2-plus-2 dialogue: India, US step up defence ties with COMCASA pact but New Delhi cautious on Iran oil, Russian systems

The “strategic” dialogue is over, and apparently, 2+2 doesn’t actually make four. Maybe three and a half or even less.  However, the fact that the two most important ministers of the United States and India got together to discuss what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the “next things that are big and strategic and will go on for 20, 40, 50 years” is important enough to merit close cynosure by not only the sound byte analysts within this country, but also by neighbours big and small.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Union minister Sushma Swaraj during a joint press conference. PTI

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Union minister Sushma Swaraj during a joint press conference. PTI

The 2+2 talks are the result of a series of bilateral actions starting with president Bill Clinton's visit to India in 2000. Since then, there have been inter-ministerial meetings on many levels that were meant to put India and the US on the road to a truly strategic relationship. This process is now reaching fruition. Simply put, the present talks are about decisions by New Delhi in terms of the big, large and sometimes frightening picture, which is the number of steps that India is prepared to take to go down the road to operating as a “nearly allied” country with the US. As India’s defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman remarked, “defence came out as the single most important aspect" of discussions. Apart from the US defence minister James Mattis, also in attendance was the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Joseph Dunford. He was certainly not in New Delhi to enjoy the weather. Moreover, all the specificities to come out of the visit related to defence. This included not only the now famous communications agreement (COMCASA) but also one to allow defence trade (STA-1) and the Memorandum of Intent between the US Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and the Indian Defence Innovation Organisation – Innovation for Defence Excellence (DIO-iDEX).

Face it, from the time of Kautilya and before, the state of relations between two countries was determined by whether they fought together or against each other. Within this big picture are the smaller frames, which includes the question of against just what and whom the two were to ‘defend’ themselves. That’s a lot in today’s context, where “war” includes economic, political, and foreign policy measures, not to mention a common ideology to fight on. That last one is easy in the case of the US and India. Both are noisy democracies, one with global ambitions and the other with a purely regional view. The link between the two worldviews was apparent in the first significant outcome of the talks, which was the agreement to hold the first ever tri-service exercise on the east coast, aimed at synergising the capabilities of both countries. The fact that it's on the east coast is in line with the extent of the operating area of Pacific Command, now called the Indo-Pacific Command.

The second important initiative was the final signing of the rather mysteriously named COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement), the last of these so-called “foundational agreements, that allow close defence cooperation. The first such agreement, the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) was signed in 2012, with an agreement on logistics signed last year. So it took a good long time ( and a new government) to get to a stage where actual joint operations are possible. As the title suggests, both forces will now be able to communicate on secure channels, which logically means that India will get the equipment so far denied to it. For instance, if India does buy the US F-16s, it will come equipped with highly secure systems which will allow Indian pilots to access and operate on a larger “intelligence picture” which includes high-resolution imagery among other things. That translates to far greater operational flexibility between the two forces and is certainly a giant leap in terms of interoperability.

The COMCASA, therefore, has two end effects. On the one hand, it will lead to India being drawn slowly into the US defence industry net. Lockheed Martin is already offering the next generation F-18s. Others are lining up with offers of drones, and artillery. The third important aspect was therefore the signing of the License Exception Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA-1) is meant to encourage this process, with India now included among the top tier countries in terms of defence licensing and exports. Inevitably, there are fears that a heavy dependence on the US is unhealthy given not only historical memories of denial of military spares during a war, but also that the US is getting more and more ‘sanctions prone’ in recent years.  Second, opening a communication door also means opening several other windows too. Officials fear that opening a communication link of this kind will lead to leakage of details about areas of electronic communications. The Indian Army, for instance, continues to rely heavily on Russian equipment. In joint exercises with the US earlier, the Indian Air Force for instance, was careful to shut off radars and jammers of its Sukhois to prevent snooping by the US and others. How this agreement will affect the upcoming buy of the S-400s will be a question to ponder on, as also the security of other vital Russian supplied systems. Firewalls between systems is possible, but hardly 100 per cent reliable. In short, it’s immensely advantageous to have access to US imagery and communications intelligence, as long as both are fighting on the same side.

Arising from this is the basic question as to the nitty gritty of what may be called ‘non allied defence’, and what the two are supposed to defend against. The US priority is obvious to everyone. Earlier, General Dunford while briefing members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee had stated candidly that “A long term strategic security relationship with India is critical to ensuring freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean”. Sri Lanka or tiny Singapore are hardly among those likely to oppose such a requirement. The opponent is therefore clear. The joint statement however indicates that New Delhi is still hedging on this. India’s vision of cooperation in the Indian Ocean was pegged firmly to the prime minister’s speech at the Shangri-la dialogue in June this year. That statement put the US, Russia, China and ASEAN countries all in the same basket of “partners” though with different layering and priorities. This is classic diplomatic balancing, even while mentioning the issue of “transparent, responsible, and sustainable debt financing practices”, an issue that is important to India as regards not only Pakistan but also Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The joint statement also had a one liner that is however extremely important. After years of hanging back by both sides, agreement has been reached on quietly opening up the Indian Navy to directly contact not only with their counterparts in the Pacific Command, but also on the other side of the Indian Ocean. The fact that the US seemed to want to “box” India into the Pacific was worrying to most officials, since India’s key security concerns actually lie to the west. Thus the commitment in the joint statement to ensure contact between the Indian Navy and the US Central Command is welcome. This will probably lead to more jointness in anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations into the west, where the main concentrations of terrorist groups lie. This also includes detection and interdiction of arms shipments allegedly from Iran to the Houthis.

Cut thereafter to Pompeo’s  opening remarks where he sought Indian assistance on two important issues. One was the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, a process which is yet to get going in terms of specifics. Undoubtedly, India would be immensely interested in the specifics of the North Korean programme, since much of it is understood to have originated from the Pakistani nuclear weapons effort during the time of Abdul Qadir Khan, and probably later in terms of warhead design. Here is scope for India’s  nuclear scientists and organisations to study how best to institute a verifiable de-nuclearisation of the country – an entire field of technology in itself — even while ensuring that key knowledge is not allowed to go into the wrong hands. This is an exciting challenge if it goes through. There is a tempting hook in the joint statement too. It commits both not only to work together on the programme, but also “to hold accountable those countries that have supported them”. A lot of persons in Pakistan are not going to like that at all.

It was however the second issue that is likely to raise eyebrows. Pompeo also looked for Indian cooperation “to explore ways to partner on holding this outlaw regime in Iran responsible for all of its malign activity”. That’s a deep one for India to swallow. In June, reports noted directions from the ministry to be ready to cut oil imports from Iran to a near zero. In July, the joint statement of  the 15th Foreign Office consultations between the two countries, pledged to “maintain the momentum of mutually beneficial multifaceted bilateral cooperation and exchanges between the two sides”. In off the table leaks, Iran also made it quite clear that any cuts in oil imports would result in a lowering of Indian investment in connectivity projects like Chahbahar. What price the acclaimed visit of the prime minister to Iran, and the commitments made there? This is more than about energy sources. It is a test of Indian independence of action and reliability on the world stage.

All in all, the agreement draws India more closely into a US defence embrace, even while leaving New Delhi free to conduct its liaisons elsewhere – for the moment. As these various agreements kick in, that will become more difficult, especially in buying weapons from other countries. Choices are already reducing, as in terms of policy on Iran. The advantages to India are undoubtedly tangible in terms of enhanced access to technology and better operational capabilities. There is also the lure of further pressure on Pakistan, with Pompeo making just a pit stop there. Foreign Office mandarins are unused to this kind of powerful lobbying and influence building that the US is now bringing to bear. If China and Russia takes all this amiss, it will be even more alarming to a bureaucracy that had remained largely sheltered by the bipolar order. Meanwhile, Russia, China and Mongolia are preparing to hold “Vostok - 2018” a tri-service 300,000 troops exercise, also involving two naval fleets and airborne divisions. Indian diplomatic maneuvering is going to have to be intense to say the least. It is to be hoped that South Block has the manpower and expertise to keep its poise in a regional security situation that is fast resembling the rolling deck of a ship on a foaming sea.

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Updated Date: Sep 07, 2018 13:57:55 IST

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