US, India see potential but new rifts emerge

Shaun Tandon
US, India see potential but new rifts emerge

New Delhi (AFP) - The United States and India's new right-wing government voiced hope Thursday at working closely on the global stage, but fresh rifts over trade and spying cast a shadow.

On his first visit since India's April-May elections, Secretary of State John Kerry said he was "excited" about new Prime Minister Narendra Modi and believed his "historic mandate" offered a chance for new US-India cooperation.

"The moment has never been more ripe to deliver on the incredible possibilities of the relationship between our nations," Kerry told reporters after talks with key ministers.

"The United States and India can and should be indispensable partners for the 21st century," he said.

Kerry, who meets Modi on Friday, said he believed the new premier saw eye-to-eye on fighting climate change, boosting trade and expanding cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region -- where the world's two largest democracies are both wary of China's rise.

India's foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said that the Modi government saw "great potential for the United States as a global partner" and would welcome a "much more robust American presence" in the long-closed Indian economy.

- 'Unacceptable' spying -

Kerry's trip is aimed at preparing for Modi's first visit to Washington in September. The United States has been racing to make up for lost time in patching up with the Hindu nationalist leader, who was denied a US visa in 2005 over allegations he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots as leader of the state of Gujarat.

The election came after the US and India weathered their biggest crisis in years in December when authorities in New York arrested an Indian diplomat for allegedly mistreating her servant, infuriating New Delhi.

But another row emerged ahead of Kerry's visit as leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden indicated that US intelligence snooped on Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party while it was in opposition.

Swaraj said that she told Kerry and his aides that Indians were "angry" about the alleged spying.

"I also told them that if we consider each other friendly countries, it is unacceptable that a friendly country spies on other friendly nations," she told a joint news conference.

Kerry told reporters that he could not comment about specific allegations but he insisted that US President Barack Obama had made "unprecedented" efforts to ensure better oversight of intelligence.

"But let me just say very clearly: we value our relationship with India... and we also value the sharing of information between each other regarding counter-terrorism and other threats to both of our countries," Kerry said.

- Down to wire on trade pact -

Kerry held meetings as the clock ticked for India to accept a World Trade Organisation (WTO) pact to streamline customs procedures, which needs to be ratified by members by Thursday.

India has threatened to block the deal unless the global trade body approves its stockpiling of food for the poor. Rich nations say the policy distorts global trade.

Kerry said the United States was "very sensitive" to India's needs but that the customs agreement reached in Bali provided adequate safeguards.

"We do not dismiss the concerns India has about large numbers of poor people who require some sort of food assurances," Kerry said.

- Common ground on climate -

Kerry also emphasised softer issues close to his heart, including the environment, after a gruelling few weeks in which he has been intensively involved in Middle East diplomacy.

The top US diplomat went on a morning tour of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi where he 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.

Kerry hailed Modi's drive to boost solar power and said that the United States and India could open a "new and constructive chapter" on climate change.

India has resisted US-led calls for binding cuts in carbon emissions, while the United States has taken India to the WTO to open up its solar market.