India & US can nurture their strategic ties with ‘tradeoffs’ and compromises

Columnist  | Surendra Kumar

Opinion, Oped

The statements of Mr Pompeo and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reflect an unmistakable tone of realism.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar during a joint press conference in New Delhi. (Photo: G.N. Jha)

The visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to have ended on a positive note. No, bilateral issues on which the United States and India differ haven’t disappeared but there is no crisis either. Both sides have shown the maturity to listen to and understand each other’s concerns and underlined a commitment to deepen the broader strategic relationship by finding common ground. The statements of Mr Pompeo and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reflect an unmistakable tone of realism.

Both sides seek workable compromises. In his interview to India Today, Mr Pompeo put it succinctly: “When two countries with goodwill work together... they work through differences... Neither country will get everything they want... when that deal is put together... Each country will have to give things up... tradeoffs are what good friends do.”

The body language, carefully chosen words and the measured tone of Mr Jaishankar amply showed that he is still the hardnosed consummate diplomat rather than a hardened politician who shows proclivity for hyperboles. Note his pithy comment: “It’s natural to have trade issues — will address them effectively.” When queried about the US reaction to S-400 deal with Russia, he doles out the age old diplomatic gem: “India will do what is in its national interest!” In a riposte to US President Donald Trump’s tweet salvo about India’s higher tariffs on the eve of his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G-20, Mr Jaishankar was cool as a cucumber, “We agreed to filter out the noise and work on our solid relationship” i.e. “focus on the big picture” drawn in 2017.

Even on Iran, which Mr Pompeo termed as the “world’s largest State sponsor of terror” at the Joint Conference, Mr Jaishankar gave a bland response letting out nothing — “We have a certain perspective on Iran, obviously from where we are based. The US Secretary of State shared with me the American concerns on Iran. Both of us certainly came out much better informed of each other’s concerns in that regard.”

Evidently, the US looks at Iran through Israeli eyes, especially in light of Iran’s decade’s long support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas on the Gaza Strip, who launch rockets on Israel. Nonetheless, there is little evidence to link Iran with Al Qaeda or ISIS. The footprints of terrorists who have caused carnage in India in the last two decades: Mumbai, Patahnkot, Uri, Pulwama, etc don’t lead to Iran. For us, Pakistan is the epicentre of terror and uses terrorism as a State policy.

No other signatory of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) or the IAEA except the US believes that Iran has violated the Nuclear Deal. The American and Iranian leaders are hurling the strongest vitriolic and accusations against each other reminiscent of the exchanges between the US and North Korean leaders before they met in Singapore. It’s an open secret that Mr Donald Trump uses extreme pressure and nerve-wracking brinkmanship for bringing his adversaries to the negotiating table.

India’s relations with Iran aren’t all about oil — India has stopped buying Iranian oil and upped its imports from the US four times — 184,000 barrels a day. There is no ambiguity about the American objective: Force India not to buy oil from Iran and Venezuela and buy more from the US!

Iran has strategic significance for India: Chabahar port, the International North South Corridor, Afghanistan, access to the Central Asian republics and peace in the Gulf region where nearly 7 million Indians earn their livelihoods. We don’t see Iran in stark black and white shades — for us Saudi-supported Wahhabism leads to greater radicalisation that poses a threat to the international community.

The argument that Russia doesn’t share India’s value system hardly matters. If the values of a democratic, multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious and pluralistic society which we share with the US were paramount, India and the US should have been closest chums but we aren’t. India, for the moment, stands firm on getting the S-400 air defence system from Russia. American apprehensions about some of their sensitive information getting compromised by the Russian system aren’t fake. Mr Pompeo’s statement: “I know that both defence departments will talk about it and walk through the technical challenges suggests some room for a compromise, though India wants a clear waiver for the S-400 system.”

The US should use persuasion, not pressure, to address the S-400 issue .Why doesn’t the US make an offer which India can’t possibly refuse. Offering an American defence system five to six years later at much higher price isn’t a workable bargain. An Indian defence team will be in Washington shortly — a $10 billion dollar-worth inventory of defence equipments might soften Mr Trump’s tirade.

For Mr Trump, balancing trade through negotiations or by imposition of tariffs has become an obsession — it isn’t India specific — the repeated mention of Harley Davidson motorbikes is a symptom. While Mr Pompeo stressed the need of “greater market access and a level playing field for American firms”, Mr Jaishankar flagged India’s endeavours at making the ease of doing business better and sought a “constructive and pragmatic view”. There are no prospects of rolling back of GSP withdrawal. Trade and industry minister Piyush Goyal’s comments in Parliament that “trade issues won’t be allowed to affect national interests” is sensible. However, there is no indication that India will follow American footsteps and disallow Chinese tech giant Huawei from bidding for 5G.

American concerns regarding localisation of data, which will affect MNCs like Amazon and Walmart are believed to have been raised at the Modi-Trump meeting. In his interview to the Times of India, Mr Pompeo hinted at some flexibility when he said, “There will be technical people who will resolve this but we will resolve it with a set of principles that will look something like this — Indian citizens have a right to protect their data, so do American citizens.”

Mr Jaishankar expressed India’s appreciation for America’s role in getting Pakistan-based JeM leader Masood Azhar designated as an international terrorist by the UN and US support in fighting terrorism. Following his talks with the NSA, Ajit Doval, Mr Pompeo reiterated US support by saying, “We know precisely the threat they pose to India and the world... the US will be a committed partner alongside India to push back against those threats.” In his interview to the Times of India, he stressed, “We are trying to get Pakistan to cease its terror campaign in India, or of supporting an insurgency in Afghanistan” and talked of the pressure the US is putting on Pakistan through the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) and the IMF.

Mr Pompeo’s fulsome compliment, “You have a Prime Minister who got more votes than anyone in the history of the world” would have gladdened the hearts of the BJP and millions of Modi bhakts. In an interview, he termed his talk with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “enormously successful” and stressed, “The US is important to India but India is very important to the US.”

The Trump-Modi meeting in Osaka on the sidelines of the G-20 summit has gone off well without a hug. Mr Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump described it as “a positive discussion” with a critical ally — India. Mr Trump referred to his meeting with Mr Modi effusively, “We have become great friends and our countries have never been closer. We are going to have some big thing to announce.”

It augurs well for India-US relations.