Countering terrorism a major contributor to strength of U.S.-India relations

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“Met with Indian FS Gokhale to advance progress on the U.S.-India strategic partnership & our shared vision for the Indo-Pacific, as well as reiterate that the U.S. stands shoulder-to-shoulder with India in the fight against terrorism,” tweeted President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton with this image. (Official White House Photo by Keegan Barber.)

India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s recent round of meetings March 11-13, with U.S. officials and lawmakers show the relations between Washington and New Delhi have been forged stronger by the fires of terrorism that hit India.

Strategic factors emerged as the overwhelming influence in relations between the two largest democracies: the fight against terrorism and Indo-Pacific cooperation.

“… the U.S. stands shoulder-to-shoulder with India in the fight against terrorism,” Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted about his meeting with Gokhale March 13, which he said was to “advance progress on the U.S.-India strategic partnership & our shared vision for the Indo-Pacific,”

Immediately after the Feb. 14, suicide bombing in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, that killed 40 paramilitary personnel of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force, President Trump said he understood Delhi’s wish take “very strong” action, and Bolton more categorically proclaimed India’s “right to retaliate.”

Secretary Mike Pompeo at that time, worked the phones to bring down  tensions in the region and President Trump, in the midst of announcing a failed summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, took time to indicate Washington was playing a big role in the release of Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistani custody.

Gokhale acknowledged this support in his meetings with officials. During the bilateral, Foreign Secretary Gokhale praised the U.S. Government and Secretary Pompeo personally, for the “firm support” that India received from the U.S in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Pulwama, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement. He also discussed developments after that suicide bombing with Pompeo,

“Secretary Pompeo affirmed that the United States stands with the people and government of India in the fight against terrorism,” and the importance of bringing those responsible for the Pulwama attack to justice as well as “the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil,” State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino said. India’s statement echoed these views with some shades of difference, turning America’s “meaningful action” into “tangible and irreversible action” against terrorists by Islamabad.

This U.S. backing is  especially important in the face of China’s propping up Pakistan. Despite India’s diplomatic efforts, China predictably vetoed the United Nation’s Security Council resolution introduced by France March 13, to declare Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar a global  terrorist, even though Jaish expressly claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack.

Countering terrorism and censuring Pakistan remaining top on the agenda in the meetings was a positive sign, though numerous other issues were discussed during the two days, including those that continue to confound relations.

Gokhale met United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, as well as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson, and several U.S. lawmakers including Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leaders of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees.

Congressman Brad Sherman, D-California tweeted March 11 with a photo — “Good to host and see Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Vijay Gokhale and Ambassador of India Mr. Harsh Shringla along with @   RepTedYoho    and @   RepTomSuozzi    in my office. We discussed the U.S. role in India-Pakistan relations and also discussed U.S.-India trade.”

Some American experts believe U.S. should do more. Columnist Eldridge Colby writing in the Wall Street Journal called for the U.S. to “take India’s side” and quit being neutral, which he said, only “encouraged Pakistan’s bad behavior…”.

Christine Fair, associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., a South Asia expert, has called repeatedly on the U.S. administration to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.

Despite this criticism, the growing importance the Trump administration gives to India contrasts with the loosening of ties with other traditional allies like the NATO, and strengthening of the Indo-Pacific alliances.

A step back also brings into perspective the similarity in Washington’s relations with other old allies where successful wide-ranging cooperation and problematic issues go hand-in-hand.

The NATO alliance, U.S.-Canada, and the massive economic, political and far more serious differences with Beijing indicate things are pretty fair weather with New Delhi.

In the same vein, discussions on counter-terrorism and Pakistan did not forestall attention to other pressing matters including Afghanistan; the need for balanced trade, strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region where Washington sees India as a key player to counter China; support for Washington’s position on Venezuela, including wanting India to stop importing oil from that South American country; to Indian students netted by the Farmington University sting operation; to revisiting investments in 6 nuclear plants in India stalled by India’s regulatory demands.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs described Foreign Secretary Gokhale’s visit March 11-13, as part of the bilateral “Foreign Office Consultation and Strategic Security Dialogue,”

Washington continued to emphasize the need for U.S.-India defense cooperation, and the growing U.S.-India economic partnership, “including joint efforts to expand bilateral trade in a balanced and reciprocal manner,” the State Department spokesperson detailed. Countering that, Gokhale “underscored the significant reduction in trade deficit in the last three years and conveyed India’s willingness to remain engaged with the U.S. for a meaningful and mutually acceptable package on trade issues,” the Indian side said.

President Trump recently took India off the list of countries receiving favorable trade status under the Generalized System of Preferences.

The three-day visit also included the 9th round of the India-US Strategic Security Dialogue which was held on the last day of Gokhale’s visit March 13. At this session, the two sides exchanged views on a range of global security and nonproliferation challenges and reaffirmed their commitment to work together to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems and to deny access to such weapons by terrorists and non-state actors .

They committed to strengthen bilateral security and civil nuclear cooperation, including the establishment of six U.S. nuclear power plants in India. The United States reaffirmed its strong support of India’s early membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Earlier, on March 12, India’s Additional Secretary for Disarmament and International Security Affairs, Indra Mani Pandey,  and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance and Dr. Yleem D. S. Poblete co-chaired the third round of the India-U.S. Space Dialogue, where they discussed trends in space threats; respective national space priorities; and opportunities for cooperation bilaterally and in multilateral forums, a press release from MEA said.

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