NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis skirted diplomatic potholes in their long-delayed talks with top Indian officials here on Thursday, where they faced the implacable challenge of isolating Russia and Iran from New Delhi’s strategic ambit.

There was no deft balancing required, however, for India to use the occasion to slam Pakistan’s alleged role in fomenting terrorism. Inevitably, China too was in the crosshairs. “We see the Indo-Pacific as a free, open and inclusive concept, with Asean centrality at the core and defined by a common rules-based order that both our countries are pursuing,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in a statement after the talks.

She also named Pakistan as a source of problems for both countries. “We welcomed the recent designations of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists by the United States … in the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 attacks, we recognised the importance of justice and retribution for the masterminds behind this terrorist attack,” Swaraj said.

She presented India’s perspective on Afghanistan. “We also discussed the situation in South Asia in some detail. India supports President Trump’s South Asia Policy … we discussed the ongoing efforts by India and the United States in promoting an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan government-controlled reconciliation process that brings together all ethnic groups and political formation in the country.”

The so-called 2+2 talks came amid Washington’s demands that India stop buying Iranian oil and a Russian air-defence system and news reports that President Donald Trump has privately mimicked the accent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But with trade and strategic ties growing between the US and India, both countries looked keen to skirt diplomatic hurdles. US reports quoted Mattis as indicating a spirit of accommodation with Delhi’s political compulsions with Russia.

The sticking points include the purchase of the Russian S-400 ground-to-air missile system and Indian financed-Chahbahar port in India. Both engagements could trigger US sanctions on India.

“Freedom means that at times nations don’t agree with each other,” Mattis was quoted as telling reporters on his way to India. He was asked about India’s plans to buy the sophisticated Russian air-defence system. “That doesn’t mean we can’t be partners. That doesn’t mean we don’t respect the sovereignty of those nations.”

The India-US 2+2 talks have been postponed twice, the last time when Pompeo was dispatched in July for talks in North Korea. Pompeo told Swaraj the US values its relationship with India, and noted “we fully support India’s rise”.

Mattis and Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also met separately before joining the other two leaders for talks. “We have acquired various advanced defence platforms from the US. We are thus partners in building defence capability in the broadest sense of the term,” Sitharaman said. “Today our partnership has become one of the most consequential in the region and in the world,” Mattis said.

India is leaning on President Trump’s early bonhomie with Indians in the United States. Running for president, he was one of the first candidates to film a campaign message in Hindi. “We love the Hindus!” Trump exclaimed at an October 2016 rally in New Jersey.

But last winter, footage of Trump clasping his hands and imitating Modi went viral in India, US reports say. They said around the same time, a Washington Post report said Trump “has been known to affect an Indian accent” when talking about Modi in private meetings. Modi who visited the White House in June 2017, nevertheless has a “fairly good relationship” with Trump, according to Indian analysts.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2018