No surprises at the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. Its bottom-line outcome reflects a remarkable continuity, and the steady incremental advance in Indo-US relations from the waning years of the Bill Clinton administration, through those of George W Bush and Barack Obama. This is noteworthy, especially because the current Donald Trump administration has been a major disrupter of ties between the US and its long-standing political and military allies.
With India designated as a ‘major defence partner’ of the US, and provided licensing exception under the Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA-1) category by Washington, there should be no doubt about the focused US effort in maintaining ties with India when ties with others, from Canada to Japan, are on the negotiating table.
India has played its cards well, drawing out the US in prolonged negotiations on the ‘foundational agreements’ that the Pentagon demands as a condition for close cooperation. This is best exemplified by the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa).
In its original form, it’s the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (Cismoa), and it was on the negotiation table for the last 20 years. The Indiaspecific Cismoa is Comcasa.
India is allergic to the word ‘interoperability’, which would suggest that it is a military ally of the US. No doubt the detailed agreement will also take into account various hurdles in seamless communications, such as the existence of Russian equipment in the Indian defence systems.
A lot of what is happening is the result of the US recognition of China as a strategic competitor. India is a problem area for China’s neighbourhood policy, since it is simply too large to overawe through the use of Beijing’s money and military power. The border dispute and Beijing’s relations with Pakistan lock us into an adversarial relationship.
India has needed to step carefully with the US, since foundational agreements are usually meant to promote interoperability between the militaries of the US and its allies by creating common standards and systems. It has been drawing closer to the US. But it doesn’t see itself as its military ally.
Though the Indian military has close relations with US, this happens only through the US Pacific Command, now renamed Indo-Pacific Command.
There is no conversation, let alone cooperation, in the area that’s vital for India —the Saudi peninsula and the north Arabian Sea off Pakistan. 60% of India’s oil comes from there, and some eight million Indians work there sending back $35-40 billion in remittances annually.
The joint statement from the 2+2 talks states that “the ministers committed to start exchanges” between the US Central Command and the Indian Navy, and deepen cooperation in the western Indian Ocean as well. But this is still in the future. Another signal of the limited geographic scope of the relationship emerged from the report that the two sides will hold a major tri-service exercise in 2019 on the eastern coast of India.
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.