“Strategic autonomy” is a term that is frequently used by Indian diplomats as they attempt to establish the country’s presence in the emerging global order. With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expected in New Delhi on Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s Group of Twenty summit, India’s diplomatic corps has geared up to exercise “strategic autonomy” with a delicate balancing act.

According to sources in the Ministry of External Affairs, trade and terrorism will figure prominently in the bilateral talks between Pompeo and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Pompeo will also meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of the bilateral talks.

At the same time, Indian diplomats will seek to minimize complications that come from antagonisms between the United States and Japan on the one hand and China and Russia on the other.

“Trade and Iran will definitely figure in the talks with Secretary Pompeo,” Vishnu Prakash, a former Indian diplomat, told Asia Times. “But we should also realize that the US needs India as China continues to assert itself in the region. It is natural for the US to take measures to maintain its edge in its position as the leader of the free world as well as technology. But this calls for a lot of diplomacy between India and the US and not less.”

Trade a relatively minor issue

Topping the bilateral agenda, said Indian Foreign Ministry sources, will be terrorism in the South Asian region, the irritants in trade, and rising tensions with Iran. Nearly 60% of India’s energy imports come from the Middle East and any hostilities could be catastrophic for India. A large Indian diaspora also resides in the Gulf/Middle East and New Delhi is keen to impress this upon Pompeo during the talks.

On trade, Indian and US officials don’t see a significant challenge. “Frankly, if I was trading with India, I would be frustrated,” Prakash said. “India has been dragging its feet on trade deals with Canada, Korea, and is not clear on what it wants to do with the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership]. Businesses need a regulatory predictability that India has failed to establish. So I can understand the current irritants in the India-US trade relationship.”

Foreign Ministry sources also said there would be discussions on Afghanistan, and on US plans to sell more military hardware to India. While India’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 Triumf missile is not up for discussion, India will be keen to talk about more US military hardware.

Pompeo is also eager to further the defense relationship and to sell the F-21, Seahawk naval helicopters, more Apache attack helicopters and the Orion maritime surveillance aircraft. If successful, this will generate a lot of jobs for the US military-industrial complex.

Meanwhile, the US has remained adamant on India’s ending its nearly 11% oil imports from Iran. In exchange, the US cited its assistance to India in pushing the Chinese to lift their restriction on designating the Pakistani Masood Azhar as an “international terrorist.”

“On Iran, we have to handle it. India has not supported unilateral US sanctions, but it does not make sense for our private companies to be exposed to the threat of sanctions for doing business in Iran,” Arun Singh, former Indian ambassador the US, told Asia Times. “However, the US has exempted Chabahar Port, where India has significant strategic and financial investments. I believe that the US also views Chabahar as important to their plans to build stability in Afghanistan and connectivity to Central Asia.”

Convergence and competition

However, New Delhi will be taking different approaches with the US when it comes to the Indo-Pacific region and continental Asia. “There is a convergence” among India, Japan and the US in the Indo-Pacific, Singh said. “But as far as continental Asia is concerned, India has very different stakes in its relationship with Russia and China, and is a part of SCO [Shanghai Cooperative Organization] along with them. Russia is a historical strategic partner and a major defense supplier. With China, there are sustained efforts to build positive dimensions in the relationship despite differences. Therefore, we will see India exercising its options that best suit its strategic needs.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj on September 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singh
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with former Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj on September 6, 2018. File photo: AFP/Prakash Singh

Singh handled Pakistan for a large part of his career and also served in Israel and the US. This gives him a wide perspective on the current issues at stake.

“The US relationship is clearly important in the context of India’s comprehensive national interests,” he said. The United States is India’s largest trading partner, has the largest Indian diaspora, including students, and now is a major defense supplier, he noted. “The US also sees India as an important relationship, including in the context of the Indo-Pacific, and there has been bipartisan support for [that relationship] to grow under Republican and Democratic presidents.”

Super trilaterals at the G20

While Pompeo leaves for Osaka, soon after his meetings in New Delhi, for the G20 summit, India is preparing for two Osaka trilaterals that define its delicate balancing act. Vivek Katju, a veteran diplomat, said the “super-trilaterals” showed India’s strategic autonomy. “As the US pursues its global agenda, it must be mindful of India’s interests,” he said.

India will hold a trilateral with its BRICS partners Russia and China. It will also engage in the India-Japan-US trilateral, seeking to maintain a balance between its interests in the Indo-Pacific and continental Asia. “At the G20, India will continue to maintain its strategic autonomy. However, the trilateral between India, the US and Japan is now at the summit level, as at the last G 20, which is significant,” Singh said.

At stake is a vital bilateral relationship with the United States, which has grown significantly since 2000. Nuclear testing carried out in 1998 by India “was a transformative impetus to the relationship and both countries are quite mindful of that,” Vishnu Prakash said. “Jaishankar is a master of realpolitik and if anyone can balance the relationship, it will be him.”

On balance, India remains closer to the US than ever before. But it also recognizes that it needs to maintain its historical foreign policy relationships while keeping a cautious eye on China.