The recent successful conclusion of the 2+2 Dialogue between India and the United States is viewed both, as a natural culmination of a long process to maximize Indo-US cooperation and commonality of interests as also as a step with potential to affect India’s relations with her traditional friends and neighbours.
The 2+2 Dialogue, between India and the US, was finally conducted on 6th Sep 2018, after a few initial hiccups which occurred due to postponement from an earlier date a few weeks prior. It is being considered by many as the natural culmination of a long process to maximize Indo-US cooperation in a world where they see considerable commonality of interests between the two nations. It was the end of the Cold War in 1989 which witnessed the Indo-US relationship shed the baggage of the past which had seen them exist in opposite camps, although without any major clash of strategic interests. It took little time to realize the convergence of interests as the US shifted focus towards Asia and India’s strategic balancing pole of the former Soviet Union melted. China’s inevitable rise was considered a common threat although its manifestation was perceived differently. Both India and the US needed to cooperate in the economic and strategic spheres in pursuance of their interests.
The 30-year relationship since then has not been without its challenges and ups and downs. The relative lukewarm attitude of the first Clinton Administration, the negative effects of the 1998 nuclear tests and lack of US sensitivity towards India’s suffering against Pakistan sponsored terrorism through the Nineties and the early millennium, all contributed towards ensuring that Indo US relations did not proceed beyond the transactional. What placed the relationship on a more even keel and pointed it towards the path of becoming potentially transformational was the understanding of President George Bush. India as a balancing power to China’s potential hegemony has been a core US interest. Its geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean sets it apart in US interests, with no distinct US ally from the Middle East to the Philippines. The Indo US Nuclear Deal set up to legitimize India’s entry into the armed nuclear club and open the path to eventual acceptance of India as a part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was the real game changer.
The Scope and Strategic Importance of 2+2 Dialogue
Replacing the Strategic Commercial Dialogue, in which India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Commerce Ministry participated, it is for the first time that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and MEA joined hands to progress a core strategic relationship. More than just their own charters the two ministries with their respective Ministers are actually responsible for the strategic content beyond the literal meaning of the term. With an aim of topping 500 Billion USD trade by 2025 and cooperating in diverse fields the relationship is slated to grow exponentially provided that the geopolitical environment supports such cooperation. 2+2 Dialogue now tops the 50 plus bilateral dialogues that are on between India and the US making it the highest-level dialogue India is indulging with any nation.
The earlier intended instrument of cooperation –the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) - was converted to what was touted as a more India specific agreement called COMCASA or Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. The latter opens up the scope of sharing of various communication codes, links and data which form part of the national communications grid. However, to what extent is India going to share sensitive communication data will remain subject to reciprocity and security of interests. It can hardly be expected that the armed forces will open their communication systems to the fullest. It is expected that whatever happens in this field it will move incrementally and with further development of trust. The agreement is a virtual prerequisite for India to enjoy any benefits of advanced US technology which is sought from the US in terms of weaponry and military equipment that need sensitive encrypted military intelligence and technology; armed drones being a case in point. The ability to conduct joint training which is going to exponentially increase will require that a degree of interoperability exists which such sharing of classified information.
Strategic and defense cooperation with the US always involves the understanding and memorizing of a series of acronyms. COMCASA follows another famous acronym – LEMOA – or Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, signed in Aug 2016. This enables reciprocal logistic support exclusively during authorized port visits, joint training, joint exercises, and humanitarian assistance. It could mean servicing of ships of the US Seventh Fleet in some of India’s shipyards.
Equally important is the convergence on the need for greater naval cooperation in the western Indian Ocean region and overall maritime cooperation. This is a natural corollary to the understanding of India’s larger maritime role with the naming of the former Asia Pacific region as the Indo Pacific. The next step to the naming of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) as US Indo Pacific Command is the greater defining of India’s role in the extended region. To this end the agreement to place an Indian Navy officer at the US Naval Central Command at Bahrain will be a positive one, once it materializes; it has been in the making for long. The agreement extends to India the entitlement to license-free exports, re-exports, and transfers under License Exception Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1) while being committed to explore other means to support further expansion in two-way trade in defense items and defense manufacturing supply chain linkages. The joint statement at the end revealed the extent of agreements which involve intelligence sharing, countering transnational terror, the conduct of tri-service exercises and areas in the people to people domain.
There is no doubt that the 2+2 Dialogue has been a major success in the run from the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiated in 2004. The optics involved in the meeting and the media coverage convey much convergence. However, equally there have been major concerns on the looming challenges brought on by some of the perceptions of President Trump which affect India’s strategic interests. While a high-profile event such as the 2+2 Dialogue, in the making for some time, signals a very positive turn in Indo-US relations the immediate and long term challenges need articulation. There are no binaries in an emerging world where there is no set world order and resets take place based on triggers from time to time, even at the behest of personalities. Indo-US relations cannot be isolated from the realities of today’s other strategic domains – Sino-India relations, India-Russia relations, other existing and emerging bilateral and multilateral equations and India’s energy and economic interests.
The Geopolitical Challenges to Effective Indo-US Strategic Partnership
There are five areas of India’s strategic interests/concerns where the effects of the 2+2 Dialogue and progress of the IUSSP will have a major impact. These are discussed below.
It’s important to note that among India’s long standing relationships one of the most affected by the emerging Indo-US Strategic Partnership (IUSSP) is the one between India and Russia. Ever since 1991 when the former Soviet Union imploded the rump Russian state has retained a special relationship with India and never pressured it into avoiding forging of relationships with others. In fact, both countries needed each other; India for the Russian defense industry to which it had far easier access and Russia for the economic value that India brought to the redevelopment of Russia as a nation. Of course, Russia’s special position as a member of the Permanent 5 (P5) of the UN Security Council and an armed nuclear power remained unique, something India could ill afford to lose sight of. India and Russia remain important partners as part of BRICS. However, it is India’s concerns about China and its collusive threats in conjunction with Pakistan which have keep it tense because Russia’s friendship and interests related to China would demand its virtual neutrality and therefore a greater Indian propensity to veer towards the US camp. It is only after 2014-15 and the higher levels of energy in the Indo US relationship that Russia felt constrained to gently nudge India regarding its concerns of being relegated in India’s strategic priorities. On a visit to Moscow in Jul 1015 I observed subtle but reasonably serious hints about India’s emerging special relationship with the US; the Ukraine crisis had brought about a more assertive Russia. It became even more evident when Russia decided to exercise the protection of its strategic interests through intervention in Iraq and Syria.
The subtle messaging to India was through two events; first the Russian decision to sell four Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan in Jul 2015 and two, the decision to conduct a joint Russo-Pak military exercise in Jul 2016 initially in Gilgit-Baltistan but later in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Russian desire to keep Russo-Pak relations on even keel stems from the fears of Moscow regarding the future of Afghanistan and prevention of a surge of radical Islamist growth in Central Asia.
In addition to the above it is India’s continuing need for Russian military hardware and the comparative ease with which it has access to it which makes Indo-Russia relations even more important. That special leverage for India must not be lost. The S-400 air defense system, five regiments worth of which is being sought by India, is a state-of-the cover art area air defense system; approximate cost of the deal is Rs 39000 crores. Given India’s relative vulnerability to China and Pakistan’s missile forces it is a force multiplier being made available to only Turkey, China and India. Understanding the sensitivity of this deal and its future, even the US has ensured India is excluded from any scope of sanctions which could be imposed under its legislation, Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (adding yet another acronym to the lexicon - CAATSA). The Act, has the potential to adversely affect India’s defense purchases from its traditional partner, Russia, besides putting to test the more than positive turn in Indo-US relations through 2+2 Dialogue. The navigation through the S-400 deal to its finality is not going to be without hiccups and that India needs to be prepared for. With its engagement in hybrid conflict in Ukraine and in mid intensity operations in Syria, Russia has gained much experience in modern war fighting. It is apparently seeking new equations without foreclosing existing ones and is treading a careful path. India is aware of Russia’s strategic sensitivity and has ensured immediate high level engagement post the 2+2 Dialogue, through the visit of its Minister of External Affairs, Smt. Sushma Swaraj.
Sino Indian Relations and the Reset, Post Doklam
China’s attitude towards India remains fixed to the prevention of the rise of an alternative competing power center in Asia. Anything which strengthens India’s hand in dealing with China is considered a negative. The 2+2 Dialogue being a bilateral engagement between India and the US outside the realm of multilateral equations such as the Indo-US-Japan equation or the more sensitive Quadrilateral of Nations (Quad) involving India, US, Japan and Australia, could perhaps be a notch lower in the level of China’s concern. The Joint Statement post the 2+2 Dialogue was non-offensive in content although it made references to oft repeated aspects such as freedom of navigation, India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and joint cooperation in countering global and transnational terror. It looked at enhancing strategic coordination and maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region; that is a reference which when used by governments and strategic communities has had strong reaction from China. It is not as if China is hell bent on coercing India or intimidating it to seek war on the borders or the oceans. The Wuhan summit was the beginning of a reset in relationship which has been more conciliatory in approach. A follow up engagement with China may not take place so soon, as it has in the case of Russia but some engagement is bound to happen. This would be part of India’s far more balanced and accommodative strategy which has been evident over autonomy remains intact while greater element of pragmatism in diplomacy has come into being.
Indo-Pak Relations and Effect of 2+2 Dialogue
In relation to Pakistan it is essentially the concern on terrorism and other aspects of extremist violence which Pakistan has effectively used to remain relevant in Afghanistan and continue with its proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir. Significantly, almost as a recognition of the fact that a message was being conveyed to Pakistan, both the US ministers came to New Delhi via interim halts; Mike Pompeo through Islamabad and James Mattis via Kabul. While the Joint Declaration had enough mention of terrorism, extremist violence and ideology the stark reality is that there is little that the US was willing to commit towards further reining of Pakistan and the pursuit of its interests in the region through the use of proxies. Admittedly the US has withheld financial assistance to Pakistan at a time when Pakistan is in dire economic state. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s earlier warning regarding the terms and conditions that Pakistan would need to meet for a possible IMF bailout of 9 billion USD, was a sound message. However, with the Financial Action Task Force also specifying that Pakistan has not done enough towards removing the terror funding networks, it is becoming evident that Pakistan’s thick skinned approach is based on assurances of some kind from China. It probably hopes to dilute the effects of Indo-US strategic understanding through pressures on India from China and Russia. This is something India will have to be prepared for through deliberate balancing with full understanding and backing of the US.
India-Iran Relations : Energy and Chahbahar
Among many of its international relationships India’s Iran connection is one of the most important. Strategic equations are rapidly changing in the region. Iran is suddenly closer to and in engagement with the Taliban. The state of Pakistan-Iran relations is on the upswing despite Pakistan being a Sunni majority state and close to Saudi Arabia. With the withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal the US has reiterated that it will sanction any nation involved in commercial activity with Iran. Providing 11 percent of India’s energy needs there is a reported downscaling already taking place in the imports in anticipation of the sanctions coming into effect in Nov 2018. Connected to this is India’s strategic maneuver of developing the Chahbahar port as a strategic link to access Afghanistan, Central Asia and the North-South corridor. Pressure on it to sever commercial ties with Iran will continue to build up. This is an area where India’s strategic autonomy will be under severe test and the gains of the last few years will be at stake. However, it is to be seen how India withstands the US pressure. India must perceive itself and the 2+2 Dialogue as something not strategically beneficial to only itself. It’s a huge mutual benefit as the US cannot hope for a greater hold over the Indian Ocean than without India’s cooperation. Its necessity to pursue its own strategic interests must be respected by the US. It is one area where severe challenges await the IUSSP. Not to be missed is a passing reference some analysts have made towards the emergence of a balancing linkage between China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. This effectively balances the IUSSP although such a five-point equation lacks any credibility and is merely a figment of imagined commonalities based upon anti US sentiments. India does not fit into the matrix of such competition or clash. The 2+2 Dialogue has been immediately followed by the visit of India’s National Security Advisor to Washington ostensibly to further refine strategy for the challenging times which are immediately ahead. Such detailed engagement with the US has been a rarity but its outcome must clearly outweigh the negatives that the balancing forces are likely to bring against India.
Two outcomes for India will be keenly awaited – the S-400 deal with Russia and the final sanctions against Iran. The latter it is hoped will not finally go through.