New Delhi and Washington are as ready for the inaugural 2+2 dialogue as they can ever be. Deferred several times due to scheduling issues, the meeting between the External Affairs and Defence Ministers of India and Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence of the United States, now slated for September 6 in New Delhi will be the first focused interaction between the two countries, specifically on defence and international relations, making it easier for interlocutors to concentrate on both the processes and outcomes.
Other similar forums between the two countries like the Strategic Dialogue and the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue have proved to be good overarching frameworks but often tended to diffuse the focus. The 2+2 forum is therefore seen by both sides as an outcome-oriented mechanism. And there are some deliverables that are self-evident.
The Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (COMCASA) is meant to facilitate transfer of communications security equipment from U.S. to India and ensure ‘interoperability’ between Indian, U.S. and other partners in the region. The text of COMCASA is now more or less locked. The joint statement at the end of the day-long dialogue is likely to reflect this fact although singing of the actual agreement is likely to take place later. In September 2016, India had signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), meant to facilitate logistics support to each other’s forces. Along with the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA), COMCASA and LEMOA form the three foundational agreements that U.S. wanted New Delhi to sign to operationalize India as Major Defence Partner, granted in the final months of the Obama administration. However, talks on BECA have not even started.
COMCASA allows the use of high-end secured communication equipment to be installed on military platforms like C-130 and P8I planes already sold to India and fully exploit their potential. Currently, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy—who use C-130 and P8Is respectively—are dependent on less secure, commercially available communication systems on these American platforms. COMCASA also becomes mandatory if India decides to buy the armed version of the Sea Guardian drones from the U.S. since the high-end drones are critically dependent on highly secure data and communication system links.
Another agreement that is near finalisation is the Industrial Security Annexe (ISA) that allows U.S. companies which supply high-end equipment to the U.S. military to share the technology with Indian companies. The United States currently has the ISA agreement with just 24 countries. The last agreement was, in fact, concluded in 2003. India is clearly the current favourite. In fact, ever since India was given the status of major defence partner, the U.S. administration has taken incremental steps to ease collaboration between U.S. and Indian defence entities. The Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status given to India in August is the latest in those deliberate steps. STA-1 allows export of advanced defence and aerospace items to India and eases a lot of paperwork for Indian companies.
Interestingly, the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), a pet project of former Defence Secretary Ash Carter, has been not been abandoned. Instead, the two sides have now decided to concentrate on just five projects—one each for the three services, one for the DRDO—and the ongoing one for aircraft carrier technology.
While most of the deliverables are self-evidently visible in the defence sector, there are a few wrinkles in the relationship that need to be ironed out. Trade imbalance, the thorny H1B visas issue, the Iran conundrum and U.S. approach to Pakistan will continue to cast a shadow on an otherwise excellent partnership. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have a major task ahead to navigate through the tricky issue of forthcoming U.S. sanctions against Iran, India’s third largest crude oil supplier. Although India is progressively reducing its dependence on Iranian crude, it cannot completely stop sourcing oil from its long-standing supplier. The United States should, however, be pleased that for the first time, India has bought hydrocarbon products worth four billion dollars from U.S. of late.
The Indo-U.S. relationship is indeed on a firm wicket but New Delhi is wary of putting all its eggs in one basket, given the unpredictability displayed by President Trump in dealing with America’s staunchest allies. The unease is understandable but current geo-political realities should continue to dictate the necessity for a robust partnership between the oldest and largest democracies in the world and the 2+2 forum seems to be the perfect setting to overcome any doubt.
Nitin A. Gokhale