The meeting comes after two earlier postponements in the backdrop of unresolved bilateral frictions on trade and economic issues, and continuing Trump-induced uncertainties on regional and global issues.
For quite some time, India had been reluctant to agree to a “2+2" format with the US. It was seen as symbolic of close political-military coordination on regional and global issues. Hitherto, we had such a mechanism only with Japan, and that too at the secretary and not the ministerial level.
The deepened dialogue with the US since 2000 on a wide range of issues, civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 2008, subsequent defence cooperation of the level of $15 billion, India being declared a major defence partner in 2016, support for India’s membership of NSG and other multilateral export control regimes, assessing India as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and partner in the Indo-Pacific changed the context.
Following our Prime Minister’s visit to the US last year, the two countries agreed to launch the 2+2 framework. It was also no doubt a way to provide some ballast in the churning created by the Trump presidency.
The first postponement happened in April, when US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was suddenly replaced, and the new secretary Mike Pompeo awaited confirmation. The second was in July, when Pompeo was directed by Trump to travel to North Korea instead, to follow up on his own meeting with Kim Jong UN. This was a clear indication that while India perhaps remained important, it was not in priority focus for the US president.
The eventual scheduling of the meeting is a welcome development for the relationship. Even though there is growing cooperation and convergence, it is still a relatively new relationship. Doubts and unfulfilled expectations abound on both sides. When high level interactions are infrequent, frictions move centre stage. This had happened earlier in the 2012-14 period, when differences on market access, intellectual property and localization of production, dominated the discourse. Even as such issues may persist and are discussed, high-level reiteration of convergences and importance reinforce the context within which disagreements would need to be tackled.
Differences on trade and economic issues are once again posing challenges. Trump has called for reducing India’s $30 billion trade surplus with the US, even though we have an overall trade deficit, and the Indian figure pales in comparison with China’s $350 billion surplus. Indian tariffs, market access, intellectual property, GSP benefits for some labour-intensive Indian exports to the US, and Indian price caps on medical devices are among the issues receiving enhanced scrutiny in the ministerial level Trade Policy Forum. The US has also not given India exemption from additional tariffs it had recently imposed on aluminum and steel imports, ostensibly on national security grounds.
A second set of challenges relate to unilateral US sanctions on Iran and Russia. As of 6 August, US dollars cannot be used in Iran-related transactions. From 4 November, India will need to show significant reductions in oil imports from Iran, if the importing Indian entity is not to come under US trade and financial sanctions. At a time when oil prices are rising and the dollar value of rupee has fallen significantly, this will add to India’s import bill. We are having to face collateral damage from a unilateral US decision, without any mitigating support.
Indian officials have repeatedly said that they cannot allow relations with Russia to be determined by a third party. There is a legacy of defence cooperation with Russia, and around 60% of our inventory is of Russian origin. There is growing defence cooperation with the US, which has also now placed India on Strategic Trade Authorization Level 1, on a par with its allies, for high level technology releases. Several platforms and systems we get from the US are not available elsewhere. Our two other significant defence partners, France and Israel, are allies of the US. Going ahead, there will be recurring choices that India will have to make among the various sources, and it would be important for India to be seen to be making it of its own accord, in its own interest and not under duress of any kind.
In Afghanistan, US political will to sustain the military challenge to the Taliban seems to have ebbed, and focus is on reconciliation. Contrary to earlier policy, US officials have now directly met Taliban representatives. This has again created space for Pakistan to influence subsequent developments. Although the US has reduced aid to Pakistan, citing lack of action against terrorist groups, it has not gone all out to pressure Pakistan.
An area of convergence presently is the Indo-Pacific. Driven by a similar need to deal with consequences of a rising China, or work for shaping the environment around the rise of China, both are looking for networks and security architectures in the region that protect their interests. “Free and open Indo-Pacific", India-Japan-US trilateral, and a quadrilateral with inclusion of Australia, are a part of this effort. But here, too, Trump’s waxing and waning on approach to China create uncertainties on long-term strategy.
The 2+2, therefore, has its task cut out. It should reinforce the positive in the relationship, and set a vision looking beyond the frictions and short-term uncertainties.
Arun Singh is a former Indian ambassador to the US.