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US says trade issues not reason for deferring 2+2 dialogue with India

US has cited secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s unavailability as the reason for the 2+2 dialogue being called off, and denied any link with trade, sanctions or policy issues.

world Updated: Jun 28, 2018 15:11 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
2+2 dialogue,India US talks,Mike Pompeo
US President Donald Trump (R) arrives for a joint news conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US, June 26, 2017. (Reuters File Photo)

The United States on Wednesday sought to downplay concerns about the postponement of the inaugural 2+2 meeting of its foreign affairs and defence ministers with their Indian counterparts, stating that it had “nothing to do with trade, sanctions or policy issues”.

Secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s unavailability for the meeting was cited as the reason for the meetings being called off. It was also stated that the postponement was not done suddenly, and officials on both sides knew of it beforehand.

He had to be somewhere else, an explanation of the postponement echoed by both Indian and American officials stated. His destination remains undisclosed and is, therefore, a subject of much speculation.

Pompeo and defense secretary James Mattis were to meet their Indian counterparts, Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, on July 6 for their first one-site meeting in a new format that has been dogged by postponements and cancellations over scheduling and personnel changes.

Pompeo called up Swaraj on Wednesday to convey his inability to make it due to “unavoidable reasons” that were not specified by either side. This led to speculation that the postponement could have been precipitated by one or all of the many policy differences festering between the two nations.

“This scheduling change has nothing to do with trade, sanctions or any other policy issues,” a state department spokesperson told Hindustan Times. “We remain firmly committed to our partnership with India and look forward to rescheduling the 2+2 as soon as possible.”

In a statement, the US embassy in Delhi said the partnership between the two countries was a major strategic priority for the Trump Administration and that it remained firmly committed to a strong relationship with India.

Despite growing bilateral trade, diplomatic engagements and defence ties, India and the United States find themselves grappling with an expanding array of policy differences on trade — some historical and some introduced by President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies — and the consequences of what New Delhi considers as “unilateral decisions” that the US seeks to force the rest of the world to comply with, namely sanctions against Russia and Iran.

India has long and tested relations with both countries, as has been the consensus in the Indian policy establishment for years. It is irked by repeated US demands — and the underlying disregard for India’s sovereign policy choices — to either dial down those ties or snap them altogether. Recently, the United States demanded that Iranian crude buyers — such as India and China —slash these imports to zero by November 4 when sanctions go into effect to force Teheran to give up its nuclear weapons programme altogether and reel back its political ambitions in the region.

New Delhi is also waiting for the Trump administration to determine how it wants to deal with India’s plans to buy air-defence systems from Russia — S-400s — without attracting collateral consequences under “secondary sanctions” tied to the Combatting America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (better known by its acronym CAATSA).

The administration is sympathetic to India’s plans to buy the Russian defence system, but only as part of a larger plan — traversing administrations — to eventually wean New Delhi off its traditional supplier and, equally importantly, slide over billions of dollars in defence trade to the United States.

Their support is not free, and India gets it.

Although these are serious policy differences, the state department spokesperson has pointed out that they had no role to play in Pompeo’s decision to call off the 2+2.

Both Indians and Americans felt frustrated and angered. Questions are being raised on both sides if this new 2+2 format is “jinxed”. After being announced following a call from President Trump to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Indian Independence Day in 2017, the format has only hurtled from one cancellation to another.

It was first planned to be held in New Delhi, but the two US components of the talks — Mattis and then secretary of state Rex Tillerson — couldn’t coordinate their dates and ended up visiting India separately.

The two countries then agreed to hold it in Washington DC in April. It was cancelled after President Trump fired Tillerson so close to the meeting that the latter’s replacement, Pompeo, could not have been confirmed to start carrying out the duties of the secretary of state as required under the rules.

Eventually, India proposed July 6 as the date and the US confirmed, only to beg off Wednesday, less than 10 days from a historic first meeting.

First Published: Jun 28, 2018 09:26 IST