Pompeo reassures India during visit amid trade spat

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi yesterday. Mr Pompeo is the first high-level US official to visit India after Mr Modi's re-election.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi yesterday. Mr Pompeo is the first high-level US official to visit India after Mr Modi's re-election.PHOTO: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

US-India partnership vital against backdrop of China's BRI projects, says top diplomat

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to cool down tensions caused by trade differences with India, while underlining the importance of a strong India-US economic partnership against the backdrop of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Mr Pompeo, who is on a three-day trip, is the first high-level US official to visit India after the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month.

His visit also comes at a time when trade tensions have emerged after US President Donald Trump, while pushing for greater access for American firms, removed on June 5 the preferential trade status granted to the South Asian country.

India, in response, imposed retaliatory tariffs on 28 goods, including apples and almonds, last week.

Trade in goods between the two countries was US$74.5 billion (S$100.9 billion) in 2017-2018, while the trade deficit in favour of India fell from US$22.9 billion in 2017 to US$21.2 billion last year.

"Great friends are bound to have disagreements. The US has been clear we seek greater market access and the removal of trade barriers in our economic relationship and today I addressed differences in spirit of friendship," said Mr Pompeo in a joint press conference with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

Trade in goods between the two countries was US$74.5 billion in 2017-2018, while the trade deficit in favour of India fell from US$22.9 billion in 2017 to US$21.2 billion last year.

Mr Pompeo called on Mr Modi and held talks with Mr Jaishankar yesterday.

He noted that, in the light of China's BRI projects, India and the US had to get their economic priorities right for infrastructure development and investments in multiple countries.

"We have to get this economic piece right because there are myriad opportunities that lie before us in the Indo-Pacific region. Countries in this part of the world that have signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative projects have found that Beijing's deal comes not with strings attached but shackles. Countries are looking to provide infrastructure and digital connectivity to their people without relinquishing their sovereignty," he added.

He said India and US should "act quickly" to push forward their vision of prosperity for the good of the two countries and the world.

 
 

Ties between India and the US have deepened over mutual concerns about the rise of China, particularly in areas like defence and security cooperation. In 2016, the US designated India a major defence partner and the two countries agreed to share each other's military bases for refuelling and repair of fighter jets and warships.

Yet irritants have crept in, not just in trade but also India's ties with Iran and Russia.

India signed an agreement to buy five S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems in a deal worth US$5 billion from Russia, even though the US had warned that it risked sanctions under a federal law that imposes curbs on Iran, North Korea and Russia.

Indian officials have maintained that the US has the option of giving India an exemption for the acquisition of the missile systems.

Mr Jaishankar, addressing the media, said the US had to trust India.

"We had a discussion on our defence cooperation that has been the encouraging story in the last decade or more. Today we operate a number of American origin platforms. The key point, if that is to continue to grow, (is) we display trust and confidence in each other," said Mr Jaishankar, who added he had urged the US to take a "considered and pragmatic view" on trade differences as well.

He also noted that trade differences were bound to arise between large trading partners.

India has also been forced to seek alternative oil supplies due to US sanctions on Iran. Mr Jaishankar said Iran too was discussed.

Mr Pompeo's visit to India is also a precursor to a meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan.

Analysts noted that the two countries faced many challenges in the relationship. "On both sides, there needs to be clearer understanding of each other's position," said Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

At an event last night, Mr Pompeo also touched on religious freedom in his speech.

"Let's stand up together in defence of religious freedom for all. Let's speak out strongly; when we compromise on those rights the world is worse off," he said.

His remarks come days after India rejected a US report on religious freedom, saying it is committed to tolerance and inclusion. The official report said religious freedom had come under attack in India and took note of mob lynchings by Hindu groups against members of the minority communities, particularly Muslims.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2019, with the headline 'Pompeo reassures India during visit amid trade spat'. Print Edition | Subscribe