US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, will lock friendly horns with India’s External Affairs Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, on Tuesday, 25 June. Both ministers are battle-scarred veterans of friendly, productive, and sometimes bruising interactions, between the two countries.
Pompeo a former attorney, State Representative and CIA director, will engage with his counterpart, a former diplomat, ambassador to the US and China, and Foreign Secretary. 8 years older than Pompeo, Jaishankar brings unmatched brilliance and experience in equal measure to the negotiating table.
Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.
A lot depends on the Pompeo-Jaishankar meeting. The duo is likely to resume deliberations at the G-20 Summit in Osaka, later in June. Pompeo has tried to talk up the convergence of interest by saying in a major speech recently at the US-India Business Forum, that both countries “have an incredibly unique opportunity to move forward together, for the good of both of our peoples, the Indo-Pacific region, and indeed, the entire world.”
With a nod towards PM Modi’s impressive election victory, Pompeo went on to say “Modi hai to mumkin hai.” (With Modi, things are possible).
What’s Driving India-US Ties Today?
India-US ties are going through a periodic and stressful phase. Unarguably, enormous strides have been made during the last two decades, in deepening bilateral relations in the nuclear, trade, investment, defence, and many other sensitive sectors like cyber security and counter-terrorism.
The upward trajectory in ties accelerated after the India-US Nuclear Deal in 2008.
Since then, the US has emerged as India’s largest trading partner in goods and services, a major investor and supplier of defence hardware. People-to-people ties have also seen an upward trajectory, with Indian students comprising the largest chunk of foreign students in the US, and a thriving and affluent Indian-origin community of over 3 million, adding to the growing links.
American pressure on Pakistan on terrorism, denial of aid and defence hardware, support from the UNSC on the Pulwama terrorist attack and the subsequent Indian air strikes at Balakot, support for Pakistan’s inclusion in the grey list in the FATF, have been viewed favourably by New Delhi.
The US’s pressure on Pakistan is not India-driven; US’s agenda is to pursue for military disengagement in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been cooperating in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, but Afghanistan is a tough nut to crack. The Trump regime has hinted at complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan. This will embolden Pakistan and the Taliban to demand more concessions.
Impact Of Trump’s ‘America First’ Policy On Ties With India
Despite the reassuring rhetoric of the two countries being the largest democracies and PM Modi’s personal overtures to Trump, bilateral ties have had their share of irritants on issues initiated after the Trump Administration took office. Trump’s maverick style masks the pursuit of American national interests, as articulated in the National Security Strategy Document of December 2017.
Though China and Russia were identified as ‘revisionist powers’, subsequent actions of the Trump Administration were presaged by the doctrine that international relations were essentially a competitive domain, and not a cooperative exercise.
American friends and allies have also been buffeted by Trump’s unpredictable implementation of the ‘America First’ doctrine.
Trump’s flip-flops may look bewildering, but the American ‘deep state’ exercises restraint from the background. Trump’s recent comment on calling off air strikes against Iran, following the shooting down of an American spy drone by the Iranians, is an indicator of the dynamics at work in the Washington beltway. Trump may have realised the futility of a conflagration in the crucial oil-supply sea lanes in the strait of Hormuz.
Will India Bow to CAATSA Sanctions Threat, Renewed Before Pompeo’s Visit?
Any attack on Iran will spill over into Saudi Arabia and the UAE and devastate their economies, and spark off a global energy crisis. India will be conveying its deep concern to Pompeo on any military misadventure against Iran. India’s major energy supplies and economic interests will be impacted adversely, in any conflict in the Gulf. Over 8 million Indians live and work in the Arab Gulf countries.
Jaishankar and Pompeo will debate the sanctions on Iran, defence hardware procurement from Russia, withdrawal of GSP trade benefits (which has hit USD 5.6 billion worth of Indian exports), IPR issues, price controls on pharmaceuticals and medical devices, high Indian tariffs on American goods, and India’s demands on data localisation. The US has unofficially hinted at the reduction of H1B visas for Indian professionals, in retaliation to India pushing the data localisation issue.
Russia has been India’s long-standing defence partner for over 7 decades. Over 60 percent of India’s defence hardware is still of Russian origin. Iran was a major oil supplier to India, till the Americans decided not to give any waivers from unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran. India has reduced its imports of oil from Iran, and imports will drop to zero, according to the Indian ambassador in Washington. Will India bow to the CAATSA sanctions threat, renewed before Pompeo’s visit by unnamed American officials?
US-India Emerging As Significant Strategic Partners
American sweeteners to supply the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot air defence systems, in lieu of the S-400, will be a talking point, which may end in disagreement. As mitigating factors, India’s proposals for the acquisition of additional American military hardware, and buying more oil and gas from the US, will be on the negotiating table. There are other trade issues involving Chinese companies.
The United States has officially warned Indian companies not to deal with Huawei, specifically warning against supplying equipment of American origin to the Chinese company. This may well lead to Huawei being shut out of India’s 5G roll out.
India, however, remains concerned about China’s growing footprint in India’s neighbourhood. Trump’s tariff war on China and banning Huawei and other Chinese companies from doing business in America and other countries, is another front which presents an opportunity for both China and India. China’s opaque regulations to prevent Indian exports to China, has led to a huge and unsustainable trade deficit.
How US Can Help India Manage Its Concerns Over China
America’s tariff war against China may open the Chinese market for India and other countries. Trump’s tariff war against China is being quietly appreciated by many countries that have struggled with Chinese NTBs, while China has had no such impediments placed on its exports by these countries. China’s free run on maximising exports, and preventing imports, may be reaching the final lap.
China can seize this opportunity to meet India halfway in tackling the trade deficit.
India isn’t interested in any security architecture in Asia. However, in collaboration with the US and other powers that smacks of the containment of China, India will certainly cooperate with any major power that helps in managing its adversarial relations with China.
Flexible alignment with major powers is likely to be the beacon guiding Indian foreign policy in the decades to come. India’s concerns with China is directly linked to Indian national security – unresolved border, Chinese attempts to seek military bases in India’s neighbouring countries, and providing continued nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan.
Threats of US Sanctions Likely To Be Counterproductive
On the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India has refused to cooperate, citing sovereignty issues relating to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Pompeo and Jaishankar will have a lot to discuss, and going by recent trends, there will be the resolution of certain issues, while others, like the S-400 deal with Russia, is likely to get deadlocked, if the US takes a rigid position. Threats of US sanctions are likely to be counterproductive. India lived with many sanctions after refusing to sign the NPT and after its nuclear tests in 1998. Today, India is a recognised nuclear weapons power outside the NPT. If the Indo-Pacific agenda has any future, it cannot be based on American unilateralism and threats of sanctions against India.
(The author is a former Secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs; he has served as India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador to Thailand; he is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, India’s leading think-tank. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
. Read more on Opinion by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsWatch: PM Modi Speaks in Rajya Sabha . Read more on Opinion by The Quint.