New Delhi: Talks between visiting US secretary of state Michael Pompeo and external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday focused on the entire gamut of bilateral ties, including the terror issue, the S-400 India-Russia missile deal, trade disputes, Iran and Afghanistan, with both sides hailing their “great relationship” and the “big picture” despite the sharp differences on some issues.
At a joint press conference after the talks, India indicated it was going ahead with the S-400 missile deal with Russia despite US concerns, with Mr Jaishankar saying New Delhi would act in “its national interests” and had relationships with other countries that were of “standing” with a “history”.
New Delhi also made it clear to Washington that it was “key” that there has to be “trust and understanding” in each other if India-US defence ties are to grow even stronger. While India appreciated the strong support it had got from the US government in the “zero tolerance on cross-border terrorism”, clear differences also emerged on the origin of that terror. In the presence of Mr Jaishankar, Mr Pompeo termed Iran as the “biggest state sponsor” of terror while it is well known that for India, it is Pakistan that has been the main sponsor of state terrorism.
As Mr Pompeo pushed for greater market access to India in the context of rising trade disputes with New Delhi and said the economic aspect of ties must be set “right”, Mr Jaishankar urged the US to adopt a “constructive and pragmatic view”.
In his address at the India International Centre here in the evening, Mr Pompeo also hailed India’s move to “cut off oil imports from Iran”, while he accused Tehran of “attacking oil tankers” in the Persian Gulf region. The US has also reportedly assured India that it would have adequate energy supplies. Interestingly, New Delhi has not officially announced the stopping of Iranian oil imports but it has been known that it is cutting Iranian oil imports to zero due to the threat of US sanctions.
Mr Pompeo also said later in the evening that “China has sought dominance in the South China Sea” even as he praised cooperation between India, the US, Japan and the Philippines in the South China Sea. But sounding a cautious note, perhaps in view of the improving Sino-Indian ties, Mr Jaishankar said in the presence of Mr Pompeo at their joint press conference that their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region was “for peace, stability, security, prosperity and rules (rule-based order)” and “not against anyone”. The US secretary of state also attacked China, saying that countries in this part of the world that participated in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) found that “Beijing’s deals come not with strings attached, but with shackles”.
With looming trade disputes between India and the US, the secretary of state however sought to focus on President Donald Trump’s line on trade, saying: “Great friends are bound to have disagreements. The US ... (wants to see) greater market access and the removal of trade barriers in our economic relationship. Today I address these differences in the spirit of friendship and I think the two of us will be able to see a good outcome for each of our two countries. We’ll keep working to address any economic disputes that in any significant trade relationship inevitably arise. We have to get this piece right, the economic piece right.”
Mr Pompeo also called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who “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”. The US dignitary also met national security advisor Ajit Doval.
After talks with Mr Pompeo, Mr Jaishankar said: “We discussed a number of bilateral and global issues... obviously there will be some issues on which we will have our individual perspectives. Harmonising our views is the task of diplomacy. Both of us guided by the big picture of the relationship... Today our discussions covered trade issues, energy issues, defence issues, investment concerns and people to people contacts. Our discussions took an integrated view.”
Over US concerns about India’s defence acquisitions from Russia, Mr Jaishankar said: “We have many relationships with many countries. Many of them are of some standing and have a history. So we will do what is in our national interests. Again part of the strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and understand the national interests (of the other).” He added: “We had a look at our (Indo-US) defence cooperation. ... Today we operate a number of American-origin platforms and equipment and the key point is that if that is to continue to grow, it’s important that we display trust and confidence in each other.”
On terror, the minister said, “I took the opportunity to express our appreciation for the strong support that we have received from the Trump Administration. What we see is zero tolerance for cross-border terrorism. We have PM (Modi’s) initiative for a global conference on terrorism and I’m sure that’s something the US will look at positively.” In his remarks, Mr Pompeo said: “Terrorism is a constant in this region and India’s ability to fight it should be second to none.” At the IIC event, Mr Pompeo also said the US was “pleased” that Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar had recently been designated by the UN as a global terrorist.
On trade disputes, Mr Jaishankar said: “If we trade with somebody, it’s impossible we don’t have trade issues. But in a mature relationship, we negotiate and find common ground. Perhaps that’s not been as efficient as it could and should have been in the recent past.” Pointing out that both governments “need to try harder and make sure this (resolution) happens”, Mr Jaishankar added: “On trade and investment, the US is today our largest trading partner ... on some outstanding issues particularly relating to trade, my urging was that we take a constructive and pragmatic view of that. The real test of that is our ability to address that effectively.”
Regarding India’s concerns on the energy situation after the US insistence that countries not import oil from Iran, the minister said, “We also discussed energy issues. I underlined the importance of stability, predictability and affordability in terms of India’s energy imports. We have started sourcing some of our energy from the US in recent years ... We also had a fairly detailed discussion on the situation in the Gulf, he knows we have big stakes there, of energy, trade, diaspora and regional stability.”
In his remarks earlier in the day, Mr Pompeo said: “The US-India partnership is beginning to reach new heights, in our defence cooperation, for a free and open Indo-Pacific, cooperation in energy and space. ... With 1.7 billion people and two of the world’s largest democracies coming together, we can do great things.”
Mr Pompeo also pushed for religious freedoms in his address in the evening, saying India was the home of four of the world’s religions. This interestingly comes after New Delhi rejected a US state department report on religious freedoms that made certain adverse comments about India.
Sounding an optimistic note, Mr Jaishankar said: “Today Secretary Pompeo said ... there’s been a lot of noise, (and) we need to cut through that noise and get to the real issues in our relationship. This has been a great relationship. My confidence has been reaffirmed today. I’m reassured of the solidity of this relationship.”