The US Secretary of State offers both carrot and stick; how will India respond?
The days of American Presidents arriving in India with bags of goodies are over.
President Jimmy Carter came for a day in 1979 to get Prime Minister Morarji Desai to sign the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty), but went back empty handed.
President Barack Obama was disappointed in 2010 that he did not get the orders for reactors and fighter jets. His next visit in 2015 brought rich dividends for both countries.
President Donald Trump does not see much to gain by a visit to India and so he has done the next best thing by sending Mike Pompeo, his Secretary of State to test the waters.
He has arrived with a mixed bag of promises and demands. EAM Jaishankar is optimistic that that he will succeed in his first major encounter by finding common ground with Pompeo. “Both the countries have their own interests and it is natural to have some conflicts,” he said.
In order to prepare the ground for his visit, Pompeo had made a major policy speech at the US-India Business Council, at which he traced India-US relations over the years to highlight the accomplishments and problems and proceeded to say why he truly believed that the two nations “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.”
Pompeo quoted his own experience of doing business with India in Chennai and Bengaluru in the early days. Though it was tough to do business with India at that time, he was successful in promoting the interests of his company successfully. When India became independent, it was expected that the two countries would get along well, but the two countries followed different trajectories during the Cold War.
India’s non-alignment and its closed economy made things difficult and the US focused attention on other Asian partners. But things changed in 1991, when Prime Minister Rao removed the cobwebs of the past and ushered in change.
India opened its doors to the world. Pompeo spoke with appreciation of the growth of India-US trade and economic co-operation. He complimented Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George Bush for seizing the opportunity and widening and deepening relations.
He mentioned the civil nuclear deal, the “Major Defense Partner” status, and US support for India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, “a position that the United States continues to support.”
Pompeo sought to establish that President Trump actually built on the foundation laid by his predecessors by taking defence cooperation to new heights, shaping a common vision for the Indo-Pacific and taking a tough position on Pakistan’s terrorism. He said that Modi and Trump “exchanged a lot of goodwill and a couple of hugs” during the former’s visit to the White House in 2017.
Pompeo made the surprising revelation that he and the State Department had correctly predicted that Modi would return to power because of what he had done for the poorest Indians, like giving them light bulbs and cooking gas. The mandate that Modi had won opened up new opportunities for the US to work with him.
On the agenda for the future, Pompeo mentioned building a new diplomatic framework and reinvigoration of the Quad dialogue. Having China and Pakistan on the borders was more difficult than dealing with them from the seas, he said, echoing Kissinger’s reference to India’s tough neighbourhood.
He stressed that Trump’s vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific was based on the belief that India and the US should cooperate in maintaining a common vision for the Indo-Pacific, with democratic values and economic interests reinforcing each other.
He went on to list out a number of measures taken to strengthen cooperation in defence, space, energy and trade. He did not forget to urge India to lift trade restrictions and to allow access to US technologies and goods. He concluded by expressing his hope that his conversations in India would lead to such cooperation that the two countries would work together as equals.
This is the first time that a senior Trump Administration official has attributed Trump’s India policy to the wisdom of the earlier US Presidents. This should bring comfort to those who felt that Trump did not care for the good work done in the past and that he would be following an impulsive policy, without a clear vision of India-US relations.
Trump’s constant complaint about the trade imbalance with India and his immigration policy had raised doubts about a partnership developing between India and the US.
But within days of his speech and just before he set off on his journey to India, Pompeo released the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, which severely criticised the situation in India. “This mission is not just a Trump administration priority – it’s a deeply personal one. For many years, I was a Sunday school teacher and a deacon at my church,” Pompeo said.
The report consists of country-wise chapters, with the chapter on India detailing and discussing mob-related violence, religious conversions, the legal status of minorities and government policies.
The report says that India’s Central and State governments as well as parties took steps to affect Muslim practices and institutions. “There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice their religious beliefs and proselytize,” the report says.
The Indian response was strong and forthright: “India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion… We see no locus standi for a foreign entity/government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights,” the official spokesman said.
This exchange could not have come at a worse time. It was ironic that after noting that the increased majority of votes won by Modi made it easier for the US to work with him, Pompeo spoke so harshly about the minorities in India.
For Pompeo, the most important agenda item for talks in New Delhi is Iran. He is on a mission to get support for Trump’s policy of suffocating Iran with economic sanctions, which entails sacrifices by other countries, including India. Our response will depend on the time frame and the follow up. Our vital interests in Iran have to be protected.
Trade matters will also be on the agenda as the US trade war with China has implications for India. Balanced trade may be desirable, but the US has much higher trade deficit with China and the demand for quick adjustments in trade with India is unconscionable.
But Trump has a bee in his bonnet about this issue and Pompeo has indicated his interest in discussing this as a major issue.
India’s role in international relations, particularly in the context of the growth of China and Russia and the good relations India had developed with the Arabs and Israel will also be discussed. Here, the position of the US is ambivalent. The missile deal with Russia and the American offer of missiles to protect Delhi will figure in the talks.
Basically, the visit is to prepare for the Modi-Trump meeting on the margins of the G-20 summit. Trump may, therefore, have a couple of rabbits in his hat to make the conversation smooth. But the outcome of the Pompeo visit will largely determine the course of bilateral relations.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)