External Affairs

India, US Reach ‘Meeting of Minds’ on Terrorism and Pakistan, Says Sushma Swaraj

Both countries also announced they will resume their stalled trilateral meeting with Afghanistan – just as Kabul is expressing growing frustration over Pakistan failing to act against the Taliban.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and US secretary of state John Kerry at a joint press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI/Kamal Kishore

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and US secretary of state John Kerry at a joint press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI/Kamal Kishore

New Delhi: In the midst of strained ties between New Delhi and Islamabad, India and the United States have apparently reached a “meeting of minds” on assailing double standards on fighting terrorism and the need for Pakistan to uproot the terror infrastructure on its soil.

Both countries also announced that they will resume their stalled trilateral meeting with Afghanistan next month – just as the Afghan government has increasingly expressed frustration over Pakistan failing to stop the Taliban from crossing the Durand line.

“Secretary (of state John) Kerry and I discussed at length the issue of terrorism, which is the key challenge to the international community, and the foremost threat to international peace and security. I am happy to note that there was a “meeting of minds” on this issue. I briefed Secretary Kerry on the continuing problem of cross-border terrorism that India and the larger region faces from Pakistan,” external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said at a joint press interaction at the end of the India-US Strategic and Commercial dialogue here on Tuesday.

This is the second edition of the broadened version of annual strategic dialogue which began in 2011. Kerry and Swaraj were joined at the table by their colleagues looking after trade – minister of state for commerce Nirmala Sitharaman and US commerce secretary Penny Pritzker.

New agreements on defence, cyber

The meeting took place a day after India finally signed a controversial ‘foundational’ defence pact with the US – the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – in Washington during the visit of Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar. The pact will allow the US military to easily access India’s installations and bases under a set of predetermined category of circumstances, granting the Indian military reciprocal rights. While both New Delhi and Washington have sought not to highlight LEMOA, it is being seen in China and Pakistan – and by domestic critics of the Modi government – as yet another example of India getting into a tighter American embrace.

India and the US have also concluded a “Framework for the India-US Cyber Relationship”, which Swaraj noted was “the first of its kind both for India and the US, with any other country”. The framework agreement was to have been released during the Prime Minister’s June visit to US, but instead a factsheet was issued at that time, which has the same text as the final pact. The intensity of these diplomatic engagements are a marker of the run-up to the last official meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G-20 summit in Guanzhou, China on  September 4-5.

After getting a water-logged welcome in Delhi on Monday night, Kerry met with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on Tuesday where they talked about bilateral and regional issues, especially in relation to counter-terrorism.

Pakistan, terrorism – and the hint of dialogue

A day earlier, a senior US administration official had indicated that Kerry would be advocating the need for dialogue between India and Pakistan, with relations between the two South Asian neighbours being at a low ever since there has been an upsurge in violence in Kashmir.

The “greater degree of protest and violence” in Kashmir, said the unnamed official in a US state department background briefing, “underscores our longstanding position that there needs to be a dialogue process that takes these issues into consideration.”

“And we have always urged for that, but that is a process that needs to be determined by these two countries, and we are supportive of anything that will move that process forward.”

According to Reuters, Kerry will also raise the issue of India starting a dialogue with Pakistan during his meeting with Prime Minister Modi on Wednesday. But, there was no direct mention of the dialogue proposal during his joint press interaction with Swaraj, with the only question addressed on this topic addressed to Swaraj. She reiterated the government’s position from 2014 – that India was ready for a dialogue with Pakistan, but “terror and talks” cannot go together.

As per official sources, Kerry did not bring up the India and Pakistan dialogue issue at all during his talks with Swaraj.

In his public remarks, Kerry said that the masterminds of the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and the Indian air force base in Pathankot – both blamed on Pakistan-based terror groups – had to be brought to justice.

“We cannot and will not make distinctions between good and bad terrorists. Terror is terror no matter where it comes from or who carries it out,” he said. In response to a question, he added: “We have had conversations with all members in the region in efforts that they need to take in curbing terrorism that comes from their territory. It is crystal clear that US and India are in exactly similar mind on terrorism”.

Asked if she was content with Kerry’s remarks on terrorism, Swaraj quipped, “I am sure, not just I, but you must be satisfied.”

She also said that India and the US are working on the “early operationalisation of the agreement on exchange of information on known or suspected terrorists”. “We will also intensify intelligence sharing and continue to work closely to get terrorist entities listed by the UN system, by coordinating our approach to the UN 1267 Committee,” she added. The 1267 UN committee has figured prominently in Indian diplomacy recently over the review of the entry of Dawood Ibrahim’s houses in Pakistan and the Chinese hold on listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad supremo Masood Azhar.

More of India in Afghanistan

Islamabad and Rawalpindi would also not be happy about US’s unequivocal backing to India’s heightened role in Afghanistan. Kerry announced that the trilateral meeting between India, Afghanistan and the US would be resumed next month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The last trilateral meeting was held in 2013, so this will be the first such meeting under the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Following a series of recent attacks by the Taliban, Ghani has pulled back from his outreach to Pakistan and even resorted to directly calling up Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif to tell him to demand action against the Taliban.

The Taliban’s attacks are increasing even as the Afghan National Unity government is currently going through a crisis, with differences between Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah out in the open. Kerry, who had been the architect of the NUG agreement, indicated that India could also pull its weight to keep the Afghan government in place.

“India’s participation frankly can only help strengthen those efforts (to bridge disparities) and underscore to the government of Afghanistan importance of them being unified and working through whatever differences there exists and remaining stable in the face of challenged they face,” Kerry said.

He noted that India has been “enormously helpful” in Afghanistan, referred to India’s infrastructure projects, its $2 billion development aid and Modi’s recent visits to inaugurate two completed projected

The trilateral meeting, Kerry added, could also “explore ways to [find a] peaceful resolution of the conflict”.

However, he batted away a question that Pakistan would feel “isolated” due to the ‘meeting of minds’ between the US and India on terror and Afghanistan.

“I have most recently talked to both Prime Minister Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif regarding the need for Pakistan to deprive any group of sanctuary. Sushma has (also) talked of the danger of sanctuary in any place,” he said, adding that both the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba had been operating out of Pakistan.

“So, it is vital that Pakistan join with other nations in tackling this challenge and in fairness, in recent weeks and months, they have been moving much more authoritatively on the Haqqani network strongholds and made difficult decisions in other places,” he added, “So, we have to keep working together”.

Sushma Swaraj thanked Kerry for “continued US support to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and permanent membership of the UN Security Council”.

The sticking points

India also flagged a number of other concerns during the talks:

  • Need to find a “just and non-discriminatory solution” to the issue of totalisation and fee hike for H1B and L1 visas, which affect “our people-to-people” exchanges.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Service notified a hike in fee of upto $4500 for certain categories of H1B and L1 visas in May this year. This was based on a Congressional plan to generate funding for a 9/11 healthcare act for first responders and a biometric tracking system.

The H1B and L1 non-immigrant visas are the backbone of Indian IT companies servicing the US market. Indian IT companies already pay $70-$80 million annually to the US treasury as visa fees, as per a NASSCOM study last September. This would double to $1.4-1.6 billion with the hike. Prime Minister Modi apparently raised the issue with Obama during a phone call last December, but obviously not much has happened.

Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that this matter was raised both during the meeting with Indian and US CEOs and the official dialogue. She noted that Indian industry did have a perception that they were being targeted. Pritzker said that she will “looking into the issue” with her state department colleagues on its implementation.

The US has signed a totalisation agreement with over 25 countries, while India has inked it with over a dozen countries. But, both countries have not been able to agree on a totalisation agreement – which would allow for links between social security contributions in the US and provident fund accounts in India – despite negotiating for the last decade

  • Need to define the benefits associated with India’s designation as a ‘major defence partner’ of the US
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar being welcomed by US defence secretary Ashton Carter in the Pentagon on Monday. Credit: PTI

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar being welcomed by US defence secretary Ashton Carter in the Pentagon on Monday. Credit: PTI

In June, the decision to confer ‘major defence partner’ status to India was touted as a major advanced in ties. But, it seems that there was not a clear idea on what it practically meant. As per US defence secretary Ashton Carter, India had provided at the meeting a “very lengthy, detailed and we thought very constructive paper on how to implement the major defence partnership understanding”. While the US said that it would allow the export of technology and equipment “in a way that we do only with our closest and most long-standing allies,” the actual parameters are still to be mapped out.

Meanwhile, Parrikar’s Washington visit has produced not just the LEMOA but confirmation of the decision taken at July 2016 meeting of the  Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) “to broaden its agenda by setting up five new Joint Working Groups on: Naval Systems; Air Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance; Chemical and Biological Protection; and Other Systems. The official announcement said Parrikar and Carter “also noted the signing of an Information Exchange Annex under the framework of the Aircraft Carrier Joint Working Group.”

  • Early conclusion of Engineers and Scientists Exchange Programme (ESEP) Agreement.

This pact will allow defence scientists and engineers to work at each other’s installations for up to two years. It has been in the pipeline for the last one year, as part of efforts to increase ties in the defence sectors at different levels.

  • Request for positive consideration to India’s request for policy measure to allow launch of commercial U.S. satellites on board Indian vessels.

The US technically bans the launch of American small satellites on Indian launch vehicles till New Delhi signs a Commercial Space Launch Agreement with it. This pact effectively tries to fix the price of ISRO’s highly affordable launch services so that they do not undercut the nascent private small satellite launch industry in the US. Despite this, PSLV C-30 launched four cubesats belonging to US firm Spire Global in September 2015. Then, in June 22, ISRO launched 20 satellites at one go, which included 13 from two US companies.

  • Urge the United States to join the International Solar Alliance as an active member, which will be critical to its success.

The International Solar Alliance (ISA)was launched on the sidelines of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris by Modi and French President Francois Hollande. The US is a member of the ISA steering committee, but it is clear from India’s description that it has remained on the sidelines. India and the US had, of course, clashed over Indian guidelines about local content requirements in solar cells at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). India has appealed to the WTO’s appellate body against the adverse ruling in May.