The US – India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue has the potential to be a Game-Changer for the Indo-Pacific
The first ministerial meeting between the United States (US) and India in the 2+2 format was held on 6 September in New Delhi. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis held wide-ranging talks on a number of strategic issues with their Indian counterparts External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford was also part of the US delegation. He had earlier accompanied Pompeo on a five-hour visit to Pakistan immediately prior to their arrival in New Delhi. The 2+2 format of engagement had been agreed upon during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with US President Donald Trump last year, and is reflective of the deepening of bilateral ties. Both the US and India only use this format with close allies such as Japan and Australia, with whom the aim is to keep the conversation focused at the strategic level.
The major outcomes of the 2+2 meeting included the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), the setting up of a hotline between the Indian External Affairs Minister and Defense Minister with their American counterparts, an agreement to hold a tri-services joint exercise off the eastern coast of India in 2019, and the deployment of an Indian liaison officer at the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in Bahrain that is responsible for operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf countries.
Signing of the COMCASA will allow the transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India, facilitating interoperability between the two defense forces. It is one of the four foundational agreements that the US signs with its close partners for enhancing interoperability between militaries. The US and India had already signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002 and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016. With the signing of the COMCASA, the only agreement of the four that remains to be negotiated is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA).
COMCASA is a game changer for India as it will provide it access to the US Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS) that is the backbone of secure tactical communication between the US’ closest military allies. In practical terms what it will imply is that when a US warship or aircraft detects a Chinese warship or submarine, the warships, submarines and aircraft of the Indian Navy operating in the region can potentially get to know instantly about the presence of the Chinese vessels through the transmission of encrypted data shared by the US Navy. India is also in advanced talks with the US to acquire at least 22 armed Predator Sea Guardians, a high-altitude, long-endurance drone that has COMCASA-protected equipment like an advanced Global Positioning System (GPS), Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) receiver and VHF system. They can engage targets such as enemy ships by firing either Hellfire missiles or smart bombs mounted on their wings. COMCASA will also enable India to optimally utilize its existing US-origin platforms like C-130J Super Hercules and P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Further, CENTRIXS could facilitate India and the US in fighting together as military allies in a combat zone since both would have access to a common operational picture.
It was clear from the joint statement issued after the meeting as well as from subsequent statements of senior US officials that India and the US had factored in the larger strategic realities. Without naming China, the joint statement spoke of the need “to ensure freedom of the seas, skies, uphold the peaceful resolutions of the maritime disputes, promote market-based economics and good governance and prevent external economic coercion”. Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia who was part of the US delegation, informed reporters upon her return to the US that China had come up in the discussions in the context of the Indo-Pacific region. The conversation was on "how we can bilaterally, trilaterally with Japan, and quadrilateral with Australia, with ASEAN at the center of our efforts…work to promote economic security, good governance and security of the seas and the skies”. Wells added that the 2+2 dialogue “was more than a meeting. We view it as a strategic milestone. It was a long time in the making between the two world powers, the world's two largest democracies, to talk about our shared vision for the future". According to Wells the two Governments had dedicated a lot of effort to not only improve military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions, but also to strengthen strategic and diplomatic engagement on shared regional priorities. She elaborated, "Whether that's a secure and stable Afghanistan or countering terrorist threats, both of us see as the major defense partner relationship with India has made tremendous contributions to advancing security and stability in the region for decades to come".
Responding to a question about Pakistan, Wells said the US has not seen the kind of “decisive and sustained" steps it wants Islamabad to take on counter-terrorism. Pompeo and Swaraj had jointly demanded in New Delhi that Pakistan ensure that its territory was not used to launch terrorist attacks against other countries. Swaraj had underlined, “We have discussed terror emanating from Pakistan and have agreed that Pakistan needs to do a lot more to curb terror originating from it”. On the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, she stated, “We recognized the importance of justice and retribution for the masterminds behind this terrorist attack". Their joint statement named Pakistan-based outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taibah, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. On Afghanistan, Pompeo and Swaraj were unequivocal about their support for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process.
There were two major issues of divergence in the 2+2 talks, but these did not form part of the joint statement. The US delegation conveyed its objections to India's proposed acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile shield since the purchase violated the US Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that has recently been passed. India, however, stressed its commitment to go ahead with the purchase while drawing attention to the historical military and strategic ties that Russia and India share. India is hopeful of a waiver to CAASTA, which Pompeo also appeared to hint at during a press conference at the US Embassy in New Delhi after the meeting. He contended that through discussions with India there could be “an outcome that makes sense for each of our two countries”, adding that the endeavor was “not to penalize great strategic partners like India”. However, even if the anticipated waiver comes through specifically for the S-400 missile shield deal, India is likely to continue to come under US pressure for its future dealings with Russia. Section 231 of CAASTA envisages sanctions on any “significant transaction” with the defense and intelligence sectors of Russia. This covers not just acquisition of new equipment, but also spares and components for existing holdings. Over 60% of India’s defense equipment is of Russian origin, and the requirement for spares and components for them is certainly going to remain on a regular and long-term basis. Given the nature and scope of the relationship that the US is working diligently towards forging with India, it is imperative that it take a pragmatic view on this matter lest it become a nagging irritant that impedes larger strategic goals.
The second issue relates to Iran, which provides about 25% of India’s oil imports. US sanctions on investments in Iran are in the offing following Washington’s pull-out from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. At the press conference at the US Embassy Pompeo reiterated the 4 November deadline set by the US for enforcing the sanctions on countries that continue to import Iranian oil. As for India, without giving any commitment he said, “We will find an outcome that makes sense”.
The issue with Iran does not concern only oil but also India’s strategic aims in the region. The Chabahar port project, which will also come under the US sanctions, is aimed at circumventing Pakistan’s obstruction of India’s connectivity to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. The project stands to benefit land-locked Afghanistan greatly by freeing it of its dependence on Pakistan for access to the sea. It is also in line with the US’ expectation of a contribution by India to Afghanistan’s political and economic stabilization. The US, therefore, would do well to take a broader view of the matter.
The engagement between the US and India, driven by the rise of an authoritarian China, has in recent years displayed a marked preference for working with convergences rather than harping on differences. The issues before the two countries, whether relating to the sanctions or to the balance of trade, are not insurmountable. The US State Department aptly described the 2+2 deliberations in New Delhi as “a historic milestone in the US-India relationship and an indication of the deepening strategic partnership between the United States and India, and India’s emergence as a global power and net security provider in the region”. Imposing sanctions on such a strategic partner and regional security provider merely for having legacy linkages and strategic interests would be an aberration.
Threat of sanctions and strategic partnerships do not sit well with each other.