The signals from Washington leading to the first important strategic dialogue in the newly inaugurated 2+2 format had indicated that its agenda would include pressurizing India to reduce its defense dependence on Russia, to cooperate more closely in the Indo-Pacific and to impose sanctions against Iran. But the dialogue that took place on September 6, 2018 between Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis ended in New Delhi with emphasis on continuity in defense cooperation, fighting terrorism and enhancing trade, sidestepping the thorny issues of India’s relations with Russia, China and Iran.
It was quite possible that these issues were discussed, but not included in the Joint Statement as there was no agreement. But it could also be that many White House officials are “working to insulate their operations from the President’s whims”, as stated in an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, said to have been written by an Administration insider. “There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next,” a top official complained recently, exasperated by an Oval Office meeting at which the president flip-flopped on a major policy decision he’d made only a week earlier.” said the op-ed.
In these circumstances, India, like many citizens of the US, may have stood its ground on Russia, China and Iran, hoping that the US itself might change its positions on some of these issues and hedging on them might not do any harm to India-US relations. Keeping to its strategic autonomy, it may be looking beyond Trump to have more pragmatic policies to emanate from the US itself. The Ministers have done their best in papering over differences, but a tweet from the President will blow the papering away and reveal difficult options for India. What we seem to be doing is safeguarding the established avenues of cooperation for consolidation of the relationship at a future date. But India succumbed to the temptation to walk into a tighter embrace in defense cooperation, fight against terrorism and security in the Indo-Pacific, high priorities of the Trump Administration.
The signing of a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that was negotiated over a long period of time as part of strengthening India’s status of a Major Defense Partner of the United States served to stress continuity in the relationship, despite the wish list carried by the US delegation to dictate terms to India on some fundamental aspects of India’s foreign policy. Showing COMCASA as a major outcome of the dialogue is unreal, because we have been resisting it and the other fundamental agreements the US had been asking us to sign as a Major Defense Partner. The US wish list may have been discussed, but the Joint Statement skirts those issues and stresses mutual cooperation, particularly in defense and combating terror. The only hint of difference came when Defense Secretary made it a point to mention that the question of India’s acquisition of S-400 missile defense system from Russia was not settled. It goes to the credit of both countries that the atmosphere of the dialogue was not vitiated by contentious issues.
The dialogue has been described in the Joint Statement as a “reflection of the shared commitment by Prime Minister Modi and President Trump to provide a positive, forward-looking vision for the India-U.S. strategic partnership and to promote synergy in their diplomatic and security efforts.” Moreover, it recognizes that the two countries are strategic partners, major and independent stakeholders in world affairs and are committed to work together on regional and global issues, including in bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral formats.
Apart from signing the COMCASA, India and the US have created a new tri-services exercise and agreed to further increase personnel exchanges between the two militaries and defense organizations. They have also agreed to strengthen cooperation between the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the Indian Navy, underscoring the importance of deepening their maritime cooperation in the western Indian Ocean.
The 2+2 dialogue reaffirmed the consensus on terrorism reached in Washington last year without diluting the clear denunciation of cross border terrorism from Pakistan, though secretary Pompeo had just visited Pakistan to greet the Prime Minister. The reiteration of denial of anti-terror funding to Pakistan was also music to Indian ears.
The Wuhan summit and Prime Minister Modi’s presentation at the Shangri-La dialogue on June 1, 2018 had indicated a dilution of the US embrace in the Indo-Pacific region and that is reflected in the rather tame paragraph in the Joint Statement on the cooperation between the two countries. The formulation is guarded when it states: “Both sides committed to work together and in concert with other partners toward advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, based on recognition of ASEAN centrality and on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, good governance, free and fair trade, and freedom of navigation and overflight.” There is no mention of the Quadrilateral an institution either, except as a forum for cooperation.
The shared commitment to a united, sovereign, democratic, inclusive, stable, prosperous, and peaceful Afghanistan and support for a peace and reconciliation process and India’s role in Afghanistan’s development does not reveal any forward movement. The statement on North Korea is routine, but the reference to those countries that supported North Korea in its nuclear activities recognizes Indian concerns. The support to India’s admission to the NSG has no operational element in it. The demand for balancing trade, a favorite point of President Trump, is hidden in a seemingly innocuous section on trade. A sense of resignation is evident in the section on civil nuclear energy partnership and the projected establishment of six nuclear power plants in India.
The 2+2 dialogue, a novelty in itself, has not achieved much in terms of policy initiatives or resolving issues. The Indian side is reported to have raised the prickly issue of H1B visa, but there is no indication of the response. What seems to have been accomplished is a reaffirmation of India as a Major Defense Partner and defining some ways to realize its full potential. And concretely, a hotline has been established between 2 and 2 to facilitate close consultation, even though there is no risk of accidental conflict.