A Step in the Same Direction

The 2+2 dialogue made all the right noises about the Indo-US relationship while deferring contentious issues to the background.

The recently concluded 2+2 dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of India and the United States assumes significance in optics as well as substance. It has been in news more for its previous postponements, and such a delay has invited criticism. Washington was called out for putting India low in its list of priorities and swan songs of the partnership were almost sung in many quarters. As such, the dialogue is a good juncture to assess the nature of this relationship and its future. New Delhi and Washington have come a long way in building relative mutual trust. Despite lingering differences over matching foreign policy priorities (particularly over Russia and Iran) New Delhi and Washington has shown maturity in incentivising cooperating, and minimizing, if not, eliminating differences.

The emphasis on the defence cooperation, with India’s elevated status as a major defense partner of the United States, has been  augmented through the dialogue. The signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) has breathed new life into the relationship. The foundational agreements, which are needed to negotiate on the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), has been at the heart of  bilateral negotiations regarding interoperability and defence equipment and technology transfer under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).

Following the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, COMCASA is a step further in terms of developing greater interoperability. The COMCASA as the 2+2 joint statement said, “will facilitate access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing US-origin platforms.” Many of the US origin defence systems that the Indian military uses, such as the C-130 Hercules, C-17 Globemaster or the P-8I will be enabled with encrypted communication technologies, which were previously using commercially available communication systems, in the absence of the COMCASA.

Given the volume of Russian origin defence systems currently used by the Indian military, the impact of the COMCASA will be limited for the near future, and will be of greater consequence in the event of increased share of American origin systems in the Indian military. In a significant trust-building move, secure communication will be established “between the Minister of External Affairs of India and the U.S. Secretary of State, and between the Minister of Defence of India and the U.S. Secretary of Defense.” Given the intention and political support on both sides for the burgeoning defence cooperation, it was a natural step to include India “among the top tier of countries entitled to license-free exports, re-exports, and transfers under License Exception Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1).”

Mil-to-mil interoperability exercises has been one of the most visible aspects of convergent strategic orientations, and in such circumstances, the move to create a tri-services exercise is a welcome step aimed at elevating the scope of defence cooperation. The commitment to “start exchanges between the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and the Indian Navy” is a welcome step, given concerns that US in its definition of the Indo-Pacific excludes the western Indian Ocean. Since, India’s naval engagement has largely been concentrated in the eastern Indian Ocean with the U.S. Pacific Command, now renamed the Indo-Pacific Command, it remains to be seen how NAVCENT-Indian Navy engagement will pan out in the Western Indian Ocean.

India’s robust defence ties with Russia and the need for access to Iran’s energy supplies coupled with America’s deteriorating relations with Russia and Iran under the Trump administration has negatively impacted New Delhi’s traction in balancing its relations. Has the 2+2 dialogue eased tensions or merely managed to douse the fire temporarily? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, commenting on sanctions on Iran and Russia and their implications for India, did not offer concrete signs of any India-specific relaxation. All that he committed was that the US will work with India, to come up with an outcome that makes sense for both countries. India does not perceive Iran and Russia as its threats, the way the US does, and such divergences will continue to pose limitations on bilateral relations. What the two countries can do is to accept these differences, and try to find ways of minimizing their impact on strategic convergence.

The rise of China elbowing US pre-eminence on the global scale, and breathing down India’s neck in South Asia has been a convergent point. However, the extent to which New Delhi and Washington can coordinate their approaches to counter China’s rise will test the robustness of their partnership. Recently, India’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific partnership was questioned in the context of positive diplomatic overtures in India-China relations after the Wuhan summit.

However, the 2+2 joint statement reiterated New Delhi and Washington’s commitment “to work together and in concert with other partners toward advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” and “emphasized the need to work collectively with other partner countries to support transparent, responsible, and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development.” This was a dig at China’s infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In this context, the proposal to start a new development finance institution, called the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), as an alternative to China’s BRI (and what it entails for infrastructure funding in the Indo-Pacific region) is an important development to track. Both India and the U.S. have categorically expressed their support for centrality of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a stable Indo-Pacific security architecture. Nevertheless, how these two countries in their own distinct interactions with the ASEAN and in a concerted fashion can help sustain ASEAN consensus amidst China’s capability and intention to undo the same is an area that needs to be further explored.

Overall, the 2+2 dialogue made all the right noises, while deferring contentious issues to the background. What is clear is that both India and the US occupy an important place in each other’s grand strategies and current geopolitics favours India-US strategic congruence. However, if a military alliance with the US remains a taboo for India’s foreign policy, the key questions remain. To what extent, can India expect the US to help beef up its military capability vis-à-vis China? To what extent can India  expect the US to give country-specific waivers and concessions while sanctioning countries like Iran and Russia?

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About the author

Monish Tourangbam

Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Politics, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. He was previously an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C and also a visiting faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.