On Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to take a break from his ill-fated peace brokering in Israel with a trip to India, where he will meet with newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kerry’s mission: bolster the United State’s economic relationship with the regional power player.
There is little doubt that Kerry, reeling from his failed efforts to mediate a ceasefire in Gaza between Israeli authorities and Hamas (not to mention the serious blowback he’s receiving from the latter), will receive a warm welcome in New Delhi. Both powers are anxiously eying China’s growing influence in the region; an Indian-U.S. partnership could forestall that spread, and reduce each state’s reliance on Beijing. India in particular needs bolstered financial ties with the U.S. to heal its ailing economy – a key campaign promise made by Modi.
Past tensions could resurface however, notably grumblings over the 2013 arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York City – and subsequent resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell – which have resurfaced in Indian media just in time for Kerry’s visit. Modi’s own past could also color the meet; the former chief minister of Gujarat state was banned from visiting the U.S. after over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, died in sectarian riots under his watch in 2002. Though, in its race to counterbalance rival China, Washington looks to have brushed aside that messy detail; shortly after his election, the Obama administration invited Modi to visit the U.S. capital.
Of greater concern, no doubt, is friction over ongoing World Trade Organization talks in Geneva, where New Delhi is threatening to block global trade reforms; the deadline to reach an accord (Thursday) will coincide with Kerry’s visit. India’s 11th hour stalling, related to rules on food stockpiling, brings up another unknown — Modi’s agenda. While his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims to be focused on rebuilding India’s economic stability, it has historically been uneasy with Western dominance, and it’s unclear how far it will toe Washington’s line in the quest for greater financial growth. (Note that one of the premier’s first acts after taking power was to join the development bank founded by the BRICS block of emerging nations in an effort to counter Western control of financial institutions.)
Yet, make no mistake about it — this should be a relative slam dunk for Kerry. Expectations are low. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s visit is in large part a mere diplomatic precursor to Modi’s planned visit to Washington in September, when more concrete progress is expected. For now, Kerry just needs to break the ice.