India-US ties: Both must keep cautions in bilateral relations

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Frank Islam (Washington): The India-United States (US) relations were thrown off course last week when President Donald Trump offered to mediate between New Delhi and Islamabad on Kashmir. Much to the bewilderment of Indian officials and South Asia watchers in Washington, the president said, at a joint White House press conference with the visiting Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also requested him to be a mediator.

New Delhi immediately refuted Trump’s claim. While the president’s statement can be explained away as another instance of “Trump being Trump,” unfortunately, it has negated all the good vibes of the past month. The two sides had made considerable progress in addressing contentious issues in two bilateral events held in the last week of June.

Modi 2.0 started with both the countries sparring on the trade issue. This caused growing unease in both the capitals about a potential trade war that would, in all likelihood, derail the ties for the remaining 18 months of President Trump’s tenure, if not longer.

But unlike the US-China trade war, and the US-Mexico disputes, these trade differences were not at the centre of India-US relations. With Washington deciding to end Indian participation in a preferential trade programme, and the India responding to it by increasing tariffs on the US exports, there was a real danger that the trade issue will overwhelm all other concerns.

It was in this backdrop that the two key bilateral events took place. Clearly, the most important purpose of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s two-day India trip — the first high-profile US visit during Modi’s second term — was to address the trade differences. By all accounts, he accomplished his mission.

“Great friends are bound to have disagreements,” Pompeo told the press after his meetings with Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. “The United States has been clear, we seek greater market access and the removal of trade barriers in our economic relationship.” Jaishankar offered a similar assessment. “It is natural when you have trade, there will be issues and I think the real test of our intentions is our ability to address them effectively. We are committed to making it easier to do business, to provide a level-playing field and to grow with the world economy.”

Another goal of Pompeo’s visit was to set the tone for a Modi-Trump meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Osaka. By defusing the tension, Pompeo and Jaishankar ensured a smooth summit between the two leaders; The Osaka meeting, a few days later, lasted for more than 45 minutes. (According to Trump, it was in Osaka that Modi had asked him to be a mediator on the Kashmir issue.)

The two leaders vowed to tackle their differences on various issues — it included major irritants for the US such as India’s decision to purchase S-400 Triumph missile from Russia; its continued dependence on oil from Iran, a country that the US has declared a global pariah; and its purchase of telecom equipment from China.

The relations between the two countries had been plateauing for months — with Trump being preoccupied with domestic and international battles, and Modi busy with general elections. This face-to-face talk between the two leaders gave an impetus to the talks around bilateral agreements. Though the summit did not solve the major differences, it agreed upon a framework for addressing them.

It remains to be seen, however, to what extent the two sides will be flexible during their discussions and negotiations — especially the United States, given that being tough, or appearing to be tough, on trade is Trump’s signature style. During its first 30 months, the Trump administration has not been keen on conceding ground on trade disputes with any of allies, and it is unlikely to change now.

It is also not clear how Trump’s latest diplomatic “gaffe” will affect the talks. This was not the first time the president poured cold water on bilateral relations. In the past, he has tweeted criticising India and even mimicked Modi’s English accent on a couple of occasions.

However, one hopes that both sides will look past the president’s unfortunate statement, and reach a compromise that will make the possible, probable, and the probable, actual.

India’s advantage is that it has the right person to navigate imbroglios like the current one in its external affairs minister, Jaishankar. Having served as an ambassador in the US, the retired diplomat has the advantage of having a first-hand view of how Washington works, and has many contacts and personal relationships in the higher echelons of the administration.

Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC – The views expressed here are personal