U.S. election has no bearing on resolving bilateral trade dispute, says Jaishankar

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar during a meeting at the State Department in Washington D.C. on Sept. 30.

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Modi government is committed to resolving its contentious trade disputes with the U.S. in the near-term, instead of kicking it down the road till after the American presidential election in 2020, according to India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

During an interaction that followed his remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Sept. 30 where he set forth the Modi government’s 2.0 foreign policy, Jaishankar was asked — if in the midst of rumors of a U.S.-India trade deal to reach a modus vivendi and iron out the trade issue between Washington and Delhi, if the latter intends to “settle now or do you hold off for one more year in case there’s another president.” Donald Trump has regularly thrashed India on its high tariffs and restricted market access, and has condescendingly declared that India is the ‘king of tariffs.’

“I have a larger concern and the concern is this—in India, there is an inclination to put off decisions even otherwise,” he said to chuckles. “(But) No longer,” he declared.

Jaishankar said “my own sense is a year down the road, there would be more issues. There would be things we haven’t foreseen today.”

He said there are already a backlog of issues to deal with and “there are legacy issues. There are issues we are dealing with for the last few years,” and hence, irrespective of “what happens in the American elections, my inclination would be contrary,” to holding off till after Nov. 2020.

There were rumors that a trade deal would be hammered out during Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the U.S. and his meetings with Trump, who attended the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally in Houston on Sept. 22 and then met again on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, two days later.

In March, India was denied benefits that accrue from exports to the U.S. under the General System of Preferences (GSP) and since the high tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on certain Indian steel and aluminum products, India has been negotiating a trade package to alleviate the trade issue that has exacerbated into a major issue, particularly as the transactional Trump has been taking swipes at India, even though in the same breath he says Modi is his best friend.

The U.S. has also been castigating India for its restrictive markets, particularly for American agricultural and manufacturing products and other dairy item, as well as other American-made medical devices, and Trump has also in the same breath when he attacks China for the massive trade surplus Beijing enjoys with the U.S., been taking digs at India too.

Jaishankar, who also met with U.S. Secretary of State on Sept. 30 at the State Dept., said, "Both of us felt that while trade issues have progressed, for the larger relationship it was important (that) we see some early results out there.” Jaishankar told reporters about his meeting with Pompeo.

He said talks between Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer continue of ways to address some of the trade issues between the two countries, that has become an irritant and are constantly being referred to by Trump.

After India was denied GSP benefits and the U.S. also slammed India with high duties on its exports, New Delhi, imposed retaliatory tariffs on 28 U.S. products including almonds and apples from June 5.

Speaking to representatives of America Inc., at an event on Oct. 2 hosted by the the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, Jaishankar argued that trade deals “are not simple arithmetic but much more complicated as they involve a number of variables.”

However, he said, "My understanding of the conversations is that he (Goyal) has had with his counterpart and his officials, have had team to team - that there's been a very intense engagement. I am hopeful that something would come out of it.”

Earlier, responding to a question at The Atlantic Council, he noted that “the numbers are still good, pretty much in every sphere. What has happened is that there is a degree of spotlight on trade and economic issues, which was not there earlier. There is a salience to those issues in the overall policy making in Washington, which was not there earlier.”

Jaishankar said, "It's like what you were arguing in the dark corners of the room, now you are out there with the mic on. I think just because you are having a loud argument doesn't make it an intractable argument. My sense is, okay, you will push us, we'll push back, do a little bit of this and finally some kind of adjustment, some kind of accommodation would happen.”

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