflattering comparisons between US approaches to China and India.
The two sides’ first challenge is to find new ways of working effectively. Modi, unlike UPA-2, has designed an administration with a strengthened executive and an activist Office of the Prime Minister. In such a set-up, there are inherent limits to reliance on ritualized Strategic Dialogue between foreign ministries.
The two sides should relook existing structures, reinvigorating trade, defence, and CEO forums. But they also need new lines of coordination that reflect the emerging institutional and political set-up in New Delhi.
Kerry is attending a Strategic Dialogue (capitalized “S” and “D”) that has been a calendar-driven exercise. What the two countries need is a “real” strategic dialogue (lower case “s” and “d”), built upon a less ritualized but more powerful set of first principles: strengthened coordination, no surprises on core security equities, sensitivity to each other’s domestic constraints, and frequent not ritualized contact at the highest levels.
The most immediate need is to strengthen trust after a rough patch.
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