G20 Summit in Osaka: Donald Trump sounds conciliatory note, but his inconsistencies hamper India-US ties

One feels a little sorry for the US foreign policy establishment and diplomatic corps in the Donald Trump era. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to India — the first top-level conversation between the two nations in 10 months — and said all politically correct things. He called India a “friend” and described the much-discussed points of divergence as “disagreements” that are bound to happen between “great friends”.

 G20 Summit in Osaka: Donald Trump sounds conciliatory note, but his inconsistencies hamper India-US ties

File image of US President Donald Trump. AP

One got the feeling that when Pompeo was addressing the joint news conference with Subramanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, he was trying to desperately paper over the cracks that appear to have widened between India and the US and are threatening to affect the structural and strategic convergences underpinning recent bonhomie. For his part, Jaishankar remained firm but showed the pragmatism and optimism that is expected of a seasoned and skilful diplomat.

For instance, when it came to tricky issues of trade friction and the threat of US CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions over India’s planned purchase of Russian S-400 Triumf air defence system, Pompeo chose not to go into specifics and instead called these issues “opportunities” that may bring the two nations closer.

“When I think about the two issues you raise, I think about them as real opportunities, things that I know that we can work together on, will perform a – provide a foundation for the relationship,” said Pompeo at the joint briefing in New Delhi on Wednesday.

The negative headlines that have accompanied his visit to India was obviously weighing heavy on Pompeo’s mind and he stressed on the fact that not only in Washington but also in the Capitol Hill (The Trump administration) it is well acknowledged that “India is an important friend and partner for the United States of America as well, that America is an enormous beneficiary of the success that India has and continues to have…”

These are standard diplomat-speak, but Pompeo’s words also carried a note of resolve and sincerity that the US understands the forks in the road in bilateral ties and is determined to address these in a way that can lead to doing the “right thing for both countries”.

“When I stare at these issues (CAATSA and trade friction), they’re issues of the moment, we will find a way to work through them, and I know that when we come out on the other side of each of those, the relationship will be stronger and we’ll have done great things together,” said Pompeo.

Jaishankar’s comments, on the recent fracas over trade, tariffs and market access that have dominated the headlines, reflected the attempt by the foreign policy establishment of both nations to focus on the convergences and underplay the divergences.

“Look, if you trade with somebody, and particularly they’re 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,” said the external affairs minister.

Both the leaders, for instance, took it upon themselves the task of “delivering” on the task expected of them. This involves going deep into the contentious issues and addressing them in a spirit of hard bargaining and compromise, but all within the framework of an understanding that close relationship between the two nations has been mutually beneficial in strategic and economic terms.


In Jaishankar’s words — “as foreign ministers, we both are very conscious of our responsibility to deliver on the vision of our leaders, and in doing so therefore our discussions took a very integrated view of all the domains which the relationship deals with” — the urgency to make the relationship work was evident.

Similarly, in an interview to Times of India, Pompeo was quoted, as saying that “I feel a real responsibility and know Jaishankar feels the same, to deliver. We will protect our own interests, but we will work together. We have challenges on trade, on S-400, I see them. We will work through those.”

So the overwhelming note was that of optimism, even though both leaders were well aware of the structural nature of the divergences on issues such as trade, tariffs, immigration concerns, 5G connectivity, energy security, market access, data flows across borders and India’s purchase of military and defence equipment from Russia. In the joint presser and outside it, both Pompeo and Jaishankar tried hard to diffuse the tension and promised to work on areas of differences keeping the “big picture” in mind.

And then Donald Trump unleashed a tweet. Before leaving for Osaka for the G20 summit where he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi bilaterally and trilaterally, the US president raised the temperature with comments that not only undermined the efforts of Pompeo in India but also gave fodder for American sceptics in the bureaucracy, political class and media.

It was interesting to note that while these disparaging comments — that threatened to derail the painstaking work done by Pompeo and Jaishankar — were made before the summit kicked off, Trump seemed to be changing his tune before sitting down with Modi for the bilateral. Trump’s opening remarks, as he met the Indian prime minister on the sidelines of G20 in Osaka on Friday, were: “We have become great friends and our countries have never been closer. I can say that with surety. We’ll work together in many ways including military, we’ll be discussing trade today…” And in true Trumpian style, the bilateral engagement saw the US president shower praises on Modi and India. Some of his comments sounded rather over-the-top, shallow and contradictory to his earlier posture and claims. Trump, according to reports in Indian media, said, “The relationship with India I don’t believe has never been better than this.” He congratulated Modi on his election victory and said that he had done “a great job in pulling everyone together”, and added that “many factions were fighting, I remember when you first took over and we were talking, they were fighting with each other and now they are loving you. I think it is a fantastic tribute to you and your abilities. Thank you for the relationship and the friendship.” On trade, the issue on which Trump remains fixated and has made it the cornerstone of American foreign policy, the US president said, “I think we will have something big to announce. Very big trade deals. We will have very big things with India in terms of trade -in terms of manufacturing, in terms of manufacturing 5Gs. It’s been a lot of fun dealing with you. We had some good talks. I think you will hear some very productive elements come out.” At one level, there is a temptation to interpret Trump’s words as the negotiating idiosyncrasies of a head of state who uses posturing as a bargaining chip while “cutting deals”. Being transactional isn’t bad. It makes for a clearer understanding of the issues on the table, and both sides can focus on self-interest (that ultimately drives all foreign policies) and try to thrash out a common, mutually acceptable outcome. In this view, Trump’s posturing may even be counted as beneficial for bilateral ties because it lowers expectations and forces both parties to dive deep into negotiations. Some analysts have pointed out that Trump’s posturing isn’t India-specific. He has been going after friends and foes alike and India’s turn had to come. As the National University of Singapore, director, C Raja Mohan writes in The Indian Express, “India is not alone in facing sudden difficulties with Washington… America’s ties with friends and foes alike are under scrutiny in the Trump Administration. Over the last couple of years, it was quite clear that Delhi’s turn would come. It is now upon us.” The problem, however, is that Trump believes that his approach is working and given the recent relative successes of his strong-arm tactics with respect to Mexico and Canada — and given the fact that he still looks best-placed to lead the US for another term — should tell us that Trump is buoyant over his approach and this confidence may bring some rigidity that India may find difficult to tackle. The publicization of trade issues and sanctions threat between the US and India have further muddied the waters. As Tanvi Madan, director of India Project at Brooking Institution, Washington, points out in her article, “differences between the two countries are better managed or resolved if they are sorted out behind closed doors. Washington has been particularly guilty of forgetting this over the last few months. Publicly demanding that countries make a certain choice makes it harder for them to make it.” The very public spat over the Russian S-400 air defence system makes it harder for India to abandon the deal even if the US offers an alternative because Modi can’t afford to be seen as caving in before American pressure no matter the weight of his mandate. Even as Modi met Trump for a bilateral, the Left in India accused the prime minister of selling his chair to the Americans.

This isn’t just a prerogative of the Left. These factors make it difficult for India and the US to arrive at a consensus over these contentious issues unless there is an intent shown from both sides to compromise and adjust. Right now, that looks impossible given the confidence Trump has gained from his recent dealings and the mandate that Modi has received in his second consecutive term.

There has been a lot of talk among the strategic community in both sides that fundamentals of the relationship and the convergence in key issues such as China’s malevolent rise will oversee the hiccups that occur from time to time. Given the history of India-US ties, no side can feel comfortable about this assumption.

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2019 18:10:42 IST