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Kerry seeks to revive US-India ties

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday (July 31) opened his first meetings with India's right-wing government as he seeks to reboot a relationship seen as a bulwark against a rising China.

NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday (July 31) opened his first meetings with India's right-wing government as he seeks to reboot a relationship seen as a bulwark against a rising China. Kerry's visit to New Delhi comes after an unusually large number of disputes between the world's largest democracies, including charges of US surveillance against Indian politicians and a trade rift that could scuttle a global customs deal.

The top US diplomat met Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, a key player in the new government, as part of an annual dialogue which was meant to be held in Washington but was shifted in light of the political transition in Delhi. Kerry will meet Friday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was shunned by Washington until not long before his sweeping election victory in May.

Taking a break from intense Middle East diplomacy that has dominated his tenure, Kerry highlighted other issues close to his heart including the environment. He toured the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and spoke to students who are trying to make plastic biodegradable. "It's very exciting. I wish you well with that. It would be a huge contribution to the world," Kerry said.

SERIES OF RIFTS

The United States and India, at odds during the Cold War, began to reconcile in the late 1990s with leaders describing the world's two largest democracies as natural allies. The two ethnically diverse countries are top targets of Islamic extremists, and have both been wary about the rapid ascent of China, which has a long-running border dispute with India.

But Indian perceptions that the United States is insensitive to its concerns broke into the open in December, when US authorities arrested an Indian diplomat for allegedly mistreating her servant. Kerry is paying his first visit to India since the episode, which led New Delhi to take retaliatory action against US diplomats.

More recently, India threatened to block a global pact to streamline customs procedures before Thursday's ratification deadline unless the World Trade Organisation (WTO) approves its stockpiling of food for the poor. Rich nations say the policy distorts global trade.

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who is accompanying Kerry, said that the United States was "very disappointed" at India's stance, but was hopeful for a deal to salvage the WTO deal. "I am hopeful that between now and the end of the month, we will find a way forward which is mutually beneficial," she said in an interview with Thursday's edition of The Times of India.

Pritzker emphasised the common ground between the two countries, saying there was "great opportunity in this partnership".

'GROWING' INTELLIGENCE TIES

But allegations that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party had been the target of surveillance operations by the US National Security Agency while it was in opposition have added to the sense of grievance on the Indian side. A US official travelling with Kerry, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged India was upset but said that the United States nonetheless has pursued a "growing and closer intelligence relationship" with New Delhi, including on Afghanistan.

India is among the nations most concerned by the US withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan planned this year. The former Taliban regime sheltered extremists who waged attacks against India. Modi has vowed a tough line against Islamic extremism, although he has shown pragmatism since taking office and reached out to rival Pakistan.

The United States in 2005 refused a visa to Modi over allegations that he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim violence as leader of the state of Gujarat. Washington abruptly reversed course as Modi rose to power, with President Barack Obama inviting him to the White House in September.

The US official said that Kerry would raise issues of religious freedom with Modi in the same way "we have with every country", but applauded Modi's call for "inclusive" development in India.

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