Pompeo plans Modi-‘mumkin’ test for ties during visit

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo plans to use Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign slogan — “Modi hai to mumkin hai” — to explore new frontiers for bilateral ties on his upcoming India visit during which he expects discussions on myriad issues including trade, the thorniest of them all.

In a speech roughly etching the contours of his June 24 visit, which he grumbled playfully was scooped by Indian news media as soon as it was planned, the secretary also confirmed, for the first time by a cabinet official, of US approval and offer of sale of high-tech defense equipment to India such as armed drone and missile defense systems, such as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense(THAAD) and Patriot-3.

Attesting to growing defense cooperation and a solidified common vision on the “Indo-Pacific”, Pompeo said one of the signature contributions of the Trump administration to India-US relations was its “far tougher stand on Pakistan’s unacceptable support for terrorism in the region” compared to previous dispensations.

There was plenty more the two countries can do together though, he argued. “As Prime Minister Modi said in his latest campaign – he said, ‘Modi Hai to Mumkin Hai’, ‘Modi makes it possible’. I’m looking forward to exploring what’s possible between our two peoples”.

The top American diplomat’s visit to India comes amidst simmering trade tensions exacerbated most recently by the cancellation of India’s eligibility for a special trade status that allowed it to send goods worth $6 billion in 2018 free of import duty, and difficult conversations forced by US sanctions on Iranian crude and Russian defense deals such as the S-400 missile defense system.

But first the convergence. After underscoring the Trump administration’s “tougher (than preceding administrations)” posture on Pakistan’s support for terrorism, Pompeo offered a remarkably clear and complete understanding of India’s concerns about its regional adversaries China and Pakistan.

“We respect India as a truly sovereign, important country, with its own unique politics and its own unique strategic challenges,” he said, setting up a key pronouncement that is expected to be noted widely in the region.

“We get it. We realize it’s different to deal with the likes of China and Pakistan from across the ocean than it is when they are on your borders.”

There has been growing convergence between India and the United States on challenges from China and Pakistan, and American and Indian diplomats have cited as proof the extra lengths the United States went to to force China to allow the UN Security Council to designate Masood Azhar, the founder-leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit that has claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack.

But India and the United States have had differences, specially on trade, and for a long time. “I’m sure we’ll broach some tough topics too,” Secretary Pompeo said, acknowledging them in a much anticipated address at an annual summit of US-India Business Council (USIBC), an India-specific wing of the powerful US chamber of commerce.

“But as we democracies have come to know, that we work out our disagreements. We bring them to the table honestly and fairly. And we’ll probably discuss the recent decision on the GSP program.”

Secretary Pompeo was referring to the Generalized System of Preferences, a special trade status the US has granted to around 120 developing countries allowing them to send some of their goods into the United States free of import duty.

India was the biggest beneficiary of the programme until it was axed by the Trump administration earlier this month for obstinate refusal to open up it markets to American medical devices and dairy products.

But the Trump administration does not intend to stop there, and it is understood to be considering other trade actions to force the issue. “I do hope, and remain open – and we remain open to dialogue, and hope that our friends in India will drop their trade barriers,” Pompeo said, without threatening consequences or mentioning them.

Pompeo also plans to raise the issue of data localization stemming from a 2018 Indian decision — by the Reserve Bank of India first but to be codified by the new parliament as part of a package — mandating digital payment services to store data on Indian consumers on servers located in India as protection against data breaches and privacy violations.

US companies and the USIBC, Pompeo’s host Wednesday, have opposed the move and lobbied India to reverse it. “We’ll also push for free flow of data across borders, not just to help American companies, but to protect data and secure consumers’ privacy,” Pompeo said.

The top American diplomat added that he plans to raise the issue of 5G as well: “Speaking of privacy, we are eager to help India establish secure communications networks – including 5G networks as well.”

It could not be immediately ascertained if that meant the US secretary of state will push India to prevent the Chinese telecom giant Huawei from its 5G network plans as has the United States over concerns about the company’s independence from the Chinese government. India is set to decide soon if it will allow Huawei to participate in 5G trials ahead of an auction of spectrum.

First Published:
Jun 13, 2019 12:01 IST

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