U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue: What Not To Do

Secretary of State John F. Kerry is in New Delhi for the annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.  He’s receiving plenty of good advice (examples herehere and here) on what he and Salman Khurshid, the Indian foreign minister, can do to energize the nascent strategic partnership that just a few years ago looked so promising but which now is stuck in a rut.  But Mr. Kerry might make greater progress in firming up the bilateral relationship if he is guided by a “not to do” list.

This is Mr. Kerry’s first visit to India since assuming his new role a few months ago.  He will arrive in New Delhi without his predecessor’s well-known sentimental attachment to the country and disadvantaged by Indian suspicions (here and here) that he cares more for Pakistan as well as broader concerns that his real focus is the Middle East and not Asia.  Also not helping matters are Indian misgivings over a 2011 speech, which came to light during Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing, in which he accused New Delhi of using Afghanistan as a “second front” against Pakistan.  The BBC quoted an Indian official four months ago as saying that “the jury is still out on Kerry and Hagel.”

On the other hand, developments in the last two months might make New Delhi more receptive to offers of deeper geopolitical cooperation than it was when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited a year ago.  The first of these events is the three-week military standoff between India and China in the Ladakh region of Kashmir in April.  Although the incident was resolved without violence and even had the feel of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, it came at a time when New Delhi was still smarting over the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Himalayan border war with Beijing.  The impact became clear during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan last month, when both countries moved to deepen their security relations as a hedge against Chinese strategic behavior.  At a time when Beijing is trying to isolate Tokyo regionally, Mr. Singh declared that “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia” and that “We have shared interests in maritime security.”  The agreement to hold regular naval exercises between the two countries was an unambiguous rebuke to China.

Add to this reports that Singh will visit Washington in the coming months, and it appears that New Delhi just may be warming up to the Panetta overtures for closer strategic collaboration as well as the exhortations by Hillary Clinton two years ago that India play a more prominent role in East Asia.

To be sure, New Delhi’s deeply-rooted desire for foreign policy autonomy places real limits on just how closely India will align itself with the United States.  But this doesn’t mean that Washington can do little to enhance the likelihood of greater security cooperation.  Indeed, two essential things come immediately to mind: 1.) Don’t pull an Iraq in Afghanistan; and 2.) Don’t backtrack on the much-ballyhooed strategic re-focus on Asia. Continue reading