US President Donald Trump specialises in delivering nasty surprises to friend and foe alike and he also doesn’t hesitate to undermine his own top team. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left India optimistically declaring the US-India partnership was “already beginning to reach new heights.” Soon afterwards, Trump, en route to the Osaka G-20 meeting, tweeted angrily from Air Force One about tariffs India’s imposed on US exports, calling them “unacceptable”. Trump neglected to mention, of course, the Indian tariffs are in response to US measures against India. Trump’s tweet emphasised the uncomfortable fact that diplomatic exchanges between the US and other countries are subject to his whims. The fact is India and the US have a long list of friction points, but in reality, the US is supposed to be looking at a bigger picture in which India becomes a closer ally and buys the weapons systems US has on offer.
Nevertheless, Trump’s always been obsessive about trade and he’s come down on India hard, even though Delhi’s US trade deficit is a piffling $24 billion. Compare that to a $400-billion-trade deficit with China and it might be said it’s hardly worth mentioning. But Trump likes to harp on Indian tariffs, particularly on Harley-Davidson motorbikes (that Delhi’s substantially reduced), and calls India “tariff king”. This, despite the fact the trade-deficit figures don’t include military purchases and the picture would alter considerably if they did. Other irritants include India’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia and the fact India can’t buy Iranian oil because of US sanctions. In Delhi, Pompeo conceded India’s facing difficulties because it can’t purchase Iranian oil, but stuck to his guns, insisting Iran’s the biggest “state sponsor of terror”. On a different front, Pompeo pitched against India’s proposed data localisation rules, saying it “would lead to Balkanisation of the Internet.” Data localisation could impact US giants like Amazon, Walmart and Google and they’re, inevitably, lobbying against it. Pompeo didn’t retreat when asked about a State Department report on India’s treatment of minorities.
But while there are a host of issues, the US is keen to have India as a partner it can rely on long-term. At a Congressional hearing recently, Senior State Department official Alice Wells noted the US now does more military exercises with India than with any other country. She also added India’s bought $18 billion in military hardware over the last decade. India, meantime, has indicated it wants to buy 10 Boeing P-8i reconnaissance aircraft worth ₹22,000 crore. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s steered the country closer to the US but hasn’t seen much reward for his efforts. It remains to be seen how his G-20 sidelines meeting goes in Osaka with Trump. Coming any closer to the US could involve tough policy choices for India. There may not be much more Delhi can do to bend its policies to accommodate Washington, without sacrificing its own national interests.