When John Kerry arrives here for the fourth round of the India-United States strategic dialogue, he should not be surprised to discover that as much attention might be focussed on getting a measure of him and what he represents for South Asia, as on the actual agenda of the discussions. This is legitimate curiosity. This will be Mr. Kerry’s first visit to India as Secretary of State, and his reputation as someone who is “sympathetic” to the Pakistani security establishment precedes him. Despite New Delhi’s keenness to avoid hyphenation with its neighbour, Indian officials are bound to watch him closely for any sign of those sympathies. All the more so because of rapidly moving events in the region: the fast-approaching U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014; the Taliban’s new legitimacy, and the Pakistan Army’s role in the Doha road-map. Afghanistan, and Indian nightmares about a possible return of the Taliban and its allies as the rulers of the country, will doubtless figure high in the talks. New Delhi will be looking to Mr. Kerry — he and the Pakistani Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, are said to have been in intense backroom negotiations to nail down the Doha process with the Taliban — for reassurances.
Aside from Afghanistan, the strategic dialogue will address a range of other security, defence and geopolitical issues, as well as co-operation in trade, science, technology, agriculture and energy. In his talks with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Secretary Kerry is likely to insist that India press ahead with economic decisions that will give American service and financial sector companies greater access to Indian markets. There will also be discussions on India’s nuclear liability law, which the U.S. continues to see, unreasonably, as an obstacle to the implementation of the civilian nuclear pact. India too has concerns, particularly the cuts in work visas for IT professionals. On regional strategic issues, Mr. Khurshid must emphasise that the election of Hassan Rouhani as the next President of Iran creates an opening for the resolution of outstanding issues but that progress will be impossible if Washington continues to act as if nothing has changed. India and the U.S. will also exchange views on China’s new leadership. While it is tempting to see a certain degree of strategic congruence between the two countries here, the reality is more complex. If the rise of China has the potential to destabilise the region, so does the Obama administration’s ‘Asia pivot’. Rather than divisiveness and containment, Asia needs a strategic architecture that is inclusive and open. Mr. Kerry should not be left in any doubt about the fact that this is what is best for India.