By Arul Louis
New York, June 11 (IANS) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that he will be visiting India later this month to build on “an incredibly important relationship” that is “closely tied economically”.
Pompeo’s visit will take place as the two countries get ready for a meeting between a newly re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump during the G-20 Summit on June 28 and 29 in Osaka, Japan.
In preparation for his visit, Pompeo will be outlining to Indian business leaders in Washington on Wednesday “what we’ve been working on for my entire time here in the Indo-Pacific”, he told reporters at the State Department on Monday.
Pompeo’s focus on economic ties comes amid stresses in trade relations from Trump’s America First policy and priority to cut trade deficits.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity both to give the set of remarks about how it is our relationship is so closely tied economically, but also importantly the things that the United States and India can continue to do to build out what is an incredibly important relationship for both countries,” he said.
Modi and Trump are to meet during the G-20 Summit hosted by Japan in Osaka on June 28 and 29.
Pompeo described India as “an important part of President Trump’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific”.
His visit to the region starting on June 24 will “broaden and deepen our partnership with key countries to advance our shared goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific”, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said on Monday.
“Prime Minister Modi’s recent election victory provides an excellent opportunity for him to implement his vision for a strong and prosperous India that plays a leading role on the global stage,” she added.
After India, Pompeo is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka.
Pompeo is to deliver the keynote address on Wednesday to the two-day India Ideas Summit of the US-India Business Council on “The US and India: An Economic Foundation for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.
India has been in Trump’s trade crosshairs. The US ended tariff concessions to some imports from India under the General Scheme of Preferences earlier this month accusing New Delhi of not giving “equitable and reasonable access” to its markets.
India was also hit by Trump imposing 25 per cent tariff on steel imports and 10 aluminium imports last year. India has threatened retaliatory tariffs on agricultural imports from the US.
Trump has criticised India several times over import duties on Harley Davidson motorcycles, which are a favourite of a section of his base, and whiskey, a product of Kentucky state that was one of his electoral bastions.
India has also criticised the US tightening restrictions on H1-B professional visas that affects technology workers from India and moves to strip the spouses of the visa-holders of work permits.
India has also been affected by the harsh oil sanctions on Iran and Washington’s refusal to extend the exemption given to New Delhi for buying oil from Teheran.
The trade diplomacy baton appears to have been passed on to Pompeo from Trump officials with primary responsibility. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the principal negotiator, did not make an expected visit to India last year and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross cancelled a visit in February.
Although Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy that places democracies India and the US as “bookends of stability” for the region is girded by shared defence interests, the economic factor has also been introduced into it.
Late last month, the Quad countries — India, Australia, Japan and the US that are the key players in balancing China in the Indo-Pacific — discussed leveraging the power of the private sector by encouraging “transparent, principles-based investment in quality infrastructure”.
This would be a strategy to counter China’s economic diplomacy that promotes infrastructure development in its quest for global influence.
The US wants to increase military hardware sales to India and Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, who oversees defence sales, visited India days after the Indian elections.
The State Department said before his visit that the agenda was to focus on “expanding our security cooperation, and furthering opportunities for American industry” and noted that US-India bilateral defence trade has risen from virtually zero in 2008 to $15 billion now.
But India buying the Russian S-400 anti-missile defence system could be a roadblock to the US expanding military sales to India.
The US has retaliated against NATO partner Turkey over its planned purchase of the system denying the sale of F-35 stealth jets and restricting training for its air force.
While Washington opposes India’s purchase of the S-400, it has not directly threatened sanctions. Pompeo is expected to try to persuade India to drop the purchase and offer alternatives.
(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)