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EFSAS Commentary

The Fifth India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue was another important milestone in a rapidly advancing strategic partnership


The External Affairs and Defence Ministers of India, S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh respectively, hosted their United States (US) counterparts Antony Blinken and Lloyd J. Austin in New Delhi for the Fifth India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue that was held on 10 November. The 2+2 Dialogue had been initiated in 2018 with the aim to bolster defence cooperation and to align policy objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. Last Friday’s meeting enabled a high-level review of the progress being made in the futuristic roadmap for the India-US partnership. Cross-cutting aspects of defence and security cooperation, technology value chain collaborations, and people-to-people ties were dwelt upon, as were contemporary regional issues and shared priorities for augmenting cooperation in multilateral platforms, and through frameworks such as the Quad. The India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic partnership was reaffirmed, and then reiterated at the separate bilateral meetings the respective Defence and Foreign Ministers held on the sidelines of the 2+2. Through all of this, one thing was amply in evidence – India’s importance in the US’ worldview was only solidifying with the passage of time, and this was opening up fresh opportunities for New Delhi that could propel it even further on the international stage.

The tone for the Fifth 2+2 Dialogue was set by the opening statements of the four leaders. Rajnath Singh not only highlighted the growing convergence of strategic interests and the deepening collaboration in defence, security, and intelligence between India and the US, he also emphasized the critical role of the partnership in ensuring a free, open, and rules-bound Indo-Pacific region. Antony Blinken also underscored the significance of the Indo-Pacific, expressing the joint commitment to promoting a free, open, prosperous, secure, and resilient region. He also recommended strengthening the partnership further through the QUAD with Japan and Australia. India is scheduled to host the next in-person Quad leaders’ Summit in 2024. S Jaishankar characterized the dialogue as an opportunity to advance the shared vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden, and emphasized the importance of building a forward-looking partnership while both nations constructed a shared global agenda.

The Joint Statement released by the two sides covered all the above aspects and provided further insights into what had transpired during the Dialogue. It noted that the substantial progress in transforming India-US relations across domains was “based on trust and mutual understanding”, and added that “As natural and trusted partners with a shared commitment to advance democracy, human rights, and pluralism, and growing convergence of strategic interests, India and the United States reaffirmed their resolve to promote a resilient, rules-based international order with respect for international law, including the UN Charter, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure peace and prosperity for all”.

The two major ongoing violent conflicts of today found prominent mention in the Joint Statement, which informed that “The Ministers discussed developments in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, Ukraine among other regions. The ministers expressed mutual deep concern over the war in Ukraine and its tragic humanitarian consequences. They again underscored the growing impacts of this war on the global economic system and food security, with consequences predominantly affecting the global South. Both countries further pledged to continue humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine and concurred on the need for post-conflict reconstruction in Ukraine”. Condemning the “horrific terrorist attacks against Israel”, the Statement added that “the Ministers reiterated that India and the United States stand with Israel against terrorism and called for adherence to international humanitarian law, including with regard to the protection of civilians. They called for the immediate release of all remaining hostages. The Ministers committed to continue coordinating with partners in the region on humanitarian assistance to meet the urgent needs of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. They expressed support for humanitarian pauses and committed to continue close diplomatic coordination, including with key partners in the region, to prevent the conflict from spreading, preserve stability in the Middle East, and work toward a political solution and durable peace”.

In the defence sphere, the Statement informed that “The Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to further deepen the multifaceted defence partnership through wide-ranging dialogues and military exercises of increasing complexity and sophistication, accelerated joint projects initiated under the June 2023 Roadmap for India-US Defence Industrial Cooperation and expanded collaboration in emerging domains, such as space and artificial intelligence. They expressed satisfaction with the pace of cooperation in Maritime Domain Awareness and looked forward to identifying pathways to promote stronger service-to-service ties and share technologies to address an array of maritime challenges, including in the undersea domain. The Ministers reaffirmed the Roadmap for Defence Industrial Cooperation as a catalyst for strengthening India’s capabilities, enhancing its indigenous defence production, facilitating technology-sharing, and promoting supply chain resilience. The Ministers accordingly appreciated the commencement of negotiations for a commercial agreement between General Electric (GE) Aerospace and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to manufacture GE F-414 jet engines in India. Such partnerships exemplify the type of defence industrial cooperation that the two countries look forward to pursuing as an enduring pillar of the defence partnership. Looking ahead, the Ministers welcomed the progress achieved towards co-production and co-development of defence systems, noting their mutual interest to co-develop and co-produce ground mobility systems, as they bring the two countries’ respective defence sectors closer together while enhancing Indian capabilities”.

Importantly for India, expanding defence industrial cooperation and supporting India’s goals of emerging as a global defence hub found specific mention, as did export control and technology transfers in the Strategic Trade Dialogue and its affiliated working groups. Finalisation of a Security of Supply Arrangement (SOSA), which will further integrate the defence industrial ecosystems of both countries while strengthening supply chain resilience, was underlined. Commending the breadth of partnerships under the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) since the initiative was launched in June 2023, the Ministers also lauded continuing advances in interoperability between their armed forces.

The strengthening of the mechanisms of cooperation between the two militaries is of significance in the context of an increasingly aggressive China, which threatens a large number of countries in its neighbourhood and beyond, and which has been challenging several established norms and aspects of international relations. In the one-on-one meeting with his American counterpart, Rajnath Singh took the uncommon step of directly calling out China. Observing that the Indo-US defence relationship had deepened, Singh stressed that “we increasingly find ourselves in agreement on strategic issues, including countering China’s aggression, promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and addressing regional security challenges”.

In the field of Science & Technology, the Ministers welcomed the rapid progress made under the India-US Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) to build science and technology and critical technology value chain collaborations in both the commercial and defence sectors, and applauded many breakthrough advances in the India-US technology partnership, including major US private sector investments in India’s semiconductor ecosystem since the launch of iCET this year. They applauded the recent developments in further strengthening space collaborations. Further, Blinken pledged to continue working with the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Government of India, and other relevant stakeholders toward IEA membership for India in accordance with provisions of the Agreement on an International Energy Program.

As for trade, the Ministers noted that in 2023, bilateral trade had the potential to cross US$ 200 billion despite a challenging global trade environment. They appreciated the reinvigorated work of the India-US Trade Policy Forum (TPF) and the use of that mechanism to resolve long-standing trade concerns during 2023 and announcement of "Innovation Handshake" under the Commercial Dialogue to enhance their dynamic start-up ecosystems. They also welcomed the steady progress of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), and looked forward to the upcoming IPEF Ministerial meeting in November 2023. They also noted that the US-backed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor will enhance connectivity between Asia and Europe and will unlock new potential for economic growth in the two continents.

The 2+2 format has turned out to be a useful tool for India and the US to better understand and appreciate each other’s strategic concerns and sensitivities while taking into account political factors on both sides. It serves the beneficial purpose of building a stronger, more integrated strategic relationship in a rapidly changing global environment. From the US’s perspective, the Dialogue also helped convey the important message that the US would not allow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the Gaza crisis to distract it from its primary focus on the Indo-Pacific. As Blinken put it in New Delhi, despite the Israel-Hamas war, the US was “not only able, but…fully engaged in all of the interests we have in the Indo-Pacific”.

Two important issues that were related directly to South Asia, and were therefore of immediate interest to India, also figured in the 2+2 Dialogue. Regarding Afghanistan, the Joint Statement informed that “The Ministers called on the Taliban to adhere to their commitment to prevent any group or individual from using the territory of Afghanistan to threaten the security of any country; and noted UNSC Resolution 2593 (2021), which demands that Afghan territory not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, or to plan or finance terrorist attacks. The Ministers urged the Taliban to respect the human rights of all Afghans, including women, children, and members of minority groups; and uphold freedom of travel. They also emphasized unhindered access to deliver humanitarian assistance and recommitted to having consultations on Afghanistan to help facilitate an inclusive and peaceful future for all Afghans”.

Not surprisingly, Pakistan figured prominently during the 2+2 deliberations on terrorism. The statement, under the heading of Counter-terrorism and Law Enforcement Cooperation, said that the Ministers had unequivocally condemned terrorism and violent extremism and the use of terrorist proxies and logistical, financial or military support to terrorist organizations, which could be used to launch or plan terrorist attacks, including international attacks. Significantly for India, the Ministers reiterated their condemnation of the 26/11 Mumbai attack and the Pathankot attack and called for bringing the perpetrators of these gruesome attacks to justice. They called for concerted action against all terrorists, including through designation of individuals affiliated with groups that are listed by the UN Security Council 1267 Sanctions Committee, such as Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). They also emphasized the importance of upholding international standards on anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism in accordance with the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) recommendations.

The change in the US position on Pakistan over the past decade has been stark. A 2+2 meeting, if it were held prior to 9/11 or the Mumbai attacks, may not have included such direct condemnation of Pakistan’s sponsorship and promotion of terrorism. If Pakistan was then important enough for the US for Washington to effectively condone or turn a blind eye to Islamabad’s sponsorship of cross-border and international terrorism for decades, India today is much more important for the US than Pakistan has ever been. The US, over the past few years, has made no secret of how critical India was in its strategic calculations. On 31 March,  Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant to the US President and Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific had described the US’ relationship with India as “the most important bilateral relationship for the United States in the 21st century”. President Joe Biden made it a point to reiterate this statement when he welcomed PM Modi to the White House in June.

The deliberations at the 2+2 Dialogue confirmed this as a reality that both nations, but particularly India, could capitalize greatly upon.