New Delhi: India held off US pressure on stalling the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system, agreed to find new ways to end the countries’ mini-trade war over apples, almonds, steel and aluminium, even as Delhi, in deference to the Americans, is believed to have agreed not to buy any more oil from Iran.
A free and frank exchange of views seems to have characterised the conversation between visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, even though a throwaway sentence by Pompeo towards the end of a joint press briefing on “Iran being the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism” could lead to an increase in some of the “noise” that both leaders seemed so determined to filter out.
“Great friends also have great disagreements,” Pompeo said in response to a question as he sat next to Jaishankar, adding that it was incumbent on partners and allies to sort things out.
This is the first high-level visit between India and the US since the Narendra Modi government returned with a huge mandate, and Jaishankar made it a point to underline the importance of Pompeo’s visit, even though he admitted there are “some issues on which we have individual perspectives”.
But, he added, it was the task of diplomacy to “harmonise interests and views and I am sure Secretary Pompeo will agree with me that we have both earned our pay”.
Pompeo looked on with wry humour as Jaishankar completed his sentences, saying at one point, “I know I’m speaking for him, so in this sense it’s a ‘buy one, get one free’”, as the hall exploded in laughter.
The easy camaraderie signalled a relationship of equals, although some major differences remain. Pompeo is also keenly aware that America’s own ongoing spat with China is bound to have an impact on the Sino-Indian relationship, and that Modi is meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Varanasi in a few months.
List of irritants
On top of the Indo-US list of irritants is India’s determination to buy the Russian S-400 air defence system. Much of that determination, it is now clear, is also a function of the personal chemistry between Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Clearly, US President Donald Trump’s decision to go ahead with sanctions on countries that do business with Russia has riled Modi, and Jaishankar articulated that concern.
“We have many relationships with many countries and the strength of our partnership with the US means that we will do what is in our national interest… (while appreciating) the ability of each country to appreciate the national interests of each other,” Jaishankar said.
The foreign minister pointed out that India today operates on a large number of US-origin platforms and equipment, which is “an encouraging story”.
“If we continue to grow, it’s important that we have trust and confidence in each other,” he said.
But Delhi also understands that the relationship with the US is so important that it needed to give something to Trump — Modi and the US President are meeting on 28 June in Osaka, on the margins of the G20 meeting.
So, on the eve of the Pompeo visit, India quietly shut down all purchase of oil from Iran. This is significant as Iran occupies about 10 per cent of India’s energy needs, 85 per cent of which are filled by imports.
Jaishankar pointed out that India recognises the “predictability and affordability” of its energy supplies, a euphemism for the fact that it was willing to forego oil supplies from Iran if this assuaged the Trump administration into exempting it from the Russia-related sanctions.
Hardly a mention of differences
Pompeo’s remark on “Iran being the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” is not going to go down well in Delhi either. Sources are already denying it, saying that “India doesn’t agree with that statement”. So far, though, there is no official word on this matter.
Clearly, both Pompeo and Jaishankar wanted to keep the irritants out of Wednesday’s press briefing. There was no mention of the differences on data localisation or the RBI’s circular on foreign banks storing and processing information in India.
Even the mini trade-war underway was treated with the contempt that it deserves. Pompeo only pointed out that in the Indo-Pacific, with China ramping up its Belt & Road Initiative, India and the US should find ways to grow on the economic front.
Jaishankar, who has dealt with the Americans since he was a mid-ranking diplomat, was both restrained and effusive in his praise of the “strategic partnership”.
Pompeo repeated several times the “incredible” nature of Modi’s victory in the recent elections, signalling that the US also realises that it must come to terms with a strong leader in power in Delhi — just as it has at home.