US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s June 26-27 visit to India was the first high-level visit by a US official after Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government came to power a second time. Pompeo met PM Modi, EAM Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval. Pompeo’s visit was significant for the Indo-US Strategic Partnership and future summits between President Trump and PM Modi; meeting on sidelines of the 14th G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28-29, the 2nd India-US-Japan Trilateral and possible future visit by Trump to India sometimes in future.
Pompeo’s came in the backdrop of strains in the Indo-US relationship. On June 5, 2019, Trump abruptly revoked India’s access to the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) instead of going in for deliberate negotiations. GSP streamlines trade via duty-free imports on certain products. Revoking it included imposition of 25% tariffs on steel and 10% on aluminum US imports from India. Ironically, this action was despite India stopping oil imports from Iran on America’s behest. Iran being the closest was the cheapest option for India as energy source. India did raise tariffs on 28 items exported from the US with effect from June 16, however, this was well within the ambit of WTO.
But above was not all. US continued to periodically threaten India with sanctions under CAATSA, especially if India went ahead with importing Russian S-400 Triumf SAMs. This despite the fact that: the India-Russia S-400 Triumph deal had been ongoing for years; US is India’s top trading partner; US weapon exports to India has risen steeply, and; Turkey bluntly snubbed US when pressured similarly to cancel imports of Russia S-400 Triumph missile system. India also stopped commercial flights over Iran in line with Trump’s call, while Pakistani airspace is also closed for India.
The irony is that before Pompeo’s visit, Indian media was highlighting India lining up defence deals worth US$ 10 billion with the US despite the ongoing trade row. But in sharp contrast, the US State Department (directly under Mike Pompeo) released its annual report on June 23, 2019, raising questions about the Indian government’s inability to curb violent attacks on the country’s minority Muslims. India rejected the report. But is this how strategic partnerships are pursued? Releasing the report just before Pompeo’s visit was mischievous, bearing the stamp of Pompeo’s tenure as CIA Director. For that matter, Pompeo should look at his own country’s record in dealing with minorities, particularly periodic violence against people of Afro-Asian origin.
The common impression in India is that the Trump Administration projects itself as the Santa Claus with a bag full of weaponry and technology, not distributing goodies like Santa, but extracting a strategic price over and above financial costs that suits US interests, many times conflicting with interests of strategic partner (s). US-Iran conflict, US exit from Afghanistan and ambiguity of US policy vis-à-vis Pakistan beyond FATF are all adverse to India’s strategic interests. The ‘Mutt and Jeff’ policy vis-à-vis India continues unabated. Over the years, India has wanted a whole package of the strategic partnership, but US approach is deliberately ‘incremental’, peppered with threats and cajoling.
America’s history of reliability has been dismal world over. Trump himself has failed to honour accords inked by the preceding US government, examples being the Paris Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal – the JCPOA. In this context, the US is no different from China who is reneging on its promises on Hong Kong – agreement with Britain and the gibberish of ‘one country, two systems’. Can India rely on the US when under threat, even though decades have gone past since US positioned an aircraft carrier in Bay of Bengal threatening India, and its protégé Britain sent a naval task force to Arabian Sea during Indian operations in East Pakistan during 1971 leading to the birth of Bangladesh?
Before Pompeo’s visit, a US official had told media that India and US were at a ‘highpoint’ in their strategic partnership, and India being a ‘crucial’ partner in the Indo-Pacific region, Pompeo would be discussing expansion of security, energy and space cooperation, kick start resolution of trade ties, H-1B visa, India looking for alternatives to import of Russian S-400 Triumph system to avoid sanctions under CAATSA.
In India, Pompeo met PM Modi and discussed various aspects of the bilateral relationship to strengthen the India-US strategic partnership. Trade tarrifs, regional developments including Iran, cross-border terrorism, and energy security, S-400 deal would have been discussed among other issues. Pompeo’s discussions with EAM Jaishankar were more elaborate. The S-400 deal, H-1B visas, terrorism, Iran sanctions and trade had been highlighted by media as issues for discussion between Jaishankar and Pompeo. A joint statement was later released and Pompeo also spoke to an Indian daily.
Both sides pushed for constructive and pragmatic view on issues related to trade, zero tolerance on terrorism. Jaishankar emphasized that true maturity lay in figuring out a solution, something that has not worked out so effectively between the two countries in the recent past. Both governments have to try harder. He also said that Indo-Pacific is for something, not against somebody and that something is peace, security, stability and prosperity. Pompeo’s emphasis was on: greater market access for the US; divergence of views on issues like trade persist; ways need to be found to work through such issues including the S-400 defence deal; defence cooperation and common vision for free and open Indo-Pacific indicate new heights of India-US partnership. Jaishankar categorically told Pompeo that India will do what is in its national interest.
Pompeo specifically targeted Iran in saying, “We all know that Iran is world’s largest state sponsor of terror and Indian people have suffered from terror around the world. We’ve a shared understanding of threat and a common purpose to ensure that we can keep energy at right prices and deter this threat”. Jaishankar had already underlined the importance of stability, predictability and affordability in terms of India’s energy imports, which implicitly meant the situation in the Gulf and India operating the Chabahar port of Iran.
Interacting with an Indian daily, Pompeo emphasized following:
- Only Modi and Trump can make India-US relationship work.
- Opportunities exist in energy, space and business but joint projects need to commence without viewing data localisation as obstacle.
- US could provide the resolution for data localisation, which requires a set of principles for protecting data of citizens (both Indian and US), capacity for same and covering law enforcement needs, albeit it may not be perfect for either party.
- In terms of technology domain, trusted networks will be made by several companies across many nations. Countries and citizens have the right to demand that networks operating in and around them are being used appropriately, not ways inconsistent with India’s democratic values.
- US has done 180 degree turn on Pakistan compared to previous US administration – as seen from the FATF actions.
- Challenges remain in trade and the S-400 deal. US will protect its interests.
- US wants no conflict with Iran but wants to negoiate Iran’s terror campaign and prevent Iran’s nuclear capability that enables them develop nuclear weapons.
Pompeo’s visit ended with the old cliché “agree to disagree”. Before meeting Modi in Japan, Trump has again tweeted that the tariffs by India are too high. This despite, India explaining time and again these are in line with WTO standards. Coupled with eccentricities it is the business overdrive in Trump is acting spoiler, because in the instant case, India has not overstepped WTO.
India’s strategic interests in Chabahr and onwards to Central Asia through the INSTC cannot be downgraded at any costs. As part of the US-Taliban parleys, the Taliban are pressing for announcement of the date of withdrawal of US troops. Getting Taliban into the reconciliation process is utopia that the US has been following past decades. If at all it is to happen, it would be on terms of the Taliban. Incidentally, Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s Minister of Human Rights was rooting some years back for Talban to develop capability to surge beyond Pakistan’s borders and cut the INSTC when required.
US influence over FATF pressuring Pakistan is acknowledged, but so is its influence over IMF that gave a US$6 billion bailout to Pakistan. Whether Pakistan will be placed on FATF’s ‘black’ list coming October is yet to be seen, but even if that happens, Pakistan is unlikely to give up on generating terror, going by present indicators despite the charade. The US understands very well that the answer to sub-conventional is sub-conventional. The inducted the Islamic State in Afghanistan an year back and its Special Forces have been helping save IS leaders when attacked by the Taliban. The Pakistani army hierarchy and the ISI can hardly be tamed only through blacklisting by the FATF.
Despite Trump’s business mindset, the S-400 India-Russia deal is too minor an issue to be worked up about. If Trump is in no mood to give a waiver, prudence for the US would be to keep quiet about it. More the US hollers about it and India goes ahead with the deal, which it logically should, it would be more loss of face for the US. Finally, as Pompeo reiterated, the India-US Strategic Partnership is equally important to both partners – both need each other as much. Be that the case, dialogue between the two must go beyond the rhetoric of “agreed to disagree”.