U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in New Delhi on June 23 to take part in the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, a forum inaugurated in 2009 to discuss the full range of bilateral issues. In this Q&A, Ashley J. Tellis explains that relations between Washington and New Delhi are stronger than they have been in decades. The strategic dialogue offers an opportunity to cultivate personal ties and shape the future of the relationship.

Why is the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue significant?

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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This is the fourth round of the strategic dialogue between the United States and India, and it is significant because it will define the agenda for U.S.-Indian relations for the duration of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term. It will also be the first time that Kerry meets his counterpart, Indian Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid, in a formal setting. 

What are the major issues that will be discussed during the talks?

The range of U.S.-Indian bilateral engagement is immense—so much so that it is hard to keep track of the multiplicity of activities under way. To give just a few examples, the United States and India collaborate actively on strategic issues such as defense, counterterrorism, diplomacy, and regional security; science and technology; agriculture; health; energy; education; and space exploration. 

The agenda for cooperation in these areas was defined early during the first Obama term, and much of the practical business during this round of the dialogue will center on reviewing progress and evaluating where new initiatives are worthwhile.

What can be achieved during this round of the strategic dialogue?

The centerpiece of the talks will be the conversations Kerry has with Khurshid and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the direction of the U.S.-Indian relationship and what must be done to deepen it further. 

More specifically, I think the dialogue should have three aims. The first and most important objective for Kerry, in my view, must be building personal relationships. Developing a rapport with his Indian counterpart will do more for the bilateral relationship than any specific “deliverables” at this juncture because the myriad activities under way are already yielding their own fruits outside of the public eye. I also hope the secretary gets an opportunity to reach out to Indians outside of government—in industry and civil society, for example—because that’s where the most exciting things occurring in India are taking place, and that’s where the future of the bilateral relationship will be forged. 

The second objective should be having a freewheeling but comprehensive conversation about the state of the world, particularly the situation in Asia and important subregions such as East Asia, the Middle East, and the larger South Asian area. Too often, conversations on these subjects follow the scripted talking points drafted by bureaucracies for their principals. While these have their place, both Kerry and Khurshid would be well served by a genuine conversation that allows them to build personal ties and develop a better appreciation of each other’s predicaments and concerns. 

The third objective should be encouraging India to accelerate the economic reforms that it began two decades ago but has yet to complete. If implemented, these reforms would offer the best opportunities for deepening the bilateral relationship. For that reason, they merit serious conversation. 

What geopolitical issues are likely to figure into the dialogue?

Obviously, I expect that the secretary’s conversations with his Indian interlocutors will be wide-ranging. However, I think three areas will certainly come up because they are on the minds of senior Indian policymakers today. 

The first is the future of Afghanistan after the security transition, including the prospects for a successful reconciliation with the Taliban and, more generally, the durability of the international commitment to Afghan security and reconstruction. In particular, Indian leaders will want to hear from Kerry how the United States proposes to deal with the unfinished business of combating terrorism in southern Asia and what that implies for U.S. relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In this context, India’s own role in Afghanistan is certain to be discussed. 

The second issue concerns China. Like many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, India is anxious about China’s new assertiveness. New Delhi is still struggling to understand what Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ascendancy means for Beijing’s trajectory and for U.S.-Chinese relations and how both these matters affect India. 

The third set of issues involves developments in India’s near and extended neighborhood, especially within South Asia—particularly Pakistan—and farther afield pertaining to Iran, Israel-Palestine, Syria, and the aftermath of the Arab Awakening.

The discussions about these specific issues are important in themselves. But it is perhaps equally significant that they will serve as vehicles to enable Indian policymakers to refocus their attention on the importance of the United States to the success of India’s strategic objectives. Driven by domestic distractions in recent years, the Indian government has not—despite the best intentions of Prime Minister Singh—invested in cementing this partnership as much as it could have. And as the recent territorial crisis with China highlighted, New Delhi always becomes an easier mark for Beijing when its relations with Washington appear shallow. The geopolitical discussions during this dialogue will allow India, if it plays its cards right, to rectify this shortcoming.

What economic concerns will the two sides want to discuss?

U.S. interests in the economic arena are well-known. Washington is largely focused on getting New Delhi to accelerate its economic reforms so as to increase the opportunities for U.S. business and trade with India. 

Specifically, the key issues for discussion include the prospects for further liberalization of India’s investment regime, the constraints imposed by New Delhi’s new local content requirements, which require businesses to produce a certain percentage of a product’s parts or materials in the country where it will be sold, and the problems caused by India’s national manufacturing policy. 

These matters affect the United States, but the important point is that their most deleterious consequences are borne by India first—and that’s bad for both countries. 

Indian concerns center mainly on ensuring that U.S. immigration reform does not choke off opportunities for Indian skilled labor in the United States, securing natural gas exports from the United States, and sustaining continued access to advanced technology. 

How will civil nuclear cooperation factor into the strategic dialogue?

Both the United States and India are in active discussions on how to manage the problems caused by India’s nuclear liability law, which makes suppliers of nuclear technology financially and legally liable in case of an accident. By contrast, existing global practices limit liability to those operating nuclear technology when an accident occurs.

Every one of India’s foreign partners seems to have a different kind of issue with this legislation. The Russians are looking to escape the law’s burdens by claiming that the reactors they sold India should be treated as exempt because the contract predated the legislation. The French have reluctantly acquiesced to the Indian liability law, but the cost of French reactors is prohibitive. U.S. companies, especially Westinghouse, remain deeply concerned about their financial exposure. 

These are all difficult challenges to overcome, but they will eventually be resolved with all three countries—though it is frustrating to see progress take so long.

What is the current state of relations between Washington and New Delhi?

It has become commonplace to say that the bilateral relationship has reached a plateau, but that may actually be a good thing if reaching a plateau means stability and predictability. Today, relations between the two countries are strong—and uneventful. There are still many issues to resolve, but there are no vicious arguments—which, compared to where relations were forty years ago, is fantastic progress.