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In historic US-India talks, focus is on China & not Russian missiles Modi govt is eyeing

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The Americans believe that now’s not the time to corner Delhi, especially as the acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles is going to take quite long.

New Delhi: The Americans are unlikely to upset India by bringing up the $6-billion surface-to-air missile system the Modi government wants from Russia in the 2+2 talks in New Delhi.

On 6 September, when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis meets their Indian counterparts Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, the discussion is expected to focus on China, purchase of oil from Iran and cooperation on the Chabahar port.

These much-postponed talks, labelled the 2+2 dialogue, are significant as this is the first time the top defence and foreign affairs leaders from the two countries are meeting together.

Indications are that it is unlikely America will make India’s purchase of S-400 missiles a make-or-break issue despite its sanctions against Russian imports.

Indian government sources said they were determined not to stray from their course to finalise the deal when Russian President Vladimir Putin comes to Delhi for his summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the first week of October.

Also read: Army fears US could leak data to Pakistan if India-US sign military secrecy pact

Delhi is expected to thank Pompeo and Mattis for cancelling $300 million in security aid to Pakistan. But official sources said they were determined “not to link” the Pakistan initiative with the Russia deal.

Pompeo will travel to Islamabad for a few hours on 5 September before he lands in Delhi that night, but Mattis is expected to come straight to Delhi. “Pompeo will not be overnighting in Pakistan,” said a US official.

By the evening of 6 September, the two will have held talks with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and a meeting with Prime Minister Modi. A joint statement will then be read in front of journalists where all four ministers will be present, before the two visitors will fly back home.

The Iran question

Certainly, China’s expanding influence, which the Americans recognise is the “most important strategic event of the last couple of decades”, will occupy a considerable part of the conversation.

Randall G. Schriver, US assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, had stated at a meeting of the Carnegie thinktank in Washington DC last week that “China and how to respond to it will be front and centre” of the 2+2 dialogue.

The Communist Party-owned Global Times responded in an article Monday. “By envisaging a greater role for India in its Indo-Pacific strategy, Washington hopes India will be a central component of the strategic structure it is trying to establish in the Asia-Pacific region,” it said.

Also read: US warns India – Won’t continue to tolerate your defence buys from Russia

“But it’s not the best choice for India to become such a strategic follower of the US,” the Global Times added.

Schriver had also escalated the disagreement between India and the US on the S-400 missile to say that if the Indians didn’t pay heed to US displeasure, the two leaders, Modi and US President Donald Trump, would have to look at it.

But the Americans seem to have now come to the conclusion that the India-Russia deal “isn’t going to happen anytime soon”, and given India’s history of defence deals, things take their own sweet time.

Certainly, the S-400 negotiations with Russia have been going on for at least five years, since the latter half of the Obama administration.

Perhaps the Americans realise it’s not such a good idea to corner Delhi, when the goal of the strategic dialogue is to work with it to potentially combat China.

In the last 10-12 years, India has bought and/or ordered between $18-20 billion worth of defence equipment from the US, including 24 multi-role MH-60 Romeo helicopters for the Indian Navy worth Rs 13,500 crore (about $2 billion) last week.

Moreover, there are other key issues to talk about, such as India adhering to US-led sanctions on Iran as well as how to keep the momentum on developing the Chabahar port.

Indian officials are also reassured that Mattis, the man who pushed for and potentially obtained a waiver for specific nations who would have otherwise been sanctioned for dealing with Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), will be sitting on the table across from Swaraj and Sitharaman.

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