Osaka G20 Summit: Donald Trump Sounds Conciliatory Note

There certain regrets for the US foreign policy establishment and diplomatic corps in the Donald Trump era.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to India — the first top-level conversation between the two nations in 10 months — and said all politically correct things.

He called India a “friend” and described the much-discussed points of divergence as “disagreements” that are bound to happen between “great friends”.

One got the feeling that when Pompeo was addressing the joint news conference with Subramanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, he was trying to desperately paper over the cracks that appear to have widened between India and the US and are threatening to affect the structural and strategic convergences underpinning recent bonhomie. For his part, Jaishankar remained firm but showed the pragmatism and optimism that is expected of a seasoned and skilful diplomat.

For instance, when it came to tricky issues of trade friction and the threat of US CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions over India’s planned purchase of Russian S-400 Triumf air defence system, Pompeo chose not to go into specifics and instead called these issues “opportunities” that may bring the two nations closer.

“When I think about the two issues you raise, I think about them as real opportunities, things that I know that we can work together on, will perform a – provide a foundation for the relationship,” said Pompeo at the joint briefingin New Delhi on Wednesday.

The negative headlines that have accompanied his visit to India was obviously weighing heavy on Pompeo’s mind and he stressed on the fact that not only in Washington but also in the Capitol Hill (The Trump administration) it is well acknowledged that “India is an important friend and partner for the United States of America as well, that America is an enormous beneficiary of the success that India has and continues to have…”

These are standard diplomat-speak, but Pompeo’s words also carried a note of resolve and sincerity that the US understands the forks in the road in bilateral ties and is determined to address these in a way that can lead to doing the “right thing for both countries”.

“When I stare at these issues (CAATSA and trade friction), they’re issues of the moment, we will find a way to work through them, and I know that when we come out on the other side of each of those, the relationship will be stronger and we’ll have done great things together,” said Pompeo.

Jaishankar’s comments, on the recent fracas over trade, tariffs and market access that have dominated the headlines, reflected the attempt by the foreign policy establishment of both nations to focus on the convergences and underplay the divergences.

“Look, if you trade with somebody, and particularly they’re your biggest trading partners, it’s impossible that you don’t have trade issues.  But I think the sign of a mature relationship is that ability to negotiate your way through that and find common ground,” said the external affairs minister.

Both the leaders, for instance, took it upon themselves the task of “delivering” on the task expected of them. This involves going deep into the contentious issues and addressing them in a spirit of hard bargaining and compromise, but all within the framework of an understanding that close relationship between the two nations has been mutually beneficial in strategic and economic terms.

In Jaishankar’s words — “as foreign ministers, we both are very conscious of our responsibility to deliver on the vision of our leaders, and in doing so therefore our discussions took a very integrated view of all the domains which the relationship deals with” — the urgency to make the relationship work was evident.

Similarly, in an interview to Times of India Pompeo was quoted, as saying that “I feel a real responsibility and know Jaishankar feels the same, to deliver. We will protect our own interests, but we will work together. We have challenges on trade, on S-400, I see them. We will work through those.”

So the overwhelming note was that of optimism, even though both leaders were well aware of the structural nature of the divergences on issues such as trade, tariffs, immigration concerns, 5G connectivity, energy security, market access, data flows across borders and India’s purchase of military and defence equipment from Russia. In the joint presser and outside it, both Pompeo and Jaishankar tried hard to diffuse the tension and promised to work on areas of differences keeping the “big picture” in mind.

And then Donald Trump unleashed a tweet. Before leaving for Osaka for the G20 summit where he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi bilaterally and trilaterally, the US president raised the temperature with comments that not only undermined the efforts of Pompeo in India but also gave fodder for American sceptics in the bureaucracy, political class and media.

I look forward to speaking with Prime Minister Modi about the fact that India, for years having put very high Tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the Tariffs even further. This is unacceptable and the Tariffs must be withdrawn!