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U.S. Secretaries Of Defense And State To Visit India


India is the world's biggest democracy, but the Trump administration has twice postponed high-level talks with India over the past year. Now the U.S. secretaries of state and defense are finally paying a visit to India. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Running for president, Donald Trump told Indian-Americans he would be best friends with India.




TRUMP: We love India. Thank you.

FRAYER: The U.S. and India are both nuclear-armed democracies, former British colonies, natural allies. But...

UDAY BHASKAR: You don't know what will be tomorrow's tweet that's going to emerge from the White House.

FRAYER: Uday Bhaskar directs the Society for Policy Studies in Delhi. He says, like many countries, India is still sussing out Trump, who has reportedly mimicked the accent of the Indian prime minister behind closed doors. The talks this week are expected to focus on defense and security. Any mistrust there could threaten U.S.-Indian cooperation in countering China, which, in the past decade, has taken control of strategic outposts across the Indian Ocean, India's backyard. Bhaskar explains.

BHASKAR: China now has almost a permanent presence from Djibouti, which is in the Horn of Africa, to Sri Lanka - Hambantota, where they have a port for 99 years, to parts of Myanmar or Bangladesh, where they are now going to be providing submarines.

FRAYER: India feels surrounded and doesn't have as much money as China to finance these regional projects. And that's one area where India would like the U.S. to step up. In exchange, the U.S. may have some demands for India - cut imports of Iranian oil and Russian weapons. The latter, India has been buying for decades.

BHASKAR: This is a very old relationship. It goes back to the Cold War. What President Trump and his administration are now trying to do is to accord a certain amount of space for India.

FRAYER: The U.S. may grant India waivers from sanctions imposed on countries that buy military equipment from Russia. India is already weaning itself off Russian arms and buying more American weapons instead. As for Iranian oil, India needs it. It has virtually no oil and gas of its own, and it has a booming economy demanding more energy. The U.S. wants all countries to stop buying Iranian oil by November. India is Iran's No. 2 oil buyer after China. Rajeswari Rajagopalan is a security analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. She says if the U.S. demands that India stop buying Iranian oil...

RAJESWARI PILLAI RAJAGOPALAN: I think India will say, that's not going to happen - not completely, especially because we don't want to be seen as taking orders from Washington.

FRAYER: But Rajagopalan says India does have other options - oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. It could stop buying Iranian oil, especially if the U.S. were willing to work out a deal on something called Chabahar. That's the name of an Indian-financed port in southern Iran. It's the one place where India is trying to do exactly what China has already done, finance strategic outposts across the region. But after 15 years in development, Chabahar Port is opening for business just as U.S. sanctions against such investments take effect. Bad timing, says Rajagopalan.

RAJAGOPALAN: It improves India's connectivity to Afghanistan. It also opens up India's links with the Central Asian republics. OK - what if India doesn't do it? Who's the one who would be doing it? Will China fill the vacuum there?

FRAYER: India's Chabahar Port project may help one U.S. goal, countering China, but hurt another, isolating Iran. It's an example of the tough decisions that the U.S. may have to make in any negotiations with India.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAPA'S "THE ORIGIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.