Opinion | The 2+2 dialogue: a step forward despite hurdles
Donald Trump and his administration appreciate the role of India in putting up a joint counter to China’s rise
The inaugural India-US 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries is scheduled for 6 September in New Delhi. It is also the 10th anniversary of India receiving a waiver from the full-scope safeguards condition of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
The NSG waiver and the subsequent India-US nuclear deal were the most important milestones in the transformation of this bilateral relationship. The 2+2 dialogue is another significant step in the same journey.
But like every other step in India-US relations, this too has come with its own drama and challenges. The scheduling was marred by multiple postponements and a change in personnel on the US side. A number of other challenges have also appeared on the surface. The most notable of them include the US’ Caatsa (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) law, which threatens sanctions against India if the latter goes ahead with its decision to purchase the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. Further, US President Donald Trump’s decision to jettison the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran and secondary sanctions on entities doing business with Iran has raised uncomfortable questions for India. And while the troubles on the India-US trade front have been a long-festering issue, Trump has taken them up with greater intensity than ever before.
The 2+2 dialogue allows the principals involved—Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman representing India, and Mike Pompeo and James Mattis the US—to exchange frank views on these issues. India’s approach to the US relationship has to factor in the uncertainties that Trump brings to the global order. There are areas of cooperation that Trump appreciates, like defence sales, and there are those he doesn’t, like H-1B visas for Indians. One would do well to remember that the joint statement released during the June 2017 Narendra Modi visit to White House was a truncated version of earlier statements during Barack Obama’s tenure. The latest statement excluded entire sections on “people-to-people ties” and “climate and clean energy”.
Broadly speaking, India-US relations are based on three pillars: strategic and defence engagements, trade and other avenues of economic cooperation, and people-to-people ties. India should strive to make the first pillar the strongest area of focus.
The strategic and defence relationship is underpinned by a common threat in the rise of an authoritarian China that doesn’t hesitate to flout global rules of engagement and aims to upend the US-led global order. Trump and his administration appreciate the role of India in putting up a joint counter to China’s rise. The centrality of India in America’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy has been clearly recognized in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents. The decision to rename the Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command was also a symbolic recognition of India’s importance to the evolving American worldview. Add to these the resumption of the quadrilateral dialogue between India, the US, Japan and Australia, and Washington aligning its views with New Delhi’s on China’s belt and road initiative (BRI)—signals that India-US Indo-Pacific cooperation has never had greater momentum.
Trade and economic cooperation between India and the US has generally lagged behind the successes on the defence and strategic side. In normal times, it would make a lot of sense to focus on this pillar and make it stronger. But with a White House incumbent extraordinarily fixated on trade deficits, India should aim low. During the 2+2 dialogue and the next Modi-Trump summit—probably during next year’s Republic Day if Trump accepts New Delhi’s invitation—India should keep hammering the China factor and thus prop up the defence and strategic pillar.
Iran and Russia will definitely figure in the discussions. It is important for both parties to be pragmatic. India has no reason to back away from the S-400 deal with Russia. The India-Russia defence relationship is a legacy of history that cannot be dismantled in a jiffy. Moreover, the operational superiorities of S-400 compared to whatever the US can provide are also well noted. The US Congress has already expanded the remit of the president to allow India a waiver from Caatsa. But speaking at a think tank in Washington, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, Randall G. Schriver, noted that the US would still be very concerned if India purchased major systems from Russia. He added that he could not guarantee that the waiver would definitely be used for India’s purchase of S-400 systems.
Just like history demands India continue its defence ties with Russia, geography makes Iran important to India. The oil imports can be curbed, but Iran is still India’s only viable route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, did acknowledge this in her June visit to India.
The US has already invested significantly in India and its rise. It should remind itself of the driving factors that led it to make India such an important partner. India should also understand that notwithstanding the churn in the global order—the rise of China and America’s withdrawal—the US remains its most important strategic partner. Such awareness on both sides will help keep the bilateral engagements anchored in realism.
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