When Prime Minister Narendra Modi befriended then US President Barack Obama on a first-name basis and after President Trump succeeded him to continue the friendship, no one thought that Indo-US relations would develop so many strains. Of late, there have been frictions on many fronts including trade, H1 B visas, stranded Indian immigrants, religious intolerance, tariffs etc.
The ties have also been affected by the three sets of American punitive measures, which include fresh sanctions on Russia, new sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the JCPOA and import tariffs imposed by the US.
Significantly, the two main issues that dominate India’s foreign policy in Modi’s fifth year happen to be building ties with Washington and Beijing. Modi has been trying to balance both. While India’s relations with the US were sliding, ties with China dipped over the confrontation at Doklam. Modi’s recent informal summit meeting with Xi Jinping is an example of efforts to improve ties with China while efforts are also being made to smoothen irritants with the US.
This week’s visit of the US envoy to UN, Nikki Haley, an Indian-origin member of Trump’s cabinet, is significant. As expected, during her three-day visit this week, she brought in a personal note for the Indian audience talking about how delighted she was to be back in India.
Though her visit came just before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis were due to hold joint talks with their Indian counterparts Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman in Washington on 6 July, India saw it as a snub when the talks were put off. Haley played it down applying a balm on the cancellation of the two plus two dialogue.
Why did Haley come at this point of time? “I am here to once again solidify our love for India, our belief in the friendship that India and the US have and our willingness to make that relation even stronger,” she said in Delhi and further explained that the US wants to take bilateral ties to the next level.
However, her mission was to send a blunt message to New Delhi on various issues while applying balm on some irritants. As expected, in her talks with Modi the most important thing was her request to re-assess Indo-Iran ties making it clear that no US trade partner will be exempt from new economic sanctions when they bite from November 5.
She told Modi that it was important India cut Iranian oil use, but said the US would work to allow New Delhi to use the Chhabahar port as a corridor to Afghanistan. Iran is the third-largest oil supplier to India. New Delhi’s response to Haley was, “We will take all necessary steps, including engagement with relevant stakeholders to ensure our energy security.”
The second was to caution on India’s ties with Moscow, a trusted ally. The defence deal between the two to buy five S400 long-range surface to air missile systems worth $4.5 billion and other joint projects are in the pipeline. The concern for South Block is that these sanctions might slow down India’s defence supplies.
The US is concerned about the alleged election meddling in 2016 by Russia besides their invasion of Crimea, the incident on British soil etc. Haley was blunt when she said, “We can’t help that it is now a law so anybody that any country that does business with Russia, with their intelligence communities or their defence communities, there are sanctions.” Sanctions on North Korea may not affect India much.
Haley also sent a definite message to the Modi government on the need for religious tolerance. She did that by an inter-faith visit to a guurdwara, a mosque, temple and a church during her brief visit. Like President Obama, who cautioned Modi at the end of his 2015 visit about the need for religious tolerance, Haley said, “India has multiple religions. India has a diverse community within its country. India needs to respect the freedom of religion, as does the United States.” This is significant in view of the recent criticism of a U.S federal commission about the religious intolerance in India.
Haley also played down the current trade war going on between US and India. Indian Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu’s recent visit to the US was not very successful. New Delhi has threatened to take the US to the WTO if it withdraws trade subsidies under the generalised system of preferences (GSP) and has decided to retaliate against US duties on Indian steel and aluminium and also has proposed to levy 50 per cent extra duty on 30 American goods.
Haley also talked about counter-terrorism cooperation but on the contentious issues of immigration, tariff wars and visa issues she did not commit to the U.S providing any relief. But what must have pleased Indian officials was her stand on Pakistan when she said that the US would not tolerate “its government, or any other government, giving safe haven to terrorists.” Pakistan is under pressure from Washington and the Afghan government to stop offering safe haven to militants.
On the whole, Haley soft-pedalled tough messages yielding nothing except smooth diplomatic talk.