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US-India diplomatic storm may blow over

By Liu Zongyi Source:Global Times Published: 2013-12-25 19:48:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The US and India has been caught up in a diplomatic row in recent days over the US arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, who was accused of visa fraud and abusing her Indian maid. Khobragade claimed she was mistreated, which aroused a storm of public outcry in India over the humiliation by the US.

Indignant groups staged protests in front of the US Embassy in India and burned effigies of US President Barack Obama. Some Indian opposition leaders demanded the Manmohan Singh government register the "strongest protest" with the US government for the "lack of respect for India." Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told parliament that "It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world."

India has retaliated against US diplomats by demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian employees by the US embassy households and removing security barricades near the US embassy.

The US Department of State and New York prosecutors have been as tough as the Indian public. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his "regret" and concerns over the arrest of Khobragade on a phone call with India's National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon but evaded an apology. Kerry emphasized the importance of enforcing US laws and protecting victims and hoped this "isolated" incident would not hurt "close and vital" bilateral ties. This is far from appeasing the India public, some of whom even have called to boycott US products.

Although presently both sides have begun to negotiate over how to solve the diplomatic row, they haven't reached an agreement yet.

The US-Indian relations have been rapidly warmed up with the progress of India in the 21st century. The two boasted their "natural alliance" as both are democratic countries and close interaction among leaders in the past years. It is surprising to see the breakout of such a diplomatic row.

The occurrence and progress of the Khobragade case unveiled the complicated nature of US-Indian relations and different expectations on bilateral ties of both sides.

Indians see humiliating their diplomat as seriously jeopardizing India's international image, striking a blow to the country's ambition of rising to be a global power. India has perceived itself as a power with a global influence and a relatively high international status. It requests due respect from other powers. Since the US repeats its hopes to have India as its strategic partner, Washington should offer deserved respect and courtesy to India and its diplomats.

Khobragade's case was triggered by a salary dispute between the Indian diplomat and her maid. Although the arrest of the diplomat was a result of her alleged violation on the US law and Khobragade was not entitled to diplomatic immunity, it's still abrupt to directly detain her. And the US could be accused of hypocrisy given that US corporations and diplomats are happy to employ Indian domestic staff at low, if legal, wages in India.

However, India's media and political parties are also responsible for exaggerating the Khobragade case. Indian media outlets are keen on hyping issues related to "national pride," which fuelled India's rage over the humiliating treatment of Khobragade, resulting in public demonstrations and opposition attacks on the Singh government about its weak diplomacy.

Nonetheless, the media and political parties are only part of the reasons for current diplomatic storm. There are already risks that may explode at any moment in the US-Indian relations. The two have different expectations of bilateral ties: India hopes to rely on the US to improve international position, strengthen strategic advantage and boost economy; but it is unwilling to be a tool of the US in containing China, while the US aims at making use of India to balance China and wants a more open Indian market. These mismatching goals offer the potential of conflict.

In recent years, India and the US have had frequent frictions over visa issues, currency issues, and the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Accumulated conflicts have broken out in the Khobragade case.

Both countries will eventually find some opportunity to cool things down. However, this is just a beginning. If the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Narendra Modi is elected as Indian prime minister in the 2014 elections, the US-Indian relations will have to confront real challenges then, especially since the US still refuses to issue Modi a visa due to his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots.

The author is a research fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn
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