Kerry heads to India to end relationship rut
By Shaun Tandon, AFP
July 31, 2014, 12:00 am TWN
NEW DELHI--U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry forecast a transformation Wednesday in Washington's troubled relations with India as he headed to New Delhi for ice-breaking talks with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For the past two decades, the world's two largest democracies have described themselves as natural allies, sharing similar concerns over China's rise and Islamic extremism.
But incidents including the U.S. arrest of an Indian diplomat last year sent ties plunging to their lowest point in years, and the Hindu nationalist Modi had been treated as a pariah by Washington before he led his party to a decisive victory in April-May elections.
A new row is brewing over a customs deal but the Obama administration has been keen to emphasize areas where the two sides can make common cause in the build-up to the visit by Kerry and U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker who is already in India.
In a joint editorial with Pritzker in Wednesday's Economic Times, Kerry said Modi's strong mandate opened up possibilities for cooperation on issues from boosting trade to energy.
"The long-standing partnership between the U.S. and India is on the cusp of an historic transformation," said the commentary in the Delhi-based daily.
"Working together, the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest democracy can forge a new era of shared prosperity and security for hundreds of millions of people in India, across Asia and the world."
The top U.S. diplomat will hold talks with Indian officials on Thursday and meet Modi on Friday, said a US official traveling with Kerry, who stopped for refueling in Germany.
For some observers, Kerry's three-day trip is in itself a sign of India's importance. He has focused much of his tenure on crises in the Middle East, and returned just Sunday from a grueling, unsuccessful mission to end the Gaza conflict.
"It is significant that the secretary is able to stick to making time for the Strategic Dialogue with India when there are literally parts of the world in flames," said Alyssa Ayres, a former State Department official.
Despite strong ties between their people, the Indian and U.S. governments have frequently been at odds.
After tensions during the Cold War and U.S. sanctions over India's 1998 nuclear tests, former president Bill Clinton began reconciliation efforts. His successor George W. Bush pushed through a landmark nuclear cooperation accord with India.
But some Indian commentators saw U.S. President Barack Obama as less interested in the relationship, even though he threw U.S. support behind New Delhi's leading goal of winning a U.N. Security Council seat.
Relations took a sharp turn for the worse when U.S. authorities in December arrested an Indian diplomat on allegations of mistreating her servant, leading New Delhi to retaliate against U.S. personnel.
Modi has little reason for gratitude toward the United States. In 2005, Washington refused him a visa over allegations of turning a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots as leader of the state of Gujarat.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledges the gathering upon arrival at the airport in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, July 30.