Besides China, the agenda for the much-postponed talks includes sale of Iran oil and India’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
New Delhi: The Indian and US foreign and defence ministers will hold the first-ever ‘2+2 dialogue’ in New Delhi Thursday.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis will be in conversation, separately and together, with their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, respectively.
All four will later call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after which a joint press statement will be released.
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A security and strategic affairs dialogue, the 2+2 offers the promise of high-level direct engagement on issues that affect India and the US bilaterally as well as the region.
The agenda includes the sale of Iran oil, which the US promises to soon sanction; the purchase by India of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system; the sale of US drones to India; the bedevilled bilateral trade relationship; access to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia; the Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) on military secrets; and China.
The China factor
It is expected that China will be at the front and centre of this conversation, even though neither side openly says so.
An increasingly weakened American establishment, bled by its 17-year-long war in Afghanistan, recently changed the name of its Pacific command to the Indo-Pacific command, in the hope that India will expand its own responsibilities across the two oceans.
The US administration is in the middle of a trade war with China, which shows no signs of cooling off. US President Donald Trump has vowed that he will make the trade relationship a more equal one — but he needs help with that, and the only country in the region with the heft to do so is India.
China’s determination to become a world power is evident in the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s pet project that winds its way across Asia, Europe and Africa.
As China expands its partnerships across south Asia, which India believes is part of its own traditional sphere of influence, New Delhi knows it needs help. The US is the only power still strong enough to do so.
Also read: Modi improving ties with China may give India more elbow room with Trump
A conversation about Iran
As US sanctions on Iran kick in on 4 November, Washington DC hopes New Delhi will cut down on oil imports from the country.
India buys as much as 25 per cent of its crude oil from Iran, which makes the west Asian nation its second highest supplier.
There is talk that India and the US may come to some understanding about India’s oil imports from Iran, which means that it will agree to abide by American sanctions in exchange for being allowed to build a port in Chabahar on the Persian Gulf.
India has already committed $500 million to the project. The Americans are pleased with the prospect because goods that dock in Chabahar can directly access landlocked
Afghanistan and Central Asia, routes for which only run through Pakistan at the moment.
The Russian shadow
Delhi’s $6 billion (Rs 40,000 crore) purchase of Russia’s Triumf air defence missile system is also in the crosshairs, with Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs Randall Schriver saying the US will frown upon this purchase.
Indian officials, however, say it is India’s sovereign right to decide what kind of defence equipment it wants to purchase. The India-Russia deal is likely to be signed when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits in October.
An American law called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) seeks to keep India from engaging with countries such as Russia and Iran that the US sees as adversaries and proposes sanctions against them.
It is hoped that the 2+2 dialogue will help resolve the repercussions of this Act on the purchase of the defence system from Russia as well as the procurement of oil from Iran.
Mike Pompeo will arrive in Delhi Wednesday evening after a brief visit to Islamabad. The fact that he didn’t stay in Islamabad overnight is a signal, sources say, that he doesn’t feel safe in the country.
The Taliban’s recent attacks in Ghazni and other Afghan cities, including the bombing in Kabul, is said to be leading the US to rethink its strategy towards Pakistan as an ally in this war on terror.
Just last week, the Pentagon withheld $300 million in aid to Pakistan, while Zalmay Khalilzad, the first ambassador to Afghanistan after the Taliban was unseated in December 2001, was named Wednesday by the US as a special advisor on the country.
Both moves are signals that Trump is determined to end America’s nearly two-decade-long involvement in the Afghan theatre. But if the US leaves, will Afghanistan once again fall into the hands of the Taliban? As a close neighbour and friend of Kabul, New Delhi is seriously concerned.
Also read: Army fears US could leak data to Pakistan if India-US sign military secrecy pact
There’s a lot of interest in the Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that enables “inter-operability” between the strategic partners. This will enable the two countries to exchange encrypted communication and share satellite data for navigation and missile targeting.
A very short introduction to 2+2 dialogue
On 27 June last year, Modi and Trump met for the first time at the White House.
In conversations between former Secretary of State Rex Tillersen and Swaraj, the two countries agreed on a new format to put strategic and security relationships centre-stage.
In August, the White House released a statement “establishing a new 2-by-2 ministerial dialogue … will elevate their (the two countries’) strategic consultations”.
The India-US strategic conversation emulates a model used by Japan in its strategic interactions with countries like the US, France, Russia and Australia.
It is believed that Ajit Doval, India’s security adviser, began discussing the possibility of such an arrangement with the US soon after Trump took office.
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Scheduled initially for 18-19 April, and then for 6 July, the dialogue was postponed by the US due to “unavoidable reasons”, including a last-minute decision by Pompeo to visit North Korea. In the end, that trip got cancelled as well.
The number of India-US bilateral initiatives has crossed 60. Apparently, the US is irked at what it sees as Delhi’s “chronic failure” to use these to their full potential.
The questions remain
Although a joint statement will be issued at the end of the dialogue, questions about implementation remain.
The fact is, India and the US have a heavy domestic political agenda over the next couple of years. Elections to several states are in the offing in India, to be followed by the general elections in mid-2019, while the US Congress goes in for elections towards the end of 2018.
Moreover, personal ties between Trump and Modi remain rocky, with reports of the US President mimicking the PM’s Gujarati accent and his belief that Modi is “just another Asian leader” said to have upset the PM. Still, India will hope that Trump visits Delhi before Modi’s term is out, even if it isn’t for the Republic Day celebrations.
Meanwhile, Delhi is deliberately keeping expectations low. Officials hope that despite the limited time left for the government, the quartet of leaders will give new and wholesome direction to the relationship.