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India Considers John Kerry

President Obama’s pick to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state is making some in New Delhi’s diplomatic, military, and intelligence communities nervous that Washington will soon tilt to Islamabad, India’s decades-old rival and tormentor. Last week in New Delhi, a former ambassador to the US complained to me about America’s support for Pakistan—on three separate occasions.

Some Indian journalists are also reflecting the uncertainty. “Pakistan has powerful supporters in Washington who have pressed for ladling out US tax dollars in the belief that America needs to remain invested in the country, none more than Senator John Kerry,” wrote the Times of India, the Mumbai-based paper, in the middle of last month.

At the moment, Indian analysts are pouring over Kerry’s long foreign policy record. To be sure, New Delhi has a right to be concerned about his pointed comments about India’s nuclear tests, his sponsorship of aid to Pakistan, and his recent diplomatic missions to Islamabad.

Yet not all of Kerry’s record is bad from New Delhi’s standpoint. After all, he has thrown his weight behind India’s efforts to win a permanent Security Council seat and, at least in recent years, has voiced strong support for India. “There are few relationships that will be as vital in the 21st century as our growing ties with India and its people,” the Massachusetts senator said a year ago during the confirmation hearings for Nancy Powell, now America’s ambassador in New Delhi. “On all of the most critical global challenges that we face, India has a central role to play.” 

Kerry’s problem, in some sense, is that he is not Hillary Clinton. The current secretary of state won the affection of New Delhi elites, whether she was talking about India being an “affair of the heart” for America or staying in Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the targets of the horrific terrorist attack aided by Islamabad’s intelligence service in November 2008. During her tenure, the US, the world’s most powerful democracy, moved closer to its most populous one by building upon initiatives started in the Bush administration.

Washington’s approach to India is starting to look bipartisan and perhaps irreversible. Relations between the two large powers are based not only on shared values but also shared interests. Each nation, for instance, wants to maintain peace and stability in Asia, which means both want China to return to its “smile diplomacy” evident at the end of the last century. Unfortunately, Beijing, for a half decade, has been on an assertive and even hostile path.

Both the US and India have sought to engage the Chinese leadership in recent years in the face of Beijing’s growing aggressiveness on various fronts. And Washington and New Delhi will undoubtedly explore ways to establish relations with Xi Jinping, China’s new leader. But the continuing troubles inside China virtually assure that the increasingly nationalistic—and expansionist—Beijing will not be a reliable partner.

A belligerent China threatens both New Delhi’s and Washington’s vital interests. Whatever a Secretary of State Kerry might feel about Pakistan, he will have to respond to Beijing’s advances, and that means he will have no choice but to continue his predecessor’s good work in New Delhi. It’s clear, therefore, that the two democracies should stand together as friends—a friendship that could very well be Secretary Kerry’s most enduring legacy. 

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