In the US, Trump and Modi hit it off. In Manila, the warmth was missing. Wednesday’s cancellation of talks reflects sliding India-US ties.
New Delhi: The clear and present deterioration in India-US ties over the past eight months can be traced to a meeting between Narendra Modi and Donald Trump in November 2017, when the Prime Minister felt the US President didn’t greet him with the same warmth he had received during his visit to Washington five months ago in June.
In the latest setback, the US has cancelled a high-profile ‘2+2’ dialogue with India, scheduled for 6 July, citing “unavoidable reasons”.
When Modi met Trump for the first time in Washington they seem to have hit it off — Trump even approvingly told Modi that he had a “friendly press”. By the time they met at the ASEAN summit in Manila for the third time in November 2017, sources said Modi felt Trump “treated him like just another Asian leader”.
It is unclear whether the slight was intended by Trump or not. The sparring between Modi and Trump was said to have taken place over trade-related matters. A couple of months later, these issues would take on a life of their own.
A love-hate relationship
The PM felt something had substantially changed since the warmth with which Trump had met him in Washington, the sources said.
But he decided to keep his word by travelling to Hyderabad to meet Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit later in November.
Soon, the “special relationship” with Delhi began to take on the character of a roller-coaster.
One moment there was Trump’s New Year tweet, accusing Pakistan of “lies and deceit” — a phrase that would have normally warmed the cockles of Modi’s heart, considering his tough policy on Pakistan. But weeks later, Trump was outing the telephone call that Modi had made to him in early February, promising that India would slash tariffs on Harley Davidson motorcycles.
In between, as Trump up-ended his own establishment as well as the international order with breathless intensity — sacking officials at home and reaching out to authoritarian leaders like Kim Jong-un abroad — few realised the changes taking place in New Delhi.
In the new year, for example, the prime minister pointedly made his first diplomatic telephone call to India’s old friend — Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
With the Doklam standoff recently resolved, the “course correction” in India’s foreign policy towards China had begun.
It is in this background that the abrupt cancellation — the second time in three months — of the 6 July scheduled meeting of the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US should be seen.
The US media is speculating that Trump is meeting Putin on the exact date. Another theory doing the rounds is that US secretary of state Mike Pompeo may be travelling to Pyongyang to take forward the détente with North Korea by which Trump has set much store.
Both Indian and US officials have sought to allay apprehensions. Pompeo was “deeply apologetic” when he called external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj around 9.30 pm Wednesday and told her that the talks would have to be postponed, official sources told ThePrint.
“These things happen. The India-US relationship is going very well,” the sources said.
A US embassy spokesperson in Delhi said, “The US-India partnership is a major strategic priority for the Trump administration.”
But the warm rhetoric cannot hide the reality on the ground.
Looming trade war
A minor trade war over Harley Davidson bikes, medical equipment and almonds is looming on the horizon. The US has refused to waive sanctions on India (or any other country) buying oil from Iran — the deadline to stop is 4 November. Nor have the Americans considered waiving sanctions on India on its dealings with Russia.
In the wake of the US announcement of Iran sanctions, Swaraj’s public embrace of Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif in Delhi was noted around the world.
Of course, Delhi remains worried about the impending sanctions as it is the third largest buyer of Iran oil (China is the largest), and is now looking to find a way through friendly countries.
The US has already taken India to the WTO on $241 million worth of steel and aluminium tariffs and Delhi has retaliated by threatening to apply curbs on the import of US almonds, medical equipment, including stents and other goods.
Meanwhile, both sides are said to be readying to argue about the S-400 air defence systems that India will buy from Russia. The US Congress has given no waivers on this count so far.
The fact remains that all these tricky issues are usually par for the course for officials used to dealing with the tough and ignoble in the shifting sands of international diplomacy. But when the tension between leaders spills over into governments, then it is difficult to arrest the slide.
Only a few years ago, former PM Manmohan Singh had been professing love for former US president George Bush — his immortal words were “India loves you”.
Modi inherited that friendship. Despite the fact the Americans had banned him from entering the US because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, they went out of their way to make amends.
Trump’s willfulness, which includes his sacking of his own ministers at will, hasn’t helped matters.
Only in March, national security adviser Ajit Doval travelled to Washington to meet his counterpart H.R. McMaster. Within a few days he was gone, replaced by the current incumbent, John Bolton.
Delhi, like the rest of the world, is nonplussed at seeing the rapid entry and exit in the US of two secretaries of state, two chiefs of staff and three NSAs.
Pompeo’s call to Swaraj Wednesday night may certainly be due to genuine reasons. But the fact remains that the opportunity to thrash out all these prickly issues at the “2+2 meeting” has now been postponed into a future unknown.