US and India hold strategic talks as domestic crises distract

Meeting comes amid violent clashes in India about controversial new citizenship law

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shake hands with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar during a bilateral meeting at the Department of State in Washington, Wednesday, Dec.18, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper were meeting Indian ministers on Wednesday for strategic and security talks as both countries deal with domestic crises.

The Trump administration is trying to push its strategy to counter the rising influence of China.

But the meeting comes amid protests and violent clashes in India over a new citizenship law, and the impeachment vote on Wednesday evening against US President Donald Trump in the House.

The State Department said the talks with India’s Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, would reflect “the rapid growth of the vital strategic partnership between the United States and India".

China’s growing global influence is of particular concern for the US and India, and for challenges on the subcontinent, notably India's rivalry with Pakistan.

Mr Trump caused a stir this year by suggesting that India might be open to US mediation over the disputed region of Kashmir.

India has rejected any international help in resolving that dispute with Pakistan.

Meanwhile, India’s new law granting citizenship on the basis of religion has drawn deep opposition.

It provides citizenship for Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India illegally from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It does not apply to Muslims.

Critics say the Citizenship Amendment Act is the latest effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims, and a breach of the country’s secular constitution.

The Trump administration has remained relatively silent on India’s proposed law, which Mr Modi has defended as a humanitarian gesture.

In one of the few public comments by the US on the law, top US diplomat for South Asia, Alice Wells, told Congress in late October that the administration was concerned about the possible denial of citizenship to vulnerable people.

But Ms Wells also also noted the legal challenges to the move.

“We will continue to watch this very closely but I would stress that the appeal process is still open, the judicial process is still working in India," Ms Wells said.

"And as a democracy, we respect other democracies' abilities to self-police and self-regulate."