US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in New Delhi on June 25 on a three-day visit. While he was there, he publicly declared that the Indo-US "strategic global partnership'' is reaching "new heights". He further added his visit would boost "incredibly important ties'' with India. His public declaration clearly emphasised his target, trumpeting a more vigorous anti-China alliance while there are other issues that also needed attention. He arrived in India after stopovers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to further bolster aggression against Iran. Pompeo's visit is the first high-level US official visit to India since Modi's re-election.
The current US administration has every reason to be happy about the re-election of Narendra Modi to power. Since he came to power in 2014, Modi has sought to build a closer relationship with the US which got a boost with Donald Trump's election as president. Modi, like Trump, pursues an ant-liberal and populist agenda. No wonder Trump, a very frank admirer of populists and strongmen, found a soulmate in Modi and showered him with praises and Modi reciprocated his sentiment with an embrace (I mean literally) while Trump later made in private fun of Modi's Indian-accented English. Trump was quick to place a call of congratulations to Modi when this year's election results were announced. But it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who beat everybody in his eagerness to declare his solidarity with Modi by congratulating him on his election victory even before the Indian Election Commission completed counting votes just only in one out of 543 constituencies in the Lok Sabha, the lower house India's bicameral legislature.
India under Modi is now an integral part of Trump-led what Noam Chomsky termed as the "Ultra-nationalist Reactionary International'' and the major Asian member of that International. The Indo-US relationship has also found an ideological mooring. The forces of ultra-nationalist reactionary right are on the march in Europe, in countries like Hungary, Poland and Italy and in South American countries like Brazil and Ecuador. They are weakening the institutions of democracy with help of their corporate backers and corporate media. Unfortunately the recent Indian election has clearly demonstrated that a country where 37 per cent of its population live below the poverty line, 5000 children die of malnutrition and hunger every day, 53 per cent of the population have no toilet, and where two-thirds of world poor live who earn less than US$1.25 cents a day, yet the ultra-nationalist reactionary system of ideas have taken deep root among a very large section of population including the poor and dispossessed. These ultra-nationalists not only pose a danger to democracy and peace but also exacerbate climate crisis.
While Modi is continuing with the policy laid down by previous Congress-led governments in forging a closer strategic partnership with the US to confront China, he now transformed that relationship into a more aggressive posturing against China. Washington also sees India as a key strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region which from the US strategic point of view stretches from the West coast of the US to the Western shores of the Indian ocean.
In the wake of Modi's re-election to power, the US State Department announced that his victory would pave the way for India to play a leading role on the global stage. Pompeo's meeting with Modi, according to the Indian Foreign Ministry, was marked by willingness of both the countries to working on together to "deepen a strategic partnership''. In fact, under Modi the Indo-US strategic partnership has become the cornerstone of India's foreign policy which has widespread support across the political divide in India, but in such an alliance India will remain a subordinate partner.
However, the Indo-US strategic relationship is also under stress as the row over trade between the two countries is gathering strength. While India accounts for a very small fraction of US trade, it has a growing trade surplus with the US. This is something Trump does not like to see. He has called India the "tariff king''. India's average tariff is high at 13 per cent. Tariff is not the only barrier US imports face in India but there are also a whole range of regulatory barriers in place now. There are talks in Washington to launch an investigation into India's unfair trade practices. The US has imposed tariffs on Indian steel and aluminium and denied India the duty-free access to certain goods which come from poor countries to aid their development on the ground that India no longer merits special treatment as a developing country. On the issue of protectionism, Trump has a match in Modi.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar indicated that there were other issues and a fairly detailed discussion on the situation in the Persian Gulf took place between the two. The US wants India to stop importing oil from Iran which India has now complied with. Iran has been the major supplier of oil to India. This was a major strategic and economic blow to India because it used get oil from Iran also at a concessional rate and oil is the major contributing factor to India's trade deficit. This means India has now ditched the development of Chabahar port linking it to Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.
Pompeo, on the other hand, promoted the idea that India should now on source its oil and gas from the US. India has always remained silent on US offensive against Iran in the forms of sanctions and other coercive measures. India clearly stated that it did not want another nuclear state in the region clearly alluding to Iran and thereby siding with the US which helped Israel to stockpile a nuclear arsenal.
Pompeo's wish list included that India look for alternatives to Russian-made S-400 air defence system. Russia has traditionally been India's major arms supplier. Senior US State Department officials threatened sanctions against India on this issue citing a law that imposes sanctions on any country that has "significant transactions'' with Iran, North Korea and Russia. In fact, a senior State Department official quite bluntly declared that India must take a make or break decision on its strategic orientation. Jaishankar, however, at the joint press conference told that he had told the US Secretary of State that India must act in its national interest. Pompeo assured India the US commitment to ensure that India has the military capability to defend its territorial integrity.
Pompeo also delved into issues beyond the strategic and trade concerns. He decaled that the US and India should stand up for religious freedom and world is worse off when religious rights are compromised. His comments in the wake of a US Department of State report on religious freedom which was critical of India on that score created a fair amount of discomfort and raised eye-brows. The Report said that religious intolerance was rising under Prime Minister Modi's government. The Indian government responded by saying that no foreign government has right to comment on the country's internal affairs.
Pompeo's visit to India also carries a clear message that the US drive to integrate India more deeply into anti-China alliance gets precedence over its trade disputes with it. At the same time US efforts will continue to weaken India's military alliance with Russia. Despite India's capitulation to the US demands, many in India see increased opportunities in the Indo-US strategic alliance in confronting China. They see great opportunities for India arising from the US-China conflict as the emerging alternative manufacturing hub replacing China.
Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.
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