The agenda was self-evident at the delayed “2+2” joint dialogue of the foreign and defence ministers of India and the United States that was eventually held in New Delhi on Thursday, and both sides, in their official statements, stuck to happy tidings, avoiding areas of dissonance. What was emphasised was their “shared” commitment to democratic values, economic growth, the rule of law, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, recalled the 10th anniversary of the India-specific waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which had led to the landmark India-US civil nuclear agreement. He expressed the hope that the Westinghouse nuclear power project, flowing from that deal, would fructify soon and usher prosperity and security. This ignored that nuclear energy was finding declining favour in most developed nations, including in the United States, with only China racing ahead with new reactors. Defence secretary James Mattis flagged another 10th anniversary — by recalling the horrendous 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. Thus, two important pegs were marked, which strengthened the relationship over the last decade and a half — high technology trade and counter-terror cooperation. The joint statement urges Pakistan rather directly to “ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”, repeating former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s words to reassure India in 2004. Furthermore, it requires Pakistan to “bring to justice expeditiously” the perpetrators of the 26/11, Pathankot and Uri and other attacks.
India’s defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman asked for the “hesitations of history” to be overcome. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had used that phrase in his address to the US Congress in 2016. An indication that India was overcoming old doubts was the signing of the Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which should facilitate the transfer of additional state-of-the-art communication technology for planes, drones or weapons systems already bought or to be acquired. It would facilitate inter-operability between Indian and US forces, or with American allies. But questions remain, despite government claims that data thus collected from US equipment in Indian hands would be protected. Russia may worry about the data protection of its sophisticated equipment in Indian hands, particularly their Akula-class nuclear powered attack submarine and Sukhoi warplanes.
The reality of military cooperation with a major power is summed up in the adage — in for a penny, in for a pound. Thus, the P-81 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which India already possesses, are devoid of their full capability as would be armed Guardian drones on offer sans COMCASA. India has gradually subscribed to “foundational agreements” that became even more urgent once former US President Barack Obama approved India as a “major defence partner”. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was penned in 2002 and a modified for India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016. India hesitated over feared horizontal and vertical penetration by the United States into Indian defence and government communications grids. There was also the legacy of avoiding alliances and over-dependence on any single power.
Hopefully India would be factoring-in the unpredictability of US President Donald Trump and the resulting unreliability of the US as a strategic crutch. Thus, a cornerstone of India’s US policy since 2001, that the US considered a stronger India crucial to balancing rising China and for a stable Asia-Pacific security paradigm, is no longer is a given. Consequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the aftermath of Doklam, began re-balancing India’s relations with China and Russia. Complicating India-US relations now is America’s abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) targeting Russia. It is not yet clear what slack the US may cut India on India’s relations with both these nations. Even if the S-400 missile defence system acquisition is exempted it may be conditional on India buying more US weapons. Similarly, the US will possibly insist that instead of Iranian oil, India should buy from other Gulf nations.
A closer military clinch with the US may also impact thawing Sino-Indian relations. Russia too may move closer to the Pakistan-China axis, including in its approach to Afghanistan. Already, Russia has tried to play the role of peacemaker by inviting all parties, including the Taliban, for an Afghan peace deal. The Russian concern is over the rise of the Islamic State clone in Afghanistan called Islamic State Khorasan Province. Russia feels that the antidote to that is the Taliban. The US has been alleging that Russians are arming the Taliban. India-Iran relations would also get tested. Iran may not allow India’s Chabahar port project to proceed unimpeded if India was to abandon oil purchases from it, which the US seems to be demanding.
The American assessment on these issues would have been shared, as indeed on the new Imran Khan government in Pakistan. While external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said she had raised the H1-B visa issue, secretary Pompeo must have emphasised President Trump’s hobby horse: the need for India to balance trade by buying more US planes, etc. Hotlines are to be established between the ministers and the two US Cabinet secretaries. A memorandum of intent was signed between the US Defence Innovation Unit and the Indian Defence Innovation Organisation for co-production, which has so far seen paltry progress. A tri-services India-US military exercise was announced off India’s east coast in 2019. The US Naval Forces Central Command and the Indian Navy have committed to commence exchanges.
All told, Thursday’s meetings in New Delhi were more an incremental step forward than a grand leap. There was much emphasis on shared democratic values. But there was no mention of what is happening in the Maldives or Myanmar. India faces uncertain times abroad and the looming Parliament elections at home. Caution seemed to be the watchword.