India-US 2+2 talks: Focus on concrete outcomes; New Delhi should get over Cold War hangover

It is as important to understand what the inaugural 2+2 dialogue between India and the US isn’t, as it is to grasp what it is. To begin, the talks that will finally get under way on Thursday after two delays in 14 months since announcement, are not the occasion to unfold a laundry list of complaints, sign defence deals, declare grand strategies or conspire against any third nation.

 India-US 2+2 talks: Focus on concrete outcomes; New Delhi should get over Cold War hangover

File image of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. AP

The talks seek to institutionalise the progress in bilateral ties within a stable framework and add another stratum to the burgeoning strategic partnership. The dialogue may also serve to operationalise India’s status as a major defence partner of the US. Finally, exchange of ideas at the highest level provides both sides the opportunity to prevent irritants from becoming impediments in the relationship. Smoothening the rough edges is vital for a stable partnership, perhaps more so than even opening new areas of cooperation.

If shared security interests and values form the lynchpin of a closer bilateral embrace, the foundation for the two-plus-two meeting—that according to a US state department readout is expected to focus on “strengthening strategic, security, and defense cooperation” as both countries “jointly confront global challenges”—rests on an assumption that India and the US have moved past the need to find areas of commonality. The primary goal of the high-level exchange, therefore, is to deliver concrete outcomes that may serve to tighten the partnership.

Though the trajectory of bilateral ties remains upward and linear, it is worth remembering that pace of engagement might differ. Asia’s security architecture imposes some unavoidable constraints on India. It shares a volatile border with Pakistan and an unstable border with China. Both nations play the regional game of ‘containing’ India. New Delhi would have learnt from Doka La that a naked adversarial position against China, given its size, scope and intent, is unwise.

Similarly, India’s relationship with Iran is rooted in civilisational connect, energy needs and connectivity projects. Ties with Russia, for instance, have become almost entirely transactional but the nature and depth of India’s military-technical cooperation with Moscow (centred on import of high-end technology, upgradation and maintenance of existing military equipment) is such that an abandonment is unrealistic.

As Brookings India fellow Dhruva Jaishankar wrote in Hindustan Times, “India still needs Russia for military spare parts just as Moscow needs New Delhi for revenue. There are certain technologies that Russia is willing to provide—such as nuclear-powered submarine—that the likes of the United States never will. The defence relationship will therefore remain vital for the foreseeable future.”

It is unreasonable for the US to expect a fast and complete alignment of its domestic and foreign policy objectives with that of India’s. There has been a notable realignment in India’s stance on Iranian oil or Russian defence equipment (with US fast moving up the ladder on both counts) but New Delhi might not be ready (or able) to move as quickly on certain issues related to mutual strategic and security interests as the US would like it to. Moreover, its political system and colonial past prevent India from moving fast on contentious issues, such as signing of foundational military cooperation agreements with the US. Progress on Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA): where irrational fears dominate public discourse and create political impediments have been slow.

The upcoming dialogue is a good chance to take stock of the areas of cooperation, agreement and disagreement.

A brief primer on the outcomes and challenges is in order.

Outcomes:

Some progress is expected on COMCASA, though recent media reports suggest that signing on the dotted line may not actually happen during the talks. What we may expect is for the agreement to get an “in principle” approval that will pave the way for eventual formalisation. India had signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the first of the three foundational military cooperation agreements, in the same way. Signing of COMCASA, where the US has made some India-specific adjustments, might open the route for Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA): the third foundational pact that allows both countries to share sophisticated satellite data for navigation and missile targeting.

India’s fears on COMCASA are mostly an overreaction borne out of its Cold War hangover. If the US wants to spy on Indian communication network, it shall do so with or without India signing the agreement. As ORF fellow Abhijit Singh wrote in Livemint, “For India, in fact, the more damaging prospect is that of the absence of a pact, depriving its military of high-tech equipment from the US.” There could be solid progress on counter-terrorism. Media reports indicate that officials from both sides are working on a draft related to “anti-terror cooperation in intelligence sharing, terror financing and cyber security.”

We may also expect some announcement on “cross posting of officials at the US Defence Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and India’s recently created Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) to work on joint development projects,” as reported by The Hindu.

Apart from this, we may see the setting up of a hotline between Nirmala Sitharaman-James Mattis and Sushma Swaraj-Mike Pompeo, the placing of an Indian Navy liaison officer at the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in Bahrain and a pact between both sides to share intelligence on movement of vessels in the Indian Ocean region, according to The Indian Express. Apart from these enablers, we may also see some formal statements on maintenance of free and open Indo-Pacific, the cornerstone of US security arrangement with India, and some declaration on infrastructure initiatives.

A final outcome could be augmentation of the ‘2+2’ format between different levels of the government on both sides so that the dialogue process could be replicated and continued at lower levels. That frees the framework from falling prey to scheduling issues at the top. The ministerial dialogue could be restricted to an annual format.

Irritants

Much has been written about the US sanctions on Russia that have put India’s purchase of high-end anti-aircraft missile defence system from Russia in direct line of Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Some experts such as Ashley Tellis, who served as a top diplomat in the George W Bush administration and is now the senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have argued that India needs to recalibrate its approach on buying the S400 Triumf surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.

Tellis wrote for Carnegie that India essentially has three choices: 1) Scuttle the deal with Russia 2) Defer payment for the deal and wait for a change in circumstances and 3) Cut a deal with Trump by moving to acquire major defence deal so that the US president becomes agreeable to carve out a waiver for India.

Despite the threat of sanctions, India has reiterated that the purchase of five SAM from Russia at a cost of $6 billion shall not be cancelled, leading the US to caution India that it should not expect an automatic waiver.

This position will need walking on eggshells and careful diplomacy, much as India would need to make a convincing case about continuing its energy partnership with Iran (albeit at a lower scale) post-sanctions deadline. New Delhi could, for instance, point out to the US that shunning of Iranian oil could have adverse effects on India’s efforts in Afghanistan where the US wants India to “do more”. If Iran plays truant, then India cannot reach landlocked Afghanistan since the only other route through Pakistan remains inaccessible for India.

These give and takes (expect some more on issues related to trade from the US side and strict visa regime from India), however, do not take away from the larger picture best described by former Indian diplomat Lalit Mansingh to The New York Times. “The thinking inside and outside government has changed radically, with China now seen as our biggest threat… And if you look at China as a threat, you look around to see who can help us to defend against China. And it’s the US.”

This geopolitical reality—not to speak of a shared value system—will override other concerns and script an increasingly stronger strategic relationship. Talks may speed up the process.

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Updated Date: Sep 04, 2018 21:36:48 IST