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‘It’s a phase of closer ties with the US without any secret strings attached’

| SRIDHAR KUMARASWAMI
Published : Sep 4, 2016, 6:24 am IST
Updated : Sep 4, 2016, 6:24 am IST

Lalit Mansingh, former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the United States, talks about the importance of US secretary of state John Kerry’s visit to New Delhi. In an interview with Sridhar Kumaraswami, he explains what the visit means for India in pursuit of its strategic goals.

Lalit Mansingh
 Lalit Mansingh

Lalit Mansingh

, former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the United States, talks about the importance of US secretary of state John Kerry’s visit to New Delhi. In an interview with

Sridhar Kumaraswami

, he explains what the visit means for India in pursuit of its strategic goals.

What is the significance of US secretary of state John Kerry’s visit to India and the second strategic and commercial dialogue the two countries have concluded

The continuation of the strategic and commercial dialogue reflects the strength in bilateral ties. Interestingly, the Obama administration is now moving into a “legacy mode” in its last few months in office. Even earlier, some of the most significant US decisions on India were taken during the last few months in office, as was the case during the Bill Clinton and the George W. Bush presidencies.

Though Mr Kerry spoke of terror sanctuaries in Pakistan, he described it as a victim of terror. Do you think this was satisfactory for India Even though Mr Kerry tried to strike a balance, I would say it is favourable to India as there are many positives. The US is willing to back India in naming terror organisations that find sanctuary in Pakistan and is also calling for strong action by Pakistan against the perpetrators of the Mumbai and Pathankot terror attacks. It is realistic to acknowledge that the US will not abandon Pakistan as it has a strategic stake there and it intends to preserve it. The US seems to be keen on getting India on board for its strategic naval rebalance in the Asia-Pacific. Do you see any danger of India being sucked into a growing conflict with China There is no danger of India getting drawn into any regional conflict. We are entering a phase of a closer partnership with the US, but without any secret strings attached. There is convergence between the US rebalance in Asia and India’s Look East policy. The commonality in approach lies in the fact that India is equally concerned about the Indo-Pacific because of its strategic interests. Both countries support freedom of navigation in the international waters of the Indian Ocean as also the South China Sea. The Sea Lanes of Commerce (SLOC) are vital for both. There is no obligation, however, to rush to each other’s support in case of conflict with a third party.

The joint Indo-US statement spoke about a redoubling of efforts for Indian entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). Is that a prized objective for India’s interests Yes. This is important since the NSG lays down the rules for transfer and sale of sensitive nuclear technology. If we gain entry, we make the transition from being a mere applicant to being part of the rule-making process that approves such transfers. On the other hand, it is also clear that given China’s opposition, it is not easy for India to be admitted without the heavy-lifting capabilities of the US. I believe that by pushing for membership recently at Seoul, India has proved that the odds have moved significantly in its favour. China, today, stands isolated as the only country that is opposed to India’s entry.

The US has said that the path to India becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council is complicated and may take a while. What is the US strategy The US strategy is similar to the one on the NSG, only much larger in its scope. The US is the most powerful country in the world. It is understood that no Secretary-General of the UN can be appointed against the wishes of Washington. India has open support of four out of five permanent UNSC members — US, Russia, UK and France. Once again, China stands isolated. It will oppose India’s entry till it gets a deal that makes it sweeter to accept or until its opposition becomes internationally unsustainable. India can’t go it alone; it has to be part of a successful coalition of potential candidates. There is already a G-4, (India, Japan, Germany and Brazil) for membership. There are three other aspirants from Africa — South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. There are problems such as Brazil facing domestic troubles and the African continent not making up its mind. In my view, a G-5 has to be first constituted for India to begin serious efforts to join the UNSC as a permanent member.

How would you read the timing of the two countries signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMoA) in Washington while Mr Kerry was set to begin the strategic dialogue in New Delhi Is this the symphony that PM Narendra Modi spoke of earlier in Washington Very much so. The LEMoA is in India’s national interest. A bold move by the government, it provides for reciprocal use of bases and support services. There is no obligation to provide base facilities for the US on demand as permission will be granted on a case-by-case basis. The intention is to help each other. India gets a disproportionate advantage since the US has bases worldwide, whereas India’s bases are only within its territory.

How do you view the civil nuclear energy cooperation now that the US has announced that American firm Westinghouse will build six nuclear reactors in India In other spheres too, bilateral trade is growing rapidly. The agreement with Westinghouse will not be finalised till next year. However, the idea is to begin the technical preparations so that the building of reactors can start immediately in 2017, after the contract is signed. With the issue almost resolved regarding the concern expressed by the US and other foreign suppliers over liability for accidents, the Westinghouse decision sends a signal globally that India is now an attractive destination for investments in civilian nuclear power. Bilateral trade is booming and remains balanced in the exchange of goods and services. Consequently, the goal of increasing bilateral trade five-fold to approximately $500 billion in the next few years appears realistic.

India has once again raised its concerns with the US regarding the recent fee hike of the H1B and L1 visa. Do you think the US will act on these concerns There is domestic pressure in the US, especially in the current election season, to restrict the entry of skilled foreign personnel into the US. While the Americans have promised to look into India’s concerns, it is clear the need to protest will have to be stepped up as the fee hike and restrictions will hurt India’s economic interests, particularly in the IT sector. It is important to articulate the concerns forcefully, both for keeping the visas open and affordable as also to conclude a totalisation agreement, which will release funds contributed by Indians for their future social security requirements.