Playing down the divergences in the Indo-US economic relationship, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo Wednesday underscored their political points on strategic, regional and global issues that include the S-400 defence deal with Russia, approach towards Iran and China, and common cause on terrorism.
The meeting between Jaishankar and Pompeo will set the tone for the G-20 Summit at Osaka Friday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet US President Donald Trump for the first time since winning a second term. Pompeo also called on Modi in the morning and conveyed the greetings of President Trump and congratulated him on his electoral victory.
After meeting for almost three hours followed by lunch in New Delhi, Jaishankar made it clear that Delhi will look at the “outstanding issues” in trade with a “constructive and pragmatic approach”.
With Pompeo by his side, Jaishankar said, “When you have trade, you will have issues. The real test of our intention is to address them effectively.”
Later, while responding to a question meant for Pompeo, the External Affairs Minister said: “If you trade with somebody, it is impossible (that) you don’t have issues. But the sign of a mature relationship is the ability to negotiate your way through that and find common ground. Perhaps that was not as effective as it could and should have been in the recent past.”
While tariff barriers have been a sore point for the Trump administration, Jaishankar quoted Pompeo as saying that there has been a lot of “noise”, and the two sides need to go to the basics. “My confidence is reaffirmed about our ability to address (the issues). I am reassured about the solidity of the relationship,” he said.
The US Secretary of State also said the two sides need to work on these issues with “as little theatre as possible”. “We have to get the economic piece right. Great friends are bound to have disagreements,” Pompeo said, downplaying concerns.
While both sides publicly acknowledged that the economic relationship is under stress, both tried to calm frayed diplomatic nerves. Trump is known to make comments on India’s tariff barriers in his speeches, and has even referred to India as a “tariff king”.
While there was an attempt to play down the differences in the economic dimension of the relationship, Jaishankar was firm on the S-400 deal with Russia as he said that Delhi will be guided by its own national interest.
“We have many relationships with many countries. Many have some standing, many have some history. We will do what is in our national interest. And again, part of the strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and appreciate the national interest of the other.”
The S-400 deal has been caught in diplomatic crossfire between US and Russia, with Washington threatening Delhi with sanctions if the defence deals with Russia go through. While the deal was signed last year, the Trump administration again started raising the issue of the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), and Delhi wants a waiver from this US law.
Pompeo, when asked about the CAATSA, was evasive, and said they will have to “find a way” to work through them.
On the situation between US and Iran and its impact on the region, Jaishankar underlined that India has “big stakes” there — from energy to diaspora to trade and regional stability. Talking about the energy security aspect, Jaishankar made it clear that Delhi was looking at the issue through the lens of “stability, predictability and affordability”. Iran has traditionally supplied about 10% of India’s crude needs.
Pompeo, however, was very pointed in his criticism of Iran, as he said that “Iran is the world’s largest State-sponsor of terrorism and Indian people have suffered from terrorism.” Jaishankar, who did not counter Pompeo’s comments, said there was “common ground” on Iran with the US on the issue of “energy” and that global energy supplies should remain undisrupted and predictable. He even quipped that “looking at his (Pompeo’s) face, I can say that he understands (our position)”.
On the Indo-Pacific, Jaishankar drew a cautious line as he said that for India, the “big point” he made is that “Indo-Pacific is for something, and not against somebody. And that something is for peace, security, stability and rules.”
This comes days before Modi meets Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of G-20 summit.
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”. While Jaishankar did not mention it in his remarks, this has been Delhi’s concern as well, but the criticism has been muted over the last year since the Wuhan summit.
On terrorism, both echoed each other, without naming Pakistan even once. Jaishankar said he expressed appreciation for the “strong support” received from the US and their policy on “zero tolerance” on “cross-border terrorism” — alluding to Pakistan-sponsored 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.
In a statement after Pompeo met the Prime Minister, the MEA said: “The Prime Minister reiterated the priority that he attaches to relations with the US and outlined his vision for the strategic partnership in the new tenure of the government and beyond, building on a strong foundation of trust and shared interest.
“Secretary Pompeo expressed the US government’s continued interest in building stronger relations with India and working together to realise the shared vision and goals. 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.”