Kwatra’s visit part of India-US consolidation; ties are on track | World News - Hindustan Times
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Kwatra’s visit part of India-US consolidation; ties are on track

Apr 16, 2024 10:39 PM IST

Both sides are focused on core strategic issues and deepening bilateral cooperation in a busy election year

WASHINGTON: Last week, foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra visited Washington. True to his generally reticent style, Kwatra didn’t engage with the media, didn’t post on X (it was through the social media handles of his American interlocutors that observers got a glimpse of his engagements), and the Embassy of India issued a brief press release at the very end of his visit that said little.

Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra with Richard R Verma, the US state department deputy secretary handling the India account and a former ambassador to India (X/DepSecStateMR)
Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra with Richard R Verma, the US state department deputy secretary handling the India account and a former ambassador to India (X/DepSecStateMR)

But it would be a mistake to interpret this generally low-key public messaging as a reflection of the substance itself. Conversations with people familiar with the visit indicate that Kwatra’s quiet foray was an important, timely, and successful intervention. It helped both India and the US share their assessments of the current moment in global politics and developments in the Indo-Pacific, with both noting the convergences in their views. They exchanged notes on how each side could help the other in meeting their foremost security challenges. And they reviewed their bilateral ties across domains even as both countries are in the midst of intense domestic political calendars.

Five features of the visit stand out.

The first is the timing itself. There has been some caustic back and forth between the two governments, with the US partly frowning on internal political developments in India and India effectively telling the US to mind its own business — it gets over-interpreted by sceptics looking for red flags in the ties, but this script has gone on now for long enough that there is both a performative and perfunctory nature to it with little impact.

There has been misinformed commentary in the Indian press, both about the nature of US-China engagements with fears of a reset between the two diminishing India’s options — DC-Beijing dialogue has indeed increased, but there is no G2 happening and the engagement is tactical and both sides know it is tactical.

The fact that a few high-level visits to India got rescheduled this year (including Jake Sullivan’s expected trip this week) has also fueled speculation about the state of ties — even though it isn’t surprising that US national security managers are over-stretched given the situation in West Asia and, in any case, there has been an unceasing flow between leaders and officials for much of the past year.

As Richard R Verma, the state department deputy secretary handling the India account and a former ambassador to India told HT in a February interview, there would be a “lot of noise” this year, but for those who cared about the relationship, the key task was maintaining the pace of progress; 2024 was the year of “consolidation, focus and results”. To separate the noise from the substance, and signal to the rest of the system on both sides that ties were indeed in this phase of consolidation, high-level engagement was essential and Kwatra’s visit filled a gap.

Two, the nature of meetings that the Indian foreign secretary had in Washington reflected the importance India continues to have in American strategy as well as the recognition in the US system that Kwatra had PM Narendra Modi’s confidence. Kwatra met the principal deputy national security advisor, Jon Finer, who has a wide global role but is also closely monitoring the Indo-Pacific from his perch in the White House. Kwatra met both state department deputy secretaries — Verma, who also happens to be the highest-ranking Indian-American in America’s diplomatic arm ever, and Kurt Campbell, who has already brought energy and dynamism to the department’s Indo-Pacific focus after playing a pioneering role in crafting the President’s Indo-Pacific strategy from White House. Kwatra also met the deputy secretary of defense, Kathleen Hicks, a top official who filled in for secretary of defense Lloyd Austin when he was unwell; the deputy secretary of energy David Turk; and deputy secretary of commerce Don Graves.

The five interlocutors represent some of the key focus areas of India’s engagement with the US; global security, strategic technologies, global geopolitics, defence, commerce and supply chains, investments, climate and renewables, among others. The conversations were marked by a high degree of warmth, sense of trust and a willingness to drill down the macro to the micro and specifics of deepening collaboration in each domain.

Three, the visit reaffirmed that India and the US have the comfort level, depth of understanding and maturity to talk to each other about every single critical global issue. China and the shared assessments of Beijing’s actions and behaviour in the wider Indo-Pacific came up during the discussions. The US was also hosting Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida last week and elevating the US-Japan-Philippines ties to a trilateral leaders’ summit and US officials briefed Indian officials about it; they also gave a sense of America’s recent engagements with China, what this engagement represented and what it did not.

The two sides discussed Quad and the meetings meant to be held this year. They spoke about deepening India-US cooperation in other countries of the Indo-Pacific. And they exchanged views on the situation in India’s neighbourhood, including developments in Nepal and Maldives where Beijing has been politically active. The US and India also discussed the dynamics in Bangladesh and Myanmar and succeeded in gaining a better appreciation of each other’s viewpoints, especially in the case of Bangladesh where US statements indicate that Washington DC is more reconciled to the political realities of the day now.

Four, the US and India got an opportunity to review the situation in West Asia, especially in the run-up to Iran’s strikes against Israel. American officials offered a sense of what they expected and the fragile situation between the two countries and the role everyone could play in de-escalating the situation. While US is deeply invested on one side of the divide, and India has its own equities, history, relationships and position in the region, it is striking that American aims in the region at a broad level are aligned with what India wishes to see — the reduction of tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran, prevention of a wider regional war, Israeli restraint in Gaza and a ceasefire, Iran stepping back from its aggression through its proxies, the weakening of Hamas, and an eventual Palestinian state and an empowered Palestinian Authority as a way to sustainable peace. The problem here is not American intent as much as the American ability to meet these aims.

And finally, the two sides got an opportunity to review the developments in the bilateral domain, from the initiative on critical and emerging technologies (iCET) and defence projects in the pipeline (GE as well as the Predator drones) to climate and collaboration in specific energy projects to more concrete steps on supply chain diversification. Both sides can clearly see that their convergences far outweigh any divergences and that there is enough in the joint statement agreed upon by their respective leaders last year during Modi’s visit to the US to keep the momentum of the ties going.

At the system-to-system level, the Indians and Americans remain broadly in sync, the partnership is robust, the convergences in a wide range of global theatres are only growing, key individual actors in decision-making positions get along, and there is an Arjuna-like laser focus on what both sides know is the fundamental strategic challenge of the times. Kwatra’s visit confirmed that Delhi-DC dynamic is just fine. Don’t get distracted by the noise.

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