New Delhi: The inaugural “2+2" dialogue between the defence and foreign ministers of India and the US, which took place last week, has brought the spotlight back on the positives in bilateral ties, according to Arun Singh, a former Indian ambassador to the US. The signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) is not so much about India aligning with US interests, as some critics have said, but shows that the US has greater confidence in sharing high-level technologies with India, which would contribute to building it capabilities, he said. Edited excerpts:
What was the outcome of the first ever “2+2" dialogue? How far has the India-US relation reached in terms of forging strategic trust and discarding long-held prejudices?
The “2+2" served its purpose at this stage amid some dissonance in bilateral relations, and flux in global order. With the “2+2" having been postponed twice, and President (Donald) Trump’s priority focus being elsewhere, differences on tariffs, market access, intellectual property had acquired centre stage in setting the tone for the relationship. This meeting once again highlighted the positive, the convergence in interests, particularly in the Indo-Pacific and in the fight against terrorism. Several decisions, such as signing of the COMCASA, agreeing to the first tri-services joint exercises, and establishment of hot lines between the foreign and defence ministers and their counterparts, were taken. This would provide additional mechanisms for enhancing coordination and confidence.
There was some kind of a question mark over whether India can do business with the US, especially after the Trump administration took office. Have those doubts been set to rest?
It would be a mistake to think that differences and challenges in India-US relations will disappear after this one meeting. There are many areas where our approaches differ. In India, the US focus on India’s US-specific trade surplus is seen as not reasonable. We have an overall trade deficit. Domestic politics driven by US sanctions on Iran and Russia can have collateral negative consequences for India. We will need to carefully watch the US’s engagement with the Taliban as it would have consequences for Indian interests in Afghanistan. Every country takes its decisions in its own interests. An effective strategy for us would be to see the convergences, and work on those while doing what we can do to protect our interests. While dealing with the differences, the overall perspective must also be kept in view. It was clear from the public comments that while India made its concerns known on the H-1B visa issue, it made the argument in terms of how it helped innovation and profitability in the US and deepened economic linkages between the two countries. It also said how it would contribute to India’s economic strength, which US defence secretary (James) Mattis described as a “stabilizing force on the region’s geographic front lines".
Is the signing of the COMCASA a turning point in India-US defence ties? What does it mean for India? How will it impact ties with Russia and China, the two countries with whom we seemed to have had a course correction this year? Does it signal a deeper alignment with the US?
I would not say it was a turning point in ties. It is one more step in the gradual consolidation of defence and other cooperation, which will enable higher levels of technology releases. In 2016, the US had declared India as a major defence partner. The two countries had signed a logistics exchange memorandum of agreement. Earlier this year, the US placed India in the Tier 1 category of the licence exemption strategic trade authorization, on a par with its closest allies and partners. COMCASA will enable India to source high-level communication technologies from the US for our defence platforms, which would enhance their effectiveness. It signals not so much about India aligning with US interests, but as US having greater confidence in sharing high-level technologies with India and contributing to building our capacities. It is a decision that clearly India has taken in its own interest, after extended negotiations to fine-tune the text accordingly. Other interlocutors have to recognize this.
What is the significance of the Indian military having exchanges with the US central command? And the exchanges between the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and the Indian Navy?
On the military side, India presently has cooperation and exchanges with the US Indo-Pacific command, which focuses on the region from west coast of India to the West Coast of the US. This has been helpful, from our point of view, since the US sees convergence in our interests in the Indo-Pacific region. We do the Malabar series of naval exercises, and meet also in the trilateral India-US-Japan framework, and the quadrilateral, with the inclusion of Australia. While having strong economic relations, every country is trying to build networks of cooperation to deal with the consequences of a rising China. But India’s interests are not confined to the Indo-Pacific alone. Issues related to Afghanistan, Iran and the Gulf have a bearing on our security and economic interests on account of terrorism, energy imports, diaspora presence, etc. For the US, this region is in focus for the CENTCOM (Central Command). Engaging with the decision-making in CENTCOM to protect our interests would also be useful.
Do you think the differences over how India views the Indo-Pacific and how the US views it, and wants India to play a role in balancing China, were bridged at the “2+2"? There was clearly a difference in perception with India saying that the Indo-Pacific was “open and inclusive" and the US’s stress on countering China.
No two countries can have a 100% alignment in their interests, more so countries as diverse as India and the US, with different histories, geopolitical location, and varying global role and presence. However, there is some similarity in how both try to balance between competition, cooperation and hedging in their relations with China. US trade of $500 billion, and Chinese investment of $1 trillion in US securities is a far higher order of economic linkage. The US now sees a challenge from China’s growing military strength and assertiveness, and aspirations for high technology absorption in its industry. “Free and open Indo-Pacific" is a term that has been used by both India and the US, suggesting that China’s rise should not lead to its curtailing options for other countries.
There were also differences between India and the US over Iran and Russia, on the question of India’s fuel imports and Chabahar in the case of the former, and the acquisition of the S-400 from Russia. Do you think the US will be willing to allow India any latitude in either case?
We have to see how this plays out. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Delhi that they understand that countries need a “winding down" period as they reduce oil imports from Iran so as to avoid unilateral US sanctions. US will need to show an understanding for India’s economic compulsions in face of rising oil prices, and the fall in the value of the rupee. Similarly, on Russia there has to be a recognition of India’s legacy linkages, and avoid US being seen as an unreliable partner, when the effort is to deepen relations.
How did the discussions on the H-1B visa issue proceed?
Trade issues are being discussed in greater detail elsewhere. US under secretary of commerce had talks with our commerce secretary earlier this week. The Trade Policy Forum at ministerial level is scheduled to meet in early November. At this meeting, the economic relations would have been mentioned from the strategic perspective, and the role of H-1B visas in deepening linkages was flagged. Trump’s latest comment challenging continuation of GSP benefits to India reflect the current challenges, but it would be best to address the issue in a transactional manner at this stage, while keeping the long-term view and overall interests in mind.
Pompeo said US will practise “partnership economics" with India and then went on to say that he hoped Westinghouse will be able to finalize pacts with India to provide clean fuel. What does this mean?
“Partnership economics" would clearly imply more business dealings between Indian and US entities. Recently, Lockheed Martin entered into an agreement with the Tatas to provide parts for their global F-16 supplies. Working for such deals, including in nuclear energy, will provide for a more solid underpinning to the strategic ties.