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US, India seek to boost ties

Ties with Iran and North Korea a thorny issue


NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) listens to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi yesterday.— AFP

NEW DELHI: India’s foreign minister defended the country’s ties with North Korea and Iran during talks yesterday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson aimed at building robust relations between the two giant democracies. The Trump administration has launched a new US effort to deepen military and economic ties with India as a way to balance China’s assertive posture across Asia.

At the talks with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, both sides pledged to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation and Tillerson said Washington stood ready to provide India with advanced military technology. “The United States supports India’s emergence as a leading power and will continue to contribute to Indian capabilities to provide security throughout the region,” Tillerson told a joint news conference with Swaraj.

Meanwhile, India has slashed trade with North Korea in line with UN sanctions over the North’s nuclear tests but will not close its Pyongyang embassy, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said yesterday. North Korea was one of a number of key Asian security topics raised by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in New Delhi. The United States has reportedly been urging allies to cut diplomatic ties with the North.

“We had open discussion on the issues of trade reduction and closing the embassy,” Swaraj told a press conference after the meeting. “I told Mr Tillerson that as far as trade is concerned it has come down, really come down. It has become minimal.” Trade between India and North Korea amounted to $130 million in 2016-17 but in the current fiscal year it stands at $10.95 million, according to official data. India banned all trade with the North, except food and medicine, from April this year, the foreign ministry said.

Swaraj said the embassy should remain as a link with the North. “Our embassy there is very small. But the embassy is there and I told Mr Tillerson that some of your friendly nations’ embassies should stay there so that some channels of communication remain open.” Swaraj said Tillerson “understood” and “appreciated” India’s stand. While India has strongly condemned North’s nuclear tests, it has maintained diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

The focus on North Korea comes as US President Donald Trump heads to China next month, where he is expected to urge President Xi Jinping to make good on his commitments to try to rein in North Korea. Tillerson, who flew in from Pakistan which he called an important US ally in the restive region, also held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is driving closer ties with the United States. But India, a former leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement and which was on the opposite side of the United States during the Cold War, still remains wary of any alliances with major powers lest it affect its autonomy.

Ties to Iran
India has also maintained ties with Iran which is being targeted by the Trump administration for its alleged military support of extremist groups in the Middle East and for its ballistic missile program. India has long sourced its oil from Iran, but in recent years the two sides have been also collaborating on key infrastructure projects. New Delhi is pushing hard for the development of Chabahar port on the Iranian coast as a hub for its trade links to the resource-rich countries of central Asia and Afghanistan but the Trump administration’s tough stance has raised new concerns over the future of that project.

But Tillerson struck a conciliatory stance on India’s ties with Iran, saying it wouldn’t come in the way of countries doing legitimate business there. “It is not our objective to harm the Iranian people nor is it our objective to interfere with legitimate business activities that are going on with other businesses, whether they be from Europe, India or agreements that are in place or promote economic development and activity to the benefit of our friends and allies,” he said. America’s disagreements were with the Iranian regime, and in particular the Iran Revolutionary Guard, he said. India is especially keen on the Chabahar port as a way to bypass long-time foe Pakistan which does not allow easy trade and transit arrangements to Afghanistan and beyond.

Tillerson said the US stood should-to-shoulder with India in the fight against terrorism which New Delhi has long said is centered in militant groups operating from inside Pakistan. He said militant groups were a threat to everyone in the region, including Pakistan itself. “Quite frankly my view – and I expressed this to the leadership of Pakistan – is we also are concerned about the stability and security of Pakistan’s government as well.” The United States has been urging Pakistan to act against the groups that operate in Afghanistan, India and inside Pakistan itself. “Terrorist safe havens will not be tolerated,” Tillerson said. Pakistan says it is doing all it can to fight the militants.- Agencies

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