Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped off a plane Friday in Pyongyang for another round of high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea. But first he had to ditch a long-scheduled date with India.
The change in plans is the latest complication in the relationship between the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies, which have been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to open a new chapter in their ties.
Last year, the two countries agreed to hold a first-of-its-kind mini-summit that would bring together the U.S. secretaries of state and defense with their Indian counterparts. Both times they have tried to firm things up, however, something has gone awry on the U.S. side.
Now, as the Trump administration grapples with a full-blown trade war with China and pursues risky negotiations with North Korea, it is unclear when the meeting between four American and Indian officials will take place.
Earlier this spring, the two countries were gearing up for such talks in Washington but then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s dismissal derailed the plans for the meeting. Then, once Pompeo was in place, the United States and India agreed to reschedule the discussions for July 6.
Preparations for the mini-summit in Washington were in high gear when Pompeo telephoned Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and canceled Thursday's meeting.
U.S. officials declined to discuss the “unavoidable reasons” involved but stressed that the cancellation had nothing to do with U.S.-India ties. Still, it appears that for the Trump administration, arranging a new dialogue with India is a logistical challenge and not its highest priority.
That’s important because these days, there is no shortage of items for the two countries to discuss. Both the United States and India are interested in countering China’s influence in Asia and deepening their cooperation in matters of security.
At the same time, India finds itself on the wrong side of certain Trump administration policy moves. Last month, the United States demanded that countries such as India stop buying oil from Iran by Nov. 4 and warned they could face sanctions if they did not.
India is a major importer of Iranian crude. The Indian government recently urged oil refiners to find alternatives to Iranian supply, Reuters reported, but cutting off the supply within months would be a huge challenge. On Monday, the United States said it was prepared to work on a “case by case” basis with countries that are reducing their imports of Iranian oil.
India and the United States are also tangling over India’s planned purchase of a missile defense and antiaircraft system from Russia. The deal will run afoul of the new sanctions enacted last year by Congress in retaliation for Russian interference in U.S. elections. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has urged Congress to grant the administration some flexibility in granting waivers to countries like India, which have a long-standing reliance on Russian-made military equipment (an estimated 60 percent of India’s existing defense inventory is from Russia).
Then there are simmering trade tensions, with provocative moves by both sides. Last month India raised tariffs on a slew of American imports from chickpeas to rivets in retaliation for the United States hiking duties on steel and aluminum. The U.S. Trade Representative also announced it would review India’s participation in a program that allows duty-free access to American markets for certain goods from developing countries. India’s government, meanwhile, announced in February that it was raising tariffs on items like smartphones, a protectionist shift ahead of national elections due next year.
Despite such frictions, there is a desire in both governments to deepen the relationship and manage tensions. That’s why the inaugural meeting between the four top Indian and American officials in defense and diplomacy was viewed as a signal opportunity. Both sides have expressed eagerness to find a fresh date for the canceled talks — known as the "2+2" — but so far there is no clear indication of when they might happen.
“The U.S.-India relationship is a major priority for this administration,” a State Department spokesman said. “We remain firmly committed to our partnership with India and look forward to rescheduling the 2+2 as soon as possible.”