US, India sidle Gingerly Towards Each Other

The first edition of the highly anticipated "2 plus 2" dialogue between India and the United States in New Delhi has turned out to be a mixed bag, generating criticism but also enthusiasm over breaking new ground.

The talks between US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and their Indian counterparts – External Affairs Minister Sushma and Defense Minister Nirmala Seethamaran – in New Delhi hewed to the overarching US Indo-Pacific Strategy that aims to bolster military and diplomatic ties between Delhi and Washington with containing China in mind.

The most striking outcome of the engagement has been the inking of a historic defense pact – the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement – that in an unprecedented move would allow New Delhi to access encrypted military technologies.

‘Interoperability’ the goal

The pact, which comes into effect immediately, is designed to ensure interoperability among the US and the Indian armed forces and will be valid for a period of 10 years. It will also allow the installation of high-security US communication equipment on defense platforms being sourced from the US.

According to a joint statement issued after the talks, COMCASA will also facilitate India’s access to advanced defense systems and enable it to optimally utilize its existing US-origin platforms.

Reinforcing India's importance as a pivotal ally, Pompeo said: "We have a true strategic partner who, frankly, is our only ‘Major Defence Partner,’ the only designated ‘Major Defense Partner,’ with whom we have a great relationship and who is very important to our success in our Indo-Pacific strategy – enormous country with incredibly opportunity and capacity for wealth creation. We hope we can find opportunities to continue to expand the relationship not only diplomatic and military-to-military but a good set of business relationships as well.”

The statement came as a much-needed salve for a New Delhi currently scrambling to make sense of the Donald Trump administration's continued disruption of ties between the US and its long-standing political and military allies.

In fact there was much disenchantment over the twice-delayed 2 plus 2 dialogue that was earlier scheduled for July 6 in Washington but was postponed by the US citing "unavoidable reasons."

India still wants Iranian crude

Top of the Indian agenda was the issue of US sanctions on India importing oil from Iran. In May, the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal to create pressure against Tehran’s atomic program, giving foreign companies 90 to 180 days to wind up operations with Iranian companies. The US had told India and other countries to cut oil imports from the Gulf nation to "zero" by Nov.4 or face sanctions.

However, this put India in a fix as not only is Iran the third largest oil supplier for India’s growing economy, Asia’s third largest, but the Middle Eastern country is also tied closely to India’s energy security. Chabahar Port in the Indian Ocean – into which India has pumped US$500 million – is Delhi’s riposte to Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road’s standout project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Pompeo backs off

India stated at the dialogue that the US should ensure that it doesn't hurt the Indian economy with its diktat. The US has clarified that it isn't in Washington’s interest to damage the Indian economy. It has now agreed to engage India and explore a mutually agreeable solution on the issue of purchase of Iranian oil despite its deadline for countries to halt imports. Mattis has publicly been a strong proponent of granting India waivers from sanctions.

Also on the table was a discussion on a planned US$6 billion purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia and oil from Iran. Last month, the Pentagon ruled out an automatic waiver for India from the punitive US sanctions over its weapons purchase from Russia, saying Washington has concerns over the Russian missile defense system deal. However, this specific buy was not discussed at the table. Pompeo diplomatically said "the US will work with India on the issue."

The dialogue also tackled the of terrorism in the region. Music to New Delhi’s ears was the joint statement that denounced use of terrorist proxies in the region. It called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. "On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attack, they called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri, and other cross-border terrorist attacks,” the joint statement said.

What’s in it for India?

However, some critics slammed the dialogue as skewed in the US' favor that achieved little for India. "The much-hyped US-India two-plus-two meeting has ended. The US got what it wanted — India’s signature on COMCASA. But what did India get? This bland joint statement reveals little of the key issues that were discussed, let alone of the decisions reached," tweeted strategic expert Brahma Chellaney.

However, some experts point out that the 2+2 Dialogue does gain importance against the backdrop of the growing geopolitical challenges especially with Beijing flexing its muscles in the Indo-Pacific region. China recently deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-surface missile systems in the disputed South China Sea despite frequent forays by US naval and surveillance aircraft over the region to assert the freedom of navigation.

To keep an eye on Chinese submarines and ships, the 2 plus 2 participants reviewed the growth of bilateral engagements in support of maritime security and maritime domain awareness. The ministers “committed to start exchanges between the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and the Indian Navy, underscoring the importance of deepening their maritime cooperation in the western Indian Ocean,” the joint statement said.

This is expected to lead to stationing of a Navy liaison officer at the NAVCENT in Bahrain, sources said. Mattis said India is a “stabilizing force,” a key country to make the Indo-Pacific “safe and secure.”

Columnist Manoj Joshi writes in The Economic Times that "As of now, US policy is aimed at getting Indian military power to offset Chinese strength in the western Pacific Ocean. New Delhi needs to ensure that this exercise is carefully calibrated to ensure that, in turn, the US helps us secure our vital interests in the region of our primary interest: the western Indian Ocean. An Indo-Pacific strategy cannot be premised on arbitrary geopolitical limits."

The sooner New Delhi realizes this the better.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist who tweets @Neeta_com and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel