When twenty most powerful leaders meet in a quest for political and economic stability of the world, there should be peace and cordiality rather than rants and sabre rattling. But the G-20 summit had more of the latter than the former. Not many hugs were seen in Osaka and there were cases of leaders avoiding each other and not shaking hands. Even PM Narendra Modi was not his usual ebullient self and appeared moody and thoughtful on television. There was palpable tension in the atmosphere as trade and cyber wars loomed large on the horizon.
The Modi-Trump meetings reflected the general state of affairs among the leaders. A veneer of friendliness before the cameras and hard bargaining behind the scenes took place. Trump congratulated Modi on a well- deserved “72% victory”(of what we do not know) and called him a “great friend” and proceeded to have a wide ranging discussion on issues like trade, technology, Iran, Russia and Huawei, more or less the same issues discussed in Delhi a few days earlier without much progress. The only decision on follow-up was that trade matters would be discussed between the two trade ministers. All others were left hanging after the two sides noted the interests of each other. The red lines on the two sides remained intact as they indicated some non-negotiable issues.
Things remained the same as they were at the end of the visit of Mike Pompeo to Delhi. At that time, the usual caveats like the optimism that friends can resolve the most intractable of problems were voiced, but India identified some issues as non-negotiable in India’s national interests. The purchase of Russian S-400 missiles was one of these. It was made clear that India would proceed with the acquisition of these missiles and expected that the purchase was eligible for waiver of CATSAA as these were weapons essential for India’s security. When Pompeo insisted that India should look for alternate sources because of the adversary nature of the Russian regime, Jaishankar gently reminded him of the days when India had to depend on the Soviet Union during the Cold War and that experience could not be “wished away.” Pompeo stood his ground, but left the decision to Modi and Trump. Modi did not raise the issue with Trump.
India stood firm on the sanctions against Iran also. India had no quarrel with the efforts of the international community to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The Iranian nuclear deal had served the purpose to a great extent. If the deal could be strengthened, it would be beneficial, but subjecting the people of Iran to great suffering and hurting the economies of several other countries would be counterproductive. Iran and the US were only ten minutes away from a war. Iranian oil was crucial for India’s energy security, apart from the fact that India had civilizational links with Iran. India had reduced import of oil earlier, but this time India would expect the US not to insist on cutting our nose to spite our face. Modi told Trump was it was not just a matter of oil, but of peace in the region. The West Asian region had been in turmoil for long and India had a major interest in peace and stability in the whole area because of the eight million strong Indian population there.
Trade was the most contentious issue in Delhi as well as in Osaka, where Modi and Trump met twice on the margins of the G-20 meeting. India had raised tariffs on 28 items imported from the US, including almonds, apples, pulses and walnut, in retaliation to America's withdrawal of preferential access for Indian products. The government on June last year decided to impose these duties in retaliation to the US decision of significantly hiking customs duties on certain steel and aluminium products. The US, in March last year, had imposed 25 per cent tariff on steel and a 10 per cent import duty on aluminium products.
In Delhi, the only silver lining in the tough discussions on trade was the indication from Pompeo that India’s position in the General System of Preference would be restored. There was no respite in the “minor trade war” between the two countries. This became evident when Trump himself tweeted about trade just before his meeting with Modi.
Trump termed the import duties "unacceptable" after mentioning that he was looking forward to meet PM Modi. In his tweet, Trump said, "I look forward to speaking with Prime Minister Modi about the fact that India, for years having put very high Tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the Tariffs even further. This is unacceptable and the Tariffs must be withdrawn!"
But the meeting between Modi and Trump went fairly well, Trump congratulating Modi and remarking that India-US relations were never better. Though trade was high on Trump’s agenda, the situation remained where it was in the Delhi talks." On some outstanding issues related to trade, I pushed for a constructive and pragmatic view. The real test of our intentions will be our ability to deal with this," he had said. Modi told Trump at the second meeting that India had taken certain steps after India was excluded from GSP and the entire issue of trade could be discussed. Finally , a decision was taken that the whole gamut of trade issues would be discussed between the two trade ministers.
The India-US meetings in Delhi and Osaka at the highest levels helped to identify the outstanding issues such as trade, Iran, Russian missiles, Afghanistan and 5G. Both sides were frank and forthright in setting forth their positions on these and other issues. There was some concern that Trump’s tweet would sour the summit, but both the leaders wisely avoided a contentious discussion.
The maturity in the relationship was evident at both the meetings. But it was also clear that much work remained to be done. It still remains to be seen whether India would compromise on issues such as trade, Iran, Russian missiles etc or look for other alternatives.
The change of vocabulary in the India- US conversation was significant and refreshing. Facing an election in 2020, Trump was playing to the gallery, while Modi was asserting his independence by standing his ground on vital issues. The differences were not papered over, but there was determination to resolve them in the days ahead. The atmosphere of war and peace in Osaka, engendered by the global disorder, protectionism technology challenges and terrorism had its impact on India-US relations also.