Fast-tracking partnership

India & US

By Dr D. K. Giri
(Prof, International Politics, JMI)

The first-ever 2+2 meeting between India and the United States held recently in New Delhi was a defining moment for their growing partnership. The persistent speculation on India-US relations notwithstanding, the meeting demonstrated the convergence of US and India interest in their respective foreign policies. The US expects its friends, partners and allies to play a greater role, share a bigger-burden in defending their common interest, as it reduces its own commitments.
At the same time, India aspires for greater engagement with Asiatic politics and security, and counter balance China’s growing hegemonism in the region. In addition to their respective external exigencies, both are challenged by China in two different ways. The US would not want to concede its solo-super power status by sharing any space for influence to China, and New Delhi would not like to be squeezed and encircled by China.
From the above perspective, it is evident that the US finds in India a capable and convenient ally in its South Asia and even Asia strategy, if we consider quad — comprising India, the US, Australia and Japan — which is being considered to be the prelude to an Asia NATO. India and the US are two largest democracies, have no territorial dispute, no history of serious conflict of any kind. Of late, no other country but the US has been supportive of India’s concern for terrorism and her aspiration for a greater international role.
Against such a backdrop, the Delhi meeting covered a lot of ground. Both New Delhi & Washington hailed it as historic and ground-breaking in their partnership. The American foreign policy spokesperson said, “We had a historic meeting with the foreign and defence ministers of India which will put our bilateral relations on the right-track from now on”.
The 2+2 dialogue consisted of Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Foreign and Defence Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman respectively. This new format replaces the strategic and commercial dialogue started under the Obama Administration since 2015. The aim of this dialogue is to elevate strategic consultations, combining defence and foreign policy issues into a coherent narrative. Trade issues are not a part of the agenda, but were discussed as part of the ‘strategic issue’.
Obviously, the most important outcome of the meeting was the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), valid for 10 years, coming into operation immediately. This ‘Agreement was indeed, a major step forward in our defence collaborations and co-ordination’, said Sushma Swaraj. The Agreement will enable Forces of both countries to have real-time satellite imagery; the US satellites will track Chinese and Pakistan movement of Forces. If a US vessel or aircraft happens to detect Chinese or Pakistani movement, it will alert India. As per the Agreement, both countries agreed to carry-out joint exercises comprising all the three forces — navy, air force, and military, off the east-coast of India starting from 2019. This will be first ever Indo-US exercise of this kind.
Other significant outcomes of the meeting are: New Delhi and Washington to work together to secure India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; deepen cooperation in connectivity and infrastructure, strengthen cooperation in important institutions such as the financial Action Task Force to deal with terrorism. The meeting gave a further push to Pakistan to stop cross-border terrorism, as the US now stands by India in addressing terrorism sponsored by Pakistan.
The other major area of convergence of interest in promoting the stability of Afghanistan for both India and the US is of great strategic importance. India would need safe passage to Afghanistan in order to connect to Central Asia, and the US needs Afghanistan to check Russian influence in the region. Although Russia has considerably declined as a super power, the Russian military prowess backed by Chinese economic strength pose a lurking challenge to American influence in the region. The Delhi meeting resolved to promote an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled’ reconciliation process. Such a strategic formulation implies efforts to undermine Pakistani or any other country’s interference in Afghanistan.
The meeting also underlined the scope of military cooperation through the Strategic Trade Authorisation Tier-1 status for India, which will facilitate high technology exports from the US to India. Another milestone-achievement was that the NSG, at the behest of the US, would allow India to engage in trades of civilian nuclear materials and technologies. Similarly, Washington gave a positive response to New Delhi’s request to let Indian companies to join the manufacturing supply chains of the US defence companies.
While the 2+2 meeting is said to be a thundering success, there are areas of concern that need to be kept in mind and dealt with. One, the unpredictability of President Trump’s policies, in particular, his attempt to pull the US out of Internationalism, whip up nationalism through tariffs, and reciprocal trade concessions etc. India is one of the targets of Trump tariff regime.
Second, imposing sanctions on countries, which buy arms from Russia. This will jeopardise India’s long-standing arms-trade with Russia, including the latest purchase of S-400 missiles. Third, the issue of dealing with Iran. India has invested in its relationship with Teheran, especially in building the Chabahar port, as a transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran is also one of the big exporters of oil to India. New Delhi has managed to maintain friendly, transactional relations with Iran, despite the continuing conflict between Teheran and Washington.
But, this time around, New Delhi may have to make a choice, as Washington is bent upon severing all its ties with Teheran. What are India’s options? Will New Delhi reclaim its non-aligned stance, and its sovereign prerogative to choose its partners, or will it be disinclined to forsake its growing stakes in the US relationship, or can it have it both? A difficult balancing act!
Some experts would suggest that New Delhi has alternatives in the Middle East in its growing ties with UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are in conflict with Iran. In fact, New Delhi has a sensitive aspect to its relations with the countries in the Middle East vis-a-vis the US. India was unequivocally supportive of Palestine both for its colonisation by Israel, also for assuaging its big Muslim population. The Muslim electorate, especially for the Congress party partly determined India’s policy towards Middle East including Iran. Under the NDA dispensation, where Muslim votes are not assured, New Delhi can take a National Interest Perspective. Hence, dealing with Iran may be easier.
Judging from the deliberations and outcomes of the 2+2 meeting, Indo-US relations are on a steady growth path. The US seems to have found a countervailing power to China in Indo-Pacific region, and India finds the required support of a powerful state like the US to meet aspirations as an international player. For now, there seems to be a perfect fit between the strategic interests of India and the US.—INFA