What Kerry's visit to India says about its relations with the US

Despite a bungled comment earlier this week about too much media coverage of terrorists attacks, Secretary Kerry's southeast Asia tour aims to bolster virtues of the US-Indian relationship.

Saurabh Das/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses students at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Kerry is on a three-day visit to India.

Secretary of State John Kerry is in New Delhi this week to strengthen business ties between India and the US and to promote India-Pakistan dialogue over Kashmir.

The trip is part of an ongoing Obama administration effort to advocate for policies it thinks would create a more favorable climate for US companies in India – itself an effort motivated by a shift in priorities onto Asia, where the United States seeks to temper Chinese influence with its own.

Part of that is promoting stability. Mr. Kerry is discussing the decades-long dispute over Kashmir, and recent conflict in Afghanistan, with India’s chief national security adviser and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Modi’s government has rejected an invitation from Pakistan to hold talks on Kashmir, saying the terms of such discussions should include Pakistan’s role in cross-border terrorism in areas administrated by India. Dozens of people were killed there in violent protests on July 8 after security forces killed the widely popular leader of an Islamist militant group based in Pakistan.

In his address at the Town Hall session at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi Kerry focused on joint efforts to fight terrorism and strengthening ties between the two democracies.

"Strengthening Indo-US relations is a top priority for the United States.... US and India have to keep faith in our democratic values and respect the rights of all our citizens. At a time when countries seek to address issues through use of force, US-India have upheld the rule-based international order.... The common philosophies of India and US are responsible for our ties," Kerry said, according to The Indian Express.

"Wherever I go, I find a robust debate, and an ambitious vision of future. This is perhaps in Indian DNA.... The sole constant in India is change," said Kerry.

In 2015, The Christian Science Monitor's Howard LaFranchi noted the importance of relations with India for the United States’ regional goals.

India’s success as a democracy also makes it a valuable alternative when compared with other major powers in the region, including a Communist China and an increasingly authoritarian Russia. As the US expands ties to other developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region, India can serve as a model of stability and democratic rule, both administration officials and regional experts say.

Obama “really values the US-Indian relationship both for its own sake and because he sees a clear role [India can play] in Asia in the future,” says Ashley Tellis, a senior associate specializing in Asian security issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “That means looking at India in the context of wider relationships with other great powers, including China.”

And just as India figures prominently in Obama’s “rebalancing” of US interests to Asia, the United States is emerging for Modi as a key partner in his efforts to revitalize a stagnant economy and to reinforce India’s position in the region and on the global stage.

Heavy rains nearly thwarted Kerry’s agenda in New Delhi, with his motorcade stuck in traffic that was practically at a standstill for well over an hour upon his arrival on Monday. The secretary made reference to the attention garnered by the delays in Indian social media and newspapers during his speech Wednesday.

"I don't know how you got here, by boat or amphibious vehicle, but I salute you," he told students, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier this week, Kerry drew fire earlier for his comments in Bangladesh, where he suggested that the media devoted an undue amount of coverage to terrorist attacks.

Violent extremism, he said, required the constant attention of governments. But "if you decide one day you're going to be a terrorist and you're willing to kill yourself," he added, according to the AP, "you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn't cover it quite as much. People wouldn't know what's going on." 

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that Kerry was pointing to terrorists' desire to instill fear and attract publicity to themselves and their cause, referring to the "notoriety that comes with the press coverage" of attacks and the "glorification of that through amplification in the mass media."

Kerry, due to return from New Delhi to Washington on Thursday, is now extending his stay in India and will join President Obama in China for the G-20 this weekend.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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