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Amid Strain In India-U.S. Ties, Pompeo Visit Comes As Ice-Breaker

There is no structured agenda for the talks between visiting U.S.Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, diplomatic sources indicated on Tuesday hours ahead of Pompeo’s arrival.

Nor for that matter are any agreements or MoUs expected to be signed. Sources said this was a ‘getting to know you’ visit with both sides looking at the relationship over the next five years. Jaishankar and Pompeo had spoken over the phone some days ago.

The sources were not clear if the S-400 missile defence system India is acquiring from Russia was on the agenda, but they hinted that in their reading, the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) gave enough leeway to the U.S. government to give India a waiver from sanctions.

“The U.S. is aware of our long standing defence relationship with Russia,” the sources said, pointing out that the agreement to buy the S-400 came after negotiations with Russia spread over at least a decade. “We don’t expect any coercion from the U.S., we retain our sovereign right to do as we want.”

They said “things had been moving nicely since the 2+2 meeting (foreign/defence ministers) recently. Quad meetings are held twice a year and India and the U.S. will be going in for the first trilateral exercise later this year.”

On oil imports from Iran, which are also under U.S. sanctions, the sources said the decision to buy or not buy was a commercial one.  “Private firms would take a view depending on how it affected their position in other markets,” the sources said, adding that “conversations with the U.S. on alternative supplies of oil was continuing.”

The sources insisted that “we are very committed to the Chabahar project and have the support of the U.S. government which understands its strategic significance.”

The sources acknowledged U.S. concerns over the Chinese tech firm Huawei and the forthcoming decision in India on 5G. “However, we have to take a decision based on our domestic economic requirements.”

The sources said “there was a lot of hype over tariffs when actually these are allowed by the WTO. We levy 100 per cent tariffs which Trump complains whereas they apply 300 per cent tariffs on other products.  The WTO says our tariffs are in line with those of other developing countries. Clearly, they need better understanding.”

India is looking closely at BECA (Basic Exchange & Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation), the last of three “foundational agreements” yet to be signed.  Technical discussions have been held with the U.S. but a decision is yet to be taken.

The sources said the “broad trajectory of the India-U.S. relationship was positive, within this there are certain issues but not the kind that could impact the strategic partnership. Give and take will take place.”

The sources pointed out that the U.S. government is yet to change its policy on the issue of H-1B visas. Also bilateral trade at $142 billion was growing at 10 per cent a year.  But they admitted that India had suffered some “collateral damage” as a result of U.S. policy towards other countries.

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