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US Diplomat Visits India in Attempt to Repair Frayed Ties

  • Anjana Pasricha

US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal speaks during a media briefing in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Feb. 1, 2014.

US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal speaks during a media briefing in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Feb. 1, 2014.

A senior American official is visiting India to normalize ties frayed by the arrest of an Indian diplomat nearly three months ago. But it may not be easy for the two democracies to bridge differences that have erupted over diplomatic and trade issues.

The message U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal brings to New Delhi is that Washington wants to move past the differences sparked by the detention of an Indian diplomat in New York in December.

The arrest plunged bilateral ties to their lowest point in 15 years and put several visits by American officials, including Biswal on hold. A deal that allowed the diplomat to return to India failed to fully heal the ruptures.

As Biswal landed Tuesday in Bangalore for the rescheduled visit, she wrote in an Indian newspaper that the partnership “has real challenges to overcome.”

But with India headed for elections, there are doubts whether the American official’s visit will achieve that objective.

Bharat Karnad with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi says the recent rift exposed the deeper problems that afflict the India-U.S. relationship, which he says is in the doldrums.

“New Delhi has become quite mindful of the differences that are still out there and which Washington has not addressed, so it is going to be a hard slog for Biswal to make any leeway in her interactions," noted Karnad. " The Obama administration in saying let’s push the reset button, that’s being a little facile. That does not help in getting our interests in alignment as it were.”

From Bangalore, Biswal heads to New Delhi where she will meet senior Indian officials for talks ranging from security to economic cooperation.

Biswal is calling on India to provide stronger patent protection and create a more open environment to boost commercial exchanges.

Trade is another issue that is straining ties. New Delhi is angry over a recent U.S. threat of sanctions over what it believes is weak intellectual protection in India. From solar panels to pharmaceuticals to airlines, both countries have clashed in recent weeks, with some problems headed to the World Trade Organization.

Indicating that New Delhi is in no mood for conciliation, Trade Minister Anand Sharma Tuesday accused the U.S. of excessive trade protectionism and said that India would not agree to tougher rules on protecting intellectual property.

Analysts say New Delhi is prepared for a showdown with the U.S. on trade issues.

“Pressurization like that in a big country like India, it tends to put the back up, so one cannot really expect it to get results. I think persuasion is the only thing,” said Anwarul Hoda, an expert on trade policy with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi.

In Bangalore, Biswal announced that the U.S. Agency for International Aid will provide $ 2.7 million to promote renewable energy projects in India.

Political analysts say the growing differences on trade and diplomatic issues have put the spotlight on the faultlines in a relationship that has been billed as a “strategic partnership”, but has failed to live up to that expectation.

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