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U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman head to a meeting, New Delhi, India, Sept. 6, 2018 (AP photo by Manish Swarup).

Tensions, Many Exacerbated by Trump, Overshadow High-Level U.S. Talks in India

Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018

What a difference a year makes. Last October, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a major policy speech on U.S.-India ties and the critical role India would play in the Trump administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy. A month later in Vietnam, at the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, President Donald Trump championed India’s role in the region—even though it’s not a member of APEC—signaling that he was serious about accelerating strategic cooperation with India. But now, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis in New Delhi this week for high-level talks with their Indian counterparts—the so-called two-plus-two ministerial dialogue—the relationship is adrift, weighed down by several disagreements and with little momentum toward that far-reaching strategic partnership.

What went wrong? Part of the answer is circumstances, but Trump’s slow staffing decisions, his prioritization of other issues, and his fixation on short-sighted trade disputes has left the Indian government disillusioned. The Trump administration has fumbled an opportunity to cultivate better ties with India, which has always been a tricky U.S. relationship. It can still avoid the pitfalls ahead, but the kind of progress initially hinted at by Tillerson and others a year ago now seems out of reach. ...

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