India-US 2-plus-2 talks: New Delhi must seek to establish new non-alignment with muscular characteristics

The visit of the winsome twosome of the US' secretaries of state and defence to New Delhi should be a cause for some cautious celebration in India. After all, its not everyday that such a powerful duo arrives to set the future tone for India-US relations, even while making rebuking noises to Pakistan. Make no mistake. This is a visit that recognises the importance of India for many reasons, not all of them good for New Delhi. But it is important, and the problem arises from the fact that its success depends on not just a capricious president, but a Congress that is out for blood.

The visit itself is part of the first-ever "Two-plus-Two" dialogue which was decided upon during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the United States last year. This proposal of getting the Defence and Foreign Ministers of both sides to meet was in itself was recognition of an expanding US-India relationship. Getting these two principals on both sides has been difficult, resulting in entirely foreseeable delays, but with clearly a full table of discussions lying ahead. It is however entirely typical of Indian and some foreign media outlets to focus on one of the most irrelevant issues in the relationship — which is the 'mimicking' of the Indian prime minister by Donald Trump. Remember that this is a president who called Kim Jong-un his best bud and insulted the Canadians.

The best thing the Ministry of External Affairs can do is deliver a message through a talking head on television or any public forum to suggest that Trump learn a bit of Hinglish to better appreciate the nuances of our concerns and interests. Anyway, both US secretaries will be in damage control mode on that issue.

There are some signs of this already. The "cancellation" of some $300 million in military aid to Pakistan on the eve of the visit to Islamabad, is a signal to both countries. This is yet another marker in a further deterioration of US- Pakistan ties, even though Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is making light of it. Last month, the US also suspended military training — which is another blow, since Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of aid under the head of International Military/Education Training (IMET). Military aid also includes counter-narcotics assistance, and bilateral and multilateral exercise support. All of that was meant to improve Pakistan's capability to fight terrorism. As the recent escalated violence in Afghanistan indicates, that is clearly not happening.

Representational image. News18

Representational image. News18

In most people’s opinion, this is a move that should have been made years ago. However, it is worth noting aid continues comes under various other heads. The Department of State's budget request for the present fiscal year for instance, includes a request for $200 million in Overseas Contingency Operations to “strengthen societal resilience to violent extremism; and expand private sector-led inclusive economic growth, including pursuing private-public partnerships with both US and Pakistani firms… to provide improved access to and quality services for its citizens, implement political and economic reforms, and foster a more inclusive and tolerant environment".

As a comparison, Bangladesh gets $80 million. Economic aid also continues. Aid is a tool that can be reversed or increased at any time of the US' choosing. The present cut may please Indians, but some of US pique may also come from the somewhat less-than-diplomatic acts of the new government. For instance, the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif's visit was followed by Pakistan supporting the "principled stance" of Iran on the now-cancelled nuclear deal. That was the foreign minister again. Qureshi is certainly making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, the two-plus-two dialogue between India and the US is meant to expand the "strategic relationship" rather than focus on signing of any specific defence deals. As all the world is now pointing out, the US has already taken a small but significant step in this direction by changing the designation of the Pacific Command changed to an "Indo-Pacific Command". That’s not just a soporific for bilateral consumption. It means a definite step towards making combined exercises easier in the naval domain. With the logistics agreement (LEMOA) already signed, the US side will want the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) signed as well, to expedite interoperability.

In simpler words, the US would want Indian forces to be able to not only operate seamlessly alongside its own, but also open up vital Indian ports/airports for logistical arrangements. That’s where the trouble is likely to start. India is wary of antagonising China for more reasons than one, and there is no doubt that Beijing will be watching the progress of this ‘strategic dialogue’ closely. Foreign policy mandarins have gone the extra mile to propitiate China. Reversing this at a time when US sanctions on trade, oil imports from Iran and defence buys from Russia are on a list of serious irritants will be at the root of Indian reservations.

Not all of these are insurmountable. The Iran oil sanctions issue has been circumvented before, with both sides giving room to the other’s interests to the extent possible. Sanctions on Russia by an irate Congress are another matter. India’s defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman has already indicated that India will go ahead with the S-400 missiles deal, adding rather tartly that US law does not apply to India. India is already buying a huge tranche of defence equipment from the US which includes the two deals signed recently for surface to air missiles for a billion dollars, and a government-to-government deal for 24 naval helicopters. In the future is the attractive prize of Lockheed F-16s, all of which could bring the US some $18 billion in total in this fiscal year, assuming all goes well .

There is a lot more on the horizon, and Congressmen are well aware of this. In May, US Congressmen were questioning the secretary of state as to how the US proposed to take the relationship with "the most populous democracy" forward at a faster rate. At another level, the India-US business relationship is also growing. As The New York Times had reported, Walmart and Amazon are both investing heavily in India, while the number of Indian students in the US increased to 186,000 hitting double-digit growth for the fourth consecutive year. India is far too big a resource for the US, and a businessman president is not going to risk that. Pressure for more concessions on trade will continue, although this will be the focus of the commerce ministers' dialogue, rather than the present one. Meanwhile, India has to work through the many Congressmen who are willing to find a way to avoid dragging India into what is essentially a US-Russia tangle as far as the defence relationship is concerned.

This is a testing time for Indian diplomacy, requiring a delicate balancing between a suspicious China and a US looking for a more solid alliance, not to mention the already deep resentment within Moscow at a historical ally drifting into the arms of a longtime opponent. Then there is also the reality that Imran Khan's Pakistan will try its utmost to mend fences with the US, and play the China card for all it's worth.

The two keys to the relationship are simple.

First, charm mightily as he may, Imran cannot deliver US objectives in Afghanistan. The Pakistan Army will never allow it, and it knows well that the US still needs some hand holding in Afghanistan. India can and should uptick its development assistance, with an eye on delivery and not theatricals. One key issue here is implementation of the envisaged “air corridor” with different Afghan cities, and possible assistance in coming elections. India has to be seen to be playing a key stabilising role, and this includes providing as much information on Indian assistance as possible. At present, the website of the Indian Embassy in Kabul is completely deficient, reflecting statements that are more than two years old. Marketing our assistance is as important as delivering it.

The second issue is obviously that of China. It has been said that too much caution can be a dangerous thing, especially when playing poker. Translated into foreign policy, that means giving up the historical attachment to non-alignment — even while the term itself is no longer politically acceptable. To get a good hand, India has to be seen to be drawing closer to the US, even while using the time-honoured language of non-alignment in joint statements. In other words, a new non-alignment with muscular characteristics. Go play!

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Updated Date: Sep 04, 2018 12:18:06 IST

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