From diplomatic silence to recognising differences in opinions, 'great friends' India and US discuss China, Iran, trade

On the day that United States President Donald Trump is set to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, the former has voiced an issue he intends to discuss — the ‘unacceptable’ retaliatory tariffs imposed on 28 US products after Washington announced the withdrawal of the preferential trade status it had conferred upon India.

Trump's tweet comes only hours after External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar defended India’s S-400 deal with Russia, saying the country will act according to its national interest.

After a cordial meeting with Jaishankar on Wednesday, US secretary of state Michael Pompeo said there was “noise” around the India-US ties, and the two countries need to go back to the basics. “Great friends are bound to have disagreements,” he said.

At his first official meeting with Modi in 2017, Trump had said that US-India relations had "never been stronger”. However, he recently said, "I have determined that India has not assured the United States that it will provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets," Trump said in a statement recently.

 From diplomatic silence to recognising differences in opinions, great friends India and US discuss China, Iran, trade

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar speaks as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on during their joint press conference. PTI

A nascent trade war started amid thawing ties when the preferential status, that had allowed imports worth $5.6 million to enter United States duty-free, was withdrawn.

India also plans to force global companies to store data locally, which is bad news for American giants like Amazon and Walmart.

Trump has repeatedly called out India’s tariffs on high-end imported motorcycles, especially Harley Davidson, and whiskey, which form a part of the approximately $150 billion annual trade between the two countries. India had slashed the duty on Harley motorcycles from 100 percent to 50 percent, but Trump said it wasn't enough.

With the growing might of China, India’s largest trading partner, New Delhi still has to be careful with Washington, which falls only a rank behind Beijing in the same category. This reflects in Jaishankar’s carefully-crafted statement delivered during the meet with Pompeo.

“If you trade with somebody, and particularly if they are your biggest trading partners, it’s impossible that you don’t have trade issues. But I think the sign of a mature relationship is that ability to negotiate your way through that and find common ground,” he said.

Strains in the India-US relations have been evident over strategic, regional and global issues, but the two leaders took cognisance of these problems, resolving to adopt a “constructive and pragmatic approach” towards them.

On terrorism, both ministers echoed each other, without naming Pakistan. Jaishankar said that he expressed appreciation for the “strong support” received from the US and their policy on “zero tolerance” on “cross-border terrorism”. Pompeo said that India’s own experience on terrorism is “very real”, and that terrorism is a constant subject of discussion, and outlined intelligence-sharing with India.

The listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar as an international terrorist by the UN is an example of US’ support to India, apart from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reinforcing the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) demands on Pakistan, showed an area where Washington and New Delhi have reached agreement.

However, it is also the Trump administration that threatened to impose new sanctions on the Indian Ministry of Defense as part of the Countering America Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) after India signed a deal with Russia to purchase the S-400 missile defence system — CAATSA was passed in the US in 2017 while India-Russia signed deal for S-400 in October 2016.

The sanctions were imposed despite an increase in India-US defence cooperation with both countries have conducting joint exercises, and, India committing to expand its fleet of P8-I maritime aircraft and planning to purchase the Sea Guardian and the MQ-9 Reaper drones – all US platforms.

The threats of sanction have come after the US made India eligible for defence-related technologies under a “strategic trade authorisation”, adding value to India-US defence ties after the Obama administration coined the term ‘Major Defense Partner’ for India in 2016. Additionally, the US has become India's top defence supplier in the last two years, with defence sales estimated to reach approximately $18 billion by the end of 2019 from near zero in 2008.


India has often showed a willingness to follow through US sanctions while also maintaining its own path in terms of security. For example, despite the CAATSA becoming an Act, India and Russia concluded significant defence deals such as the acquisition of 7,50,000 AK-203 Kalashnikov assault rifles, four Krivak III-class frigates, five units of the S-400 Triumf air defense missile system and the ten-year lease of a nuclear-powered attack submarine to fulfil its security needs. But at the same time, India stopped buying oil from Iran and Venezuela after it imposed sanctions on the two countries.

This was also highlighted in Jaishankar's statement. “Part of the strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and appreciate the national interest of the other,” he said.

However, Unlike Russia, where India engages largely for matters of defence, New Delhi's relations with Washington are multi-faceted. And the US too is aware of it. Pompeo assured adequate oil supplies to India after Jaishankar expressed concerns over the impact of US-Iran tensions on India’s energy security.

While Pompeo hit out at Iran, calling it the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, the Indian external affairs minister stressed on the need for “stability, predictability and affordability” of global energy supplies. The US exported nearly 50 million barrels of crude to India in 2018, compared to less than 10 million barrels in 2017, and is on pace to export even greater volumes in 2019.

Both countries are wary of the growing might of China. Washington made its interest in working with India on the matter when it renamed the former US Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command. With US’ strained ties with Russia and China, India is the medium to make America’s presence stronger in Asia. At the meet with Pompeo, however, Jaishankar said that for India, the “Indo-Pacific is for something, and not against somebody. And that something is for peace, security, stability and rules.”

Pompeo, however, was critical of China on Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, saying that countries who signed up for BRI don’t just have “strings attached, but shackles”.

The most recent issue of the religious freedom report that criticised BJP leaders over cow vigilantism saw Jaishankar and Pompeo sticking to the opinions of their states. On Sunday, India had said no foreign country had the locus standi to comment on religious freedom in India. To which, Pompeo said, “Let’s stand up together for religious freedom for all, let’s speak out strongly together in favour of those rights for whenever we do compromise those rights, the world is worse off,” probably striking the only discordant note during his and Jaishankar’s interaction.

Undeterred, India continues to take mighty steps. It would be the first time New Delhi would enter on an industrial security agreement that will allow the transfer of defence technology, sources told Reuters.

The lack of alignment between US and India — both democracies, combatting terror, facing China’s muscle and pursuing growing economic ties — seems unusual. In a statement after Pompeo met Modi, the External Affairs ministry said, “The prime minister reiterated the priority that he attaches to relations with the US and outlined his vision for the strategic. The prime minister expressed his strong commitment to achieve the full potential of bilateral relations in trade and economy, energy, defence, counter-terrorism and people-to-people contacts.”

With Jaishankar’s history of diplomacy, his induction in the Modi 2.0 cabinet may prove that despite honouring ties with a global power like the US, India needs to be only on India’s side.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2019 22:28:14 IST