US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Delhi and his meeting with the Prime Minister, External Affairs Minister and National Security Advisor were very significant.
The bilateral differences between the United States and India on a few critical areas, such as tariff and trade, Iran sanctions, lifting of US preferential treatment to Indian goods, H1B visa for Indian techies, energy trading with Venezuela, and arms purchase from Russia had generated certain amount of stress that needed direct conversations by the leaders of the two countries.
The reason necessitating Mr. Pompeo’s India visit was the need for preparations to facilitate bilateral conversations between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G-20 meeting in Osaka, Japan and trilateral JAI (Japan America India) meeting among the US President, Indian Prime Minister and the Japanese Prime Minister on the side-lines of the G-20 meet.
This visit was also significant because it was the first visit by a High official of the Trump Administration after the recent Lok Sabha polls that returned the Modi Government to power with a very decisive mandate for a new five year term.
As far as the differences on issues are concerned, enough signals had been sent well in advance that no new agreements would be signed during the US Secretary of State’s visit nor any announcement be made about new initiatives.
India understood the position of the United States on the Iran issue, but India was not in a position to endorse the American view that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. The United States understands the Indian concern over the Afghan issue, but Secretary Pompeo made it clear that the Trump Administration had been closely negotiating with the Taliban for a peace deal and that the US would like to withdraw troops by early September this year.
India raised up the US decision to withdraw GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) for Indian exports; the US continues to raise the issue of high Indian tariffs on US exports. The Secretary hinted that there would be no cap for Indians on H1B visa, but did not commit that the earlier policy would stay. Indian acquisition of Russian arms also came up during discussions. India conveyed that it was in its national interest could not be compromised.
Though differences over several issues between the US and India remain unresolved, the welcome development is the maturity with which the divergent views were addressed by the US Secretary of State and the Indian External Affairs Minister.
It was a useful meeting of the two ministers, who though having divergent views on some issues; promised to carry further the discussion to resolve the differences. Two things were clearly agreed upon. One was related to zero tolerance for terrorism and the need for the two countries to continue collaboration as well as further deepen counterterrorism cooperation. The second was the need for Indo-US cooperation for maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region through bilateral, trilateral (JAI), quadrilateral (QUAD) and multilateral mechanisms.
The Indo-US strategic partnership that has been nurtured for last two decades by both the countries and it remains unaffected by differences over certain specific issues. Washington’s Iran policy directly strikes at the heart of India’s energy security. However, the US has offered and India has accepted to buy oil from the United States and, in fact, oil purchase from the US has considerably increased in recent months.
Likewise, while opposing India’s acquisition of S-400 missiles from Russia, the US has made India a major defence partner and relaxed the rules for selling sophisticated weapons and equipment to India. The Trump Administration has complained about high Indian tariff on American products, but has raised its tariff on aluminium and steel that has affected Indian economy. India has kept its door open for further negotiations, while imposing retaliatory tariff on US exports of certain items, such as almond.
Room for negotiations exists and the two countries appear determined to take up such issues in the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump in Osaka.
Script: Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra, Chairman, American Studies Centre, Jnu