Modi welcomes Pompeo but the relationship is testing India's patience

  • K S Dakshina Murthy
  • 26 Jun 2019

The US-India relationship is not mutually beneficial as India seems to be making all the concessions while the US disregards India's interests.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during their meeting at the Prime Minister's Residence in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. ( AP )

India is discovering it is not easy to be friends with the world’s superpower, the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ongoing visit to Delhi, the first face-to-face interaction since the Modi government returned to power, is being seen as an opportunity to iron out wrinkles of irritation that have emerged in the relationship. 

While both sides told the media that they discussed terrorism, Iran, the situation in Afghanistan and trade between the two countries, as it happens on such occasions, not much was made public from either Pompeo or the Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar.

Pompeo’s visit to India is a prelude to a possible meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 meet in Osaka, Japan, on June 28-29.

The US-India friendship,  which took off after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990 further saw a spike following the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York. Since then, successive US administrations have expressed a preference for India over Pakistan in the South Asian region. For India too, after its foremost ally, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist it served its interests to move closer to the US.

Since then, it’s been a mostly steady relationship. The high point was the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. But the flip side has been that India has had to pay the price for being friends with Washington. The relationship is not exactly equal, considering where the two stand in the world’s power hierarchy. In other words, it is the US which calls the shots.

For every word of support to India, say on issues relating to Kashmir and terror attacks, the US has demanded that New Delhi follow it on third-party issues like stopping oil imports from Iran. Washington would like India to lower its tariffs on US goods but this was not reciprocated by the US when it removed India from the GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) category - which had allowed some 2000 Indian commodities worth $5.7 billion (in 2017) to be exported to the US without paying duties.

More recently, Pompeo in Washington released the US State Department’s 2019 Report on International Freedom was a severe indictment of India’s treatment of its minorities under the Modi government. It is not clear whether Pompeo will discuss this during his visit, but New Delhi has indignantly rejected it because no foreign country has the right to criticise it on this issue. 

India has had to make difficult choices, or from another perspective, forced into decisions by the US administration. For example, India and Iran share a close relationship. Iran used to be in fact, among the top exporters of oil to India. With the US enforcing sanctions against Tehran, it has all but strong-armed New Delhi to stop buying oil from Iran.

The US has no doubt compensated India for the loss of Iranian oil by asking Saudi Arabia and Iraq to increase oil exports to India. Further, the US itself is supplying oil to India. With the excuse of oil removed,  India has been forced to acquiesce to the new arrangement.

Washington does not seem concerned over the damage this may have caused to the India-Iran relationship and well, why should it? 

Similarly, India’s tie-up with Russia on the purchase of the S400 missile system is causing a lot of heartburn in Washington. The Trump administration has clearly said if India does go ahead with the purchase of the missile system, it would affect US defence deals with India. It has warned that the US will block the sale of any high technology armament to India.  

Now, this again leaves New Delhi in a lurch. For, kowtowing to Washington will mean antagonising the Russians. Already, Russia has moved closer to Pakistan than it ever was as its once-close friend India is favouring the US. 

Similarly,  the Trump administration has asked India to keep at bay the Chinese technology giant Huawei from India’s 5G trials. New Delhi has yet to take a call on this.

These public missives to New Delhi make India look weak and projects it as a pushover.

For India, which has visions of becoming a superpower a la China, the actions by the US are a clear indication that the friendship with Washington is conditional. It would be tempting for the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in Delhi to paint US closeness to India as an achievement. But Washington’s irritants preclude this possibility.

As for the US,  it reserves the right to blow hot and blow cold vis-a-vis India. The Trump administration has announced its intention to cap H1-B working visas for Indian professionals in the US. It is in the process of diluting the H4 visas of spouses of Indian H1-B to prevent them from working in the US. It is working on increasing tariffs on Indian imports to the US. All these decisions have angered the Indian government, which has been unable to do anything. 

Pompeo on Wednesday’s meetings with Modi and the Indian external affairs minister Jaishankar attempted to brush aside all the inconvenient elements in the relationship by stating that he hoped New Delhi understood that the differences had to be seen in the overall context of friendship between the two countries.

For India, which has all but given up its independent position on any of these issues it seems difficult to turn back as, in its perspective, without Washington’s support it will be thrown to the wolves in the international arena – a Pakistan with its unpredictable behaviour vis a vis Kashmir, the terror groups that work from the neighbourhood and the attempts by China to assert its superiority in South Asia among other things.

The day India takes an independent stance and asserts itself globally, even if within the context of its friendship with the US,  one can assume that New Delhi has arrived. But that day is not yet visible, even on the horizon.

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