The United States and India further cemented the bilateral relationship during high level talks Sept. 6, signing a major national security agreement, and, more in the mould of ‘allies’ the two sides frankly recognized differences yet gave precedence to areas of common interest. American experts noted the latest talks signaled a continuing forward movement toward a steadily bigger and more important relationship.
A major military communications agreement, which had been in the works for a decade, was signed during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to New Delhi, where they held what is billed by Washington as the “inaugural” “‘2+2′ Dialogue” with counterparts India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Defense Nirmala Sitharaman. The new format was decided by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2017, in Washington, D.C.
“It reflects our leaders’ desire to further elevate our bilateral strategic communication on cross-cutting defence and security issues,” Swaraj said in her remarks. This was Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mattis’ first joint visit abroad, a fact noted by Indian leaders, and Pompeo’s first visit to India in his current capacity.
“You have a relationship that has pretty steadily getting bigger and more important and you can date that to 1990 or 2000, whichever way, but the first military cooperation agreement was in 1990,” noted Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, a former senior career foreign service official. “What’s happened, and this is astonishing from where it was when I was in government – the security partnership has become the most reliable,” she said, adding, “And this (2+2) is a beautiful illustration of that.”
Schaffer, along with her husband, late Howard Schaffer, also a State Department official, wrote a book, “India at the Global High Table,” published in 2016, which examined the growing global impact of India and its strategic vision, foreign policy and negotiating behavior. The U.S. has over the years learnt the art of designing agreements India is reluctant to join, unless they are made specific to its needs, as was done in the case of CISMOA – communications interoperability and security memorandum of agreement, which was tweaked into its new avatar – COMCASA, that New Delhi was more comfortable with.
The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) comes in the wake of the July 31, U.S. decision to put India on par with its NATO allies in its list of countries eligible for Strategic Trade Authorization Tier-1 License Exemption, for sharing sensitive technologies. The COMCASA will enable India to get military-grade communications equipment from the U.S.
The two countries also decided to “establish secure communication,” in effect, a hotline, between foreign and defense ministers/secretaries of the two countries.
They also “agreed to work together to secure India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group at the earliest,” Swaraj noted.
“The 2+2 is another step in the direction of a closer partnership; there’s a continual forward movement,” said Walter Andersen, former polit-ical analyst at the State Department, who headed the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ South Asia Program and remains a senior adjunct professor there.
An important element of the strategic partnership is growing trade and investment ties. “Faster growth in these areas and deeper people-to-people connections are a force for our strategic partnership,” Swaraj said. Schaffer contends some issues on the trade front will remain as they do even with other security allies like Japan, and because of the views of the Trump administration on balancing trade.
Describing the military communications agreement as “a great development,” Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of the journal, U.S. – India Global Review, said, “Despite differences on India procuring Iran oil and Russian arms sales, in the face of U.S. sanctions, the two countries have agreed to share sensitive military information. And the two jointly demanded Pakistan stop supporting terror activities. That shows India’s growing status.”
Secretary Pompeo, responding to media questions on Russian sales of S-400 missile systems to India and whether that would result in sanctions on New Delhi, said, “There’s been no decision made. But I will share that we do understand the history, right, of India’s relationship with Russia and legacy systems. Our effort here, too, is not to penalize great strategic partners like India, a major defense partner. The sanctions aren’t intended to adversely impact countries like India. They are intended to be a – have an impact on the sanctioned country, which is Russia.”
Moscow is India’s largest source of arms purchases, and Iran its biggest oil supplier.
An area of great concern to India was the fate of the H-1B visa under which hundreds of thousands of Indians work in the U.S. Swaraj said she specifically, conveyed India’s “expectation for a non-discriminatory and predictable approach to the H1B visa regime, given its high impact on innovation, competitiveness and people-topeople partnership, all of which are a vital source of strength for our relationship.” However, how effective India’s appeal on this issue will be is unclear, “but I have mentioned this to Secretary Pompeo that on the basis of the friendship which exists between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi, Indians believe that America will not work against their interest. I have mentioned him to maintain the trust of Indians.”
Pompeo’s in his exchange with Prime Minister Modi “noted the important role people-to-people ties play in the bilateral relationship and highlighted the contributions of the Indian-American community to the United States,” Heather Nauert, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Sitharaman described the 2+2 Dialogue as “marked by the deep friendship that characterises relations between the greatest democracies of the world,” and noted that defence cooperation “has emerged as the most significant dimension of our strategic partnership and as a key driver of our overall bilateral relationship,” a point Schaffer also made.
Sitharaman went so far as to say the discussions “have paved the way for a new era” in India-U.S. defense and strategic engagement. However, former State Department official Alyssa Ayres, currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, sees the ‘2+2’ as “A new format for a standing dialogue…”
In a CFR blog Sept. 4, Ayres said the talks are ” a new configuration of a standing cabinet-level (or “ministerial-level”) dialogue created in 2009,” by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. The 2+2 Dialogue Ayres contends, is most important for keeping a regular cabinet-level meeting on the diplomatic calendar. Washington and New Delhi do not have the kind of extensive diplomatic interactions that occur between the U.S. and its other allies, she said. “In my view, the precise shape of the format matters less than the commitment of both sides to keep it going.”
The next 2+2 Dialogue will be held in Washington in 2019.
Columnist Tom Rogan, host of talk show, The McLaughlin Group, writing in the Washington Examiner, called the Sept. 5, U.S.-India 2+2 Dialogue, “a big win for U.S. grand strategy,” that would help counter what he described as “Chinese feudal hegemony.”
And China’s increasing presence specifically in the Indian Ocean, and its rising economic clout worldwide, was the backdrop for discussions relating to the Indo- Pacific region and the agreement to further expand naval and military cooperation, at the 2+2 Dialogue.
“We appreciate India’s role as a stabilizing force on the region’s geographic front lines,” Mattis said at the conclusion of the meeting. “Your nation understands better than many- peace and prosperity are only attainable when all respect the principles of territorial integrity, freedom of navigation, freedom from coercion. All of these are fundamental to the rules-based order,” the Secretary of Defense said, pointing also to the expanded engagement in the maritime domain with a new tri-service exercise.
The Joint Statement and other pronouncements made by the leaders at the meetings, avoided mentioning China, experts noted. “It reflects caution, particularly on India’s part. China is not tabled but it is there in the background. But who is named, is Pakistan, by both sides,” Andersen noted.
“We will continue working together to enhance and expand India’s role as a primary major defense partner, to elevate our relationship to a level commensurate with our closest allies and partners,” Mattis declared.