Originally Published 2018-09-11 11:30:08 Published on Sep 11, 2018
India-US 2+2 talks: Egos need to be squashed to strengthen ties

The inaugural 2+2 Strategic and Diplomatic Dialogue between India and the United States is being held at a critical juncture. A lot has transpired since Prime Minister Modi met President Trump in Washington more than a year ago, and there is a host of issues that require an honest evaluation from both sides.

New Door to Real-Time Strategic India-US Cooperation

While it is expected that the final negotiations of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and other high-level defense exchanges under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) will take center stage, both sides will also need to clarify their respective positions vis-à-vis Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China.

Therefore, when India’s Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj meet their American counterparts, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 6 September, they will be expected to dive into the specificities of what unites and divides the two countries on the strategic front.

COMCASA opens the door for real-time strategic cooperation between New Delhi and Washington, especially at a time when both nations are wary of Beijing’s growing belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region, specifically in the maritime domain.

COMCASA will allow joint operability and secure communications between the armed forces of the two nations, enabling more complex military exercises. Furthermore, the agreement will facilitate better synchronization of American military platforms in the Indian armed forces, and open the door for future transfers of high-end military equipment. On the eve of the talks, India approved the purchase of helicopters, howitzers and air defense missile systems worth around Rs 46,000 crore including 24 naval multi-role MH-60 ‘Romeo’ choppers worth Rs 13,500 crore. Other such deals can be expected during the dialogue, especially after the US granted Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA-1) status to India.

Factoring in Pakistan & Afghanistan

Discussions should also be expected on the use of space technologies for military purposes, cybersecurity cooperation, the Indo-US Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC), information sharing on white shipping, and coordination on emerging technologies between the Indian Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO) and the US Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx).

Under the Trump administration, the US has met India’s long-standing demand of imposing harsher conditions on Pakistan, and the Pentagon last week canceled a USD 300 million aid package to Islamabad over its inaction on terror groups.

Secretary Pompeo has paid a visit to newly-installed Pakistani premier Imran Khan on his way to the 2+2 dialogue, and India will expect him to be doubly clear with Prime Minister Khan about America’s disapproval of an extremist friendly Islamabad.

Similarly, Afghanistan is a crucial arena for both nations, especially at a time when the frail civilian administration in Kabul is losing ground to the Taliban in the rural areas. Any American withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan is central to India’s future strategic course in the country, and both sides need a frank discussion on how to manage the region post-withdrawal.

The China Factor

The key plank that binds the strategic partnership between the two nations and calls for closer coordination is the growing strategic influence of China in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing has unabashedly seized upon strategic space in the South China Sea through its construction of artificial islands and has built a vast network of interdependencies in Asia through its infrastructure development under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

India and US need to come up with a joint strategy to counter this growing influence in the entire Indo-Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia, and present the region with an alternative to the BRI.

The political emergency in Maldives and China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean also require a synchronized line. Moreover, the future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue also hangs in balance as India and the US chart out a coordinated strategic direction.

From Free Trade to Security Alliances

Yet, despite progress on these fronts, New Delhi needs to be cautious about how it approaches the talks. Washington in recent times, has allowed India to dictate the pace at which the bilateral strategic partnership should proceed, but its patience might be wearing thin.

Foreign policy under Donald Trump has witnessed an American disengagement from world affairs unseen in modern times.

Everything from free trade to security alliances has been put on the table as a bargaining chip to exact the outcomes that President Trump desires. India needs to be cognizant of this transactional nature during the upcoming dialogue. The US will demand concessions from India on its military dealings with Moscow and its economic dealings with Iran, while expecting closer strategic coordination on its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy in countering China.

As Randall Schriver, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the US Department of Defense, recently noted, a waiver to India on sanctions relating to the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is not guaranteed if New Delhi goes ahead with the purchase of the S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems from Moscow.

The waiver under CAATSA remains at the discretion of President Trump. Likewise, the vitriolic nature of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reinstatement of sanctions on Tehran, begs the question, if this US administration is willing to go easy on India, if New Delhi continues to purchase oil and natural gas from Iran.

A Lot More than Sanctions & Visas at Play

Indian policymakers on their end need to consider the substance of all these relationships and stand firm on its own priorities while balancing its position with a US that desires more commitment in managing the fluid dynamics of Asian security.

Heading into a major election year, Prime Minister Modi is reticent from openly confronting China, as evidenced by the Wuhan summit, and is also conscious of putting all its eggs in Washington’s basket by disengaging with partners like Iran and Russia.

It is clear from Prime Minister Modi’s speech earlier in the year in Singapore, that India prefers multilateral engagement and in keeping all options open.

The potential of strategic coordination between the two nations is enormous, and both sides need to realize that a lot more than sanctions and visas are at play. America’s diplomatic tussle with Russia and Iran, and India’s reticence on fully committing to the US militarily, reveal a divergence, that cannot be insulated any further. When the four cabinet officials meet on 6 September, their differing views need accommodation from each other.

The Road Ahead

India, on its part, needs to realise that cooperation with the US cannot reach its full potential if it remains uncompromising with Washington on multiple fronts. At the same time, the US needs to realise that India’s diplomatic relationships in Asia need to be carefully managed and cannot be overhauled at a moment’s notice. History can’t be written twice, and both sides need to make sure that the 2+2 dialogue provides the right direction to the India-US relationship in the years to come.

This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.