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Amid churning, US signals normal service

Washington, Dec. 12: Unmindful of the political churning in India after the state elections, the Obama administration has signalled that it wants business as usual during the Lok Sabha poll campaign and seeks unbroken engagement with New Delhi through the formation of the next government.

In a gesture pregnant with political signals to that effect, US secretary of state John Kerry dropped in on the delegation-level talks here during Sujatha Singh’s maiden bilateral visit since becoming foreign secretary on August 1. Singh left for home last night after three days of meetings here.

Kerry made it to the state department and dropped in for 20 minutes of talks with Singh although heavy snowfall had forced Washington to shut down. Although US government offices and schools here were closed on the second day of Singh’s visit, the Americans ensured that none of the foreign secretary’s engagements were rescheduled.

Kerry is two levels higher in protocol than the foreign secretary and his gesture smoothened the way for the most sensitive segment of Singh’s talks yesterday with the under secretary of commerce, Eric Hirschhorn.

Hirschhorn and Singh made progress on one dispute that is holding up the implementation of the nuclear deal with the US. Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and the department of atomic energy (DAE) are objecting to “licensing” of US nuclear equipment to be sold to India under the deal.

Licensing of equipment would continue to give proprietary rights to the Americans over items sold to India and in use by NPCIL and the DAE. Neither side was willing give details of Singh’s talks with Hirschhorn on this issue, but it is understood that there was a frank exchange of views.

Sources here said higher-level political intervention may, however, be needed to resolve the matter. Hirschhorn and Singh agreed to convene a meeting of the bilateral High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG), which has not met since March 2010.

The HTCG has been the engine for sensitive technology transfers to India that were earlier banned. Preparatory to the convening of the HTCG, the foreign secretary discussed with Hirschhorn differences over an agreement on “regional security and prime control” to be reached between the two sides.

The US is worried about re-export by India of sensitive equipment supplied by American manufacturers in view of the regional environment, especially involving countries like Iran. India has concerns that some of the clauses on Indian government permissions for such re-export may be excessively restrictive, but progress appears to have been made at this week’s talks.

As under secretary, Hirschhorn is in charge of the Bureau of Industrial Security, which looks after America’s export controls.

Singh’s discussions with the US deputy secretary for energy, Daniel Poneman, have advanced preparations for energy secretary Ernest Moniz’s visit to New Delhi in January. Moniz will steer the Indo-US energy dialogue with the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

The dialogue has not been held this year although the Indo-US ties in energy have acquired new and expanded dimensions because of the potential role that America’s shale gas production and US liquefied natural gas exports could play in India’s energy needs in future.

Singh appears to have come face to face with a Washington that has mellowed on Iran after 35 years of bitter enmity between the two sides. Although her civil service interlocutors in the administration are understood to have expressed appreciation to India for cutting down Iranian oil imports, her political interlocutors were singing a different tune.

Kerry told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that India, China, South Korea and Japan “have reached a point where it is very, very difficult for them to further reduce (oil purchases from Iran) without serious impact on global economy and their economy”. But then, civil servants take the cue from their political masters and often late.

This is a sea change from the prescriptive sanctions that the US was threatening India with until Obama reached out to the newly elected leadership in Tehran recently. Legislative leaders who met Singh are, however, understood to have told her that any relief from existing sanctions will be possible only if Tehran is sincere about the agreement it recently reached with major powers on its nuclear programme.

The Indian Supreme Court’s decision re-criminalising homosexuality had its echo on the foreign secretary’s meetings on Capitol Hill, where concerns were expressed over yesterday’s ruling. But there was little that Singh could do to assuage those concerns because the issue is entirely out of her purview and is in the court of political parties.

Landmark defence initiatives rolled out during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit here in September were followed up by the foreign secretary at a meeting between her and the under secretary in the department of defence, James Miller.

The atmospherics for the foreign secretary’s talks at the Pentagon were enhanced by the chief of the army staff, General Bikram Singh, who was in the US for three days last week. The Americans have a special chemistry with General Singh because he is an alumnus of the US Army War College (USAWC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and graduated from there in the class of 2004.

The army chief was inducted into the USAWC International Fellows Hall of Fame, for “having made a significant and enduring military/humanitarian contribution to international peace and stability” during his visit. The induction is considered an outstanding honour in the international military community.