Democrats concerned over Trump’s India policy

Disturbed by what they describe as a lack of leadership and policy coherence, Democrats from the U.S. House of Representatives, including the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel, have written to President Donald Trump.

Their letter, dated May 15, asks that the President appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and lists a series of concerns, including the lack of a coherent India policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is copied on the letter, which is dated May 15.

“We are deeply concerned by your failure, more than two years into your term, to name and have confirmed an Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs at the Department of State,” the letter reads.

Position vacant

The position has been vacant since January 2017, when Nisha Biswal left the Department. In April, the White House had confirmed that it was withdrawing the name of Robert Williams, an intelligence officer nominated for the top South and Central Asia job. The Department has been run by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells in the absence of a permanent appointment.

“From the failure of the Department’s senior officials to engage directly with Sri Lankan government officials during the country’s October-December 2018 constitutional crisis, to the Department’s failure to form a coherent India policy, to the mishandling of the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship in the midst of seeking a peace deal with the Taliban, it is clear that American leadership — when it is needed most — is missing in action,” the letter says, adding, “We believe that these failures are at least in part the result of not having a confirmed Assistant Secretary.”

The India-U.S. relationship has been mixed over the last two-odd years of the Trump administration. Mr. Trump had announced his South Asia policy in August 2017 — calling for a greater development role for India in Afghanistan (and linking that to India “making billions of dollars in trade” with the U.S., asking Pakistan to end its support for terrorism, and seeking stability in Afghanistan. The administration has also sought increased defence cooperation and engagement with India (including via the “Quad” and changed the name of U.S. Pacific Command to “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command” in 2018. The U.S. also played a central role in helping to get Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar sanctioned by the UN.

However, of late, the trade-related irritants in the relationship have piled up. Disagreements over ICT, dairy products, medical devices, India’s e-commerce policy and the U.S.’s H-1B visa policies are yet to be resolved. Mr. Trump’s March announcement that preferential trade benefits for India under the U.S.’s GSP program will be withdrawn and the U.S. requiring India to stop its imports of Iranian oil from May, have added to the strain on the relationship

The House letter lauds the performance of action officials — presumably a reference to Ms. Wells and her team, but says that not having the top diplomatic position filled “more than two years into your [Donald Trump’s] terms is not acceptable.”

The Democrats say that they cannot understand why the position remains unfulfilled given that, to their knowledge, a number of candidates inside and outside the State Department have been considered for the role.

In addition to Mr. Engel, seven Democrats, all members of the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation have signed the letter.

The Hindu has reached out to White House and State Department officials for a reaction.