By Seema Sirohi
India and the United States will meet for their first comprehensive dialogue next month under the new rubric of 2+2 devised by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.
Much rests on the meeting of four principals to chart a clearer path forward given the relative infrequency of high-level engagement between the two sides largely because of cabinet changes in Washington.
Defence secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expected in New Delhi on Sept. 6 to meet Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The visitors will also call on Modi.
The 2+2 replaces the Strategic and Commercial dialogue started under the Obama Administration in 2015 followed by a second meeting a year later. The Trump Administration’s idea was to elevate strategic consultations, combining defence and foreign policy issues into a coherent narrative.
The announcement of the new format was made after a phone call between Trump and Modi on Aug. 15 last year when the two “leaders resolved to enhance peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region” by establishing a ministerial dialogue.
Talking about defence and strategic issues where convergence is palpable is easier, for example, than battling on contentious trade issues, especially with the Trump Administration. While trade issues are not an agenda item for the 2+2 dialogue, the US side is still expected to raise “trade as a strategic issue.”
Modi too has embraced the term Indo-Pacific – he used it several times in his speech at the Shangri La dialogue in June – and stressed the need for a “rules-based international order in which all nations, small and large, count as equal and sovereign.”
That said, analysts noticed that Modi’s speech was more abstractions than realism and it did not mention the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, which is said to be an important arm of the larger Indo-Pacific strategy.
Although the Quad – a grouping of Japan, Australia, India and the US – has held two working-level meetings, the statements from all four countries have carried different emphases on the main aspects with little clarity on where it’s going.
India remains cautious about the Quad, despite its concerns about China’s growing footprint in its immediate neighbourhood, apparently because it doesn’t want to complicate relations with China any further, especially heading into the next general election. But such short-term thinking can have long-term impact.
There is some concern in Washington about Modi’s stance post the Wuhan summit when it appeared India was making too much accommodation for too little return. India’s signaling to China – whether on the Maldives or the Tibetans – has raised a few eyebrows.
Most would agree that a stronger India-US relationship creates better options vis-à-vis China and leveraging it provides more flexibility for New Delhi.
On the other hand, India’s shifting stance only gives more fodder to American skeptics who question Washington’s special treatment for India at every opportunity.
Mattis worked hard to get India a waiver from the wide-ranging Russia sanctions law called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA – not an easy task given the anti-Russia sentiment in the US Congress and the Democrats’ determination to punish the Trump Administration, irrespective of collateral damage.
Secondary sanctions on India over Iran similarly will most likely be delayed or managed. Pompeo has left the door open to granting waivers to a “handful of countries” if they ask for relief. Last month Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the administration would “consider exemptions” from sanctions in certain cases.
The US Commerce Department, meanwhile, gave India Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 status, bringing it on par with NATO countries and reducing the number of licenses needed for high-tech US exports. Usually STA-1 status is for countries that are members of all four international export control regimes but the Trump Administration made an exception for India.
It was a signal to China, which has blocked India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group on specious grounds. New Delhi is a member of the other three – Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group – thanks in part to US support. Now the 2+2 dialogue must figure out what concrete steps can be taken to best utilise the STA-1 status.
India’s status as a “major defence partner” is also crystallised in law – a new formulation somewhere between an ally and a friend that requires new thinking to be meaningful. US officials have to be willing to go out of the box to put some “meat on the bones” by sharing more defence technology, especially if they want India to move away from Russian systems.
Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said one of the agenda items for the upcoming dialogue is how to “operationalise India’s status as a major defence partner.”
The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, a major vehicle in the defence partnership, has held seven meetings and created several joint working groups since its launch in 2012 but no project is near fruition yet. Differences on what kind of technology – transformative as India wanted or workman like as US initially offered – consumed early discussions.
Even now what should or should not come under DTTI remains a matter of considerable difference. The US side wanted the F-16 and F-18 offers to be considered under DTTI but India didn’t want the fighter jets as a DTTI project.
While Washington must be forthright on what it would or would not share in terms of cutting-edge technology, New Delhi must also take quicker and smarter decisions.
India wants to go beyond a buyer-seller relationship — the US is today one of India’s top arms suppliers with $18 billion in sales – but to develop a good defence eco-system, it must be willing to invest real money and have a more efficient procurement process.
Finally, the two sides must figure out if the defence relationship is among the top 10 priorities and act accordingly. Or they can continue to move at a leisurely pace while the elephant in the room grows bigger and stronger.