In case you have missed it, United States secretary of state Mike Pompeo is in town for talks with external affairs minister S Jaishankar as part of his Asia and West Asia tour. So much has been written about this visit as if it is going to be the last such visit or will resolve all the problems facing India-US relations.
Every few years, the Indian commentariat goes into a predictable lament that the bilateral ties have entered into a phase where the momentum is sagging. Last few months have seen extensive commentary on how the ties have entered a phase where nothing positive is seemingly happening. The Trump administration has raised a number of issues where the divergences between Washington and New Delhi are becoming more and more prominent.
It is indeed true that the Trump administration has queered the pitch on a range of issues which were bubbling under the surface for quite some time. Washington wants New Delhi to lower trade barriers. Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump terminated India’s designation as a beneficiary developing nation under the key Generalized System of Preference (GSP) trade programme after determining that it has not assured the US that it will provide “equitable and reasonable access” to its markets. Bilateral trade, therefore, will figure prominently during Pompeo’s talks today with the Indian leadership.
The West Asian cauldron is boiling and India has equities to preserve in its ties with both the US and Iran. Exemptions from US sanctions to buy oil from Iran have ended for India and India has already started adjusting to new realities. There has been an increase in India's oil imports from the US, outpacing imports from its traditional suppliers in West Asia. However, India would like regional stability and that’s the message it would convey to Pompeo.
India's purchase of S400 Triumf air defence system from Russia will also be on the agenda as US has imposed sanctions on Russia. New Delhi’s historic defence ties with Moscow cannot be overlooked, and New Delhi would argue that it qualifies for a waiver under the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). India would also showcase the fact more than $10 billion worth of defence deal with the US are in the pipeline, so Washington’s role in India’s defence matrix is expanding significantly. India has also made clear that it moving ahead with negotiations on the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) that would support closer defence industry cooperation and collaboration with the US.
There have been concerns in India that the US is planning to impose further caps on the H-1B visas that are used by Indians, which have already been refuted by Washington.
This is Pompeo's third visit to India as Trump’s secretary of state and his visit is intended to set the tone for the Trump-Modi talks at next week’s G20 summit. Jaishankar, who would be hosting Pompeo today, has already indicated that he would be meeting his US counterpart “with a positive attitude”. He has also introduced a sense of pragmatism in the conversation by suggesting that “both the countries are having their own interests. And it is natural to have some conflicts because of that. We will find a common ground using diplomacy. We will hold discussions with the US with a positive approach.”
America, of course, has its own interests in furthering its ties with India, but to deny Indian foreign policy all agency is to do great disservice to India’s growing heft in global politics. Paradoxical though it may sound to many in India, New Delhi primarily wants to enhance its strategic autonomy by deepening its security ties with the US.
The biggest challenge to Indian strategic interests today comes from China and India doesn’t have much leverage vis-a-vis it. A strong relationship with the US is the most potent way to ward off the China challenge in the short to medium term. In the long term, this will allow India to develop its comprehensive national power. Despite all the baggage, Pompeo is visiting India with an open mind and India would do well to reciprocate.Harsh V Pant is director, Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor of international relations, King’s College London. Views are personal.