After cancellation twice in the last 14 months, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman held the first high-level 2+2 talks on September 6 with their US counterparts Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis respectively with boosting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and finalising a pact on encrypted defence technologies high on the agenda. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford was also part of the US delegation. India should have also included its Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee Admiral Sunil Lanba.
India and the US also pledged to expand their bilateral trade and economic partnership with a view to promoting investment and job creation. According to a joint statement issued after the inaugural India-US Ministerial 2+2 Dialogue, the two nations agreed to work collectively with other partner countries in the Indo-Pacific region to support transparent, responsible and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development.
India wants trade balance; trade deficit US has in trade with New Delhi to be rectified though some progress has been made. They are going to buy more energy products and fighter jets from the US.
Calling for a free and open Indo-Pacific, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that both India and the US should continue to ensure the freedom of the seas and the skies. Speaking after the 2+2 Dialogue, Pompeo stressed on the need for upholding peaceful resolution of territorial maritime disputes, promoting market-based economics, supporting good governance, fundamental rights, and liberties, and preventing external economic coercion.
“India’s leadership in the world supports our shared democratic values regionally and globally. We also recognise the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, renaming US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command. With India as a major defence partner, we are elevating our defence relationship to be on a par with our closest allies as we deepen the broader US-India relationship, enhancing our interoperability, our defence trade, our technology innovation and industrial collaboration, and bolstering our people-to-people bonds,” defence secretary Jim Mattis said.
Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis praised the deepening ties between the world’s two largest democracies after their first joint meeting with their Indian counterparts in New Delhi. The relationship between the United States and India has entered “a new era,” Pompeo said, adding that 6th September meeting is “symbolic of our increasingly close partnership.”
India seeks US partnership to boost various sectors and grow the bilateral trade to $500-600 billion from the current $125 billon with a good strategy under a stipulated time, commerce and industry minister Suresh Prabhu said.
The major takeaways were the signing of the long-pending Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and setting up of a hotline between External Affairs Minister and Defence Minister with their American counterparts. This will enable India access to advanced technologies from the US, Sitharaman. COMCASA will provide a legal framework for the transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India that would facilitate “interoperability” between their forces — and potentially with other militaries that use US-origin systems for secured data links. It will also allow the installation of high-security US communication equipment on defence platforms being sourced from the US.
To enhance our synergies in this area, we have decided to carry out, for the first time, a tri-Services joint exercise with the United States off the eastern coast of India in 2019. The signing of the Communications Compatibility and COMCASA will enable India to access advanced technologies from the US and enhance India’s defence preparedness. The two sides also announced the deployment of an Indian liaison officer at the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), which is in charge of naval operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the oil-rich Gulf countries.
While Pompeo termed the agreement a “milestone” in the relationship, Sitharaman asserted that the pact would enhance India’s defence capability and preparedness. The experts feel that the signing of the COMCASA agreement could also reduce the chances of the United States imposing sanctions on India for looking to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.
The S-400 air defence systems that India is purchasing from Russia and import of oil from Iran have been major points of contention in the 2+2 dialogue. The United States has agreed to engage India and explore a mutually agreeable solution on the issue of purchase of Iranian oil despite its deadline of November 4 for countries to halt imports.
India is hopeful that it will be excluded from US sanctions over the purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missile defence systems from Russia, though this specific buy was not discussed at 2+2 dialogue. Pompeo said the US would work with India on the two issues. “Our effort here is not to penalise a great strategic partner like India. We have told the Indians consistently that on November 4 the sanctions with respect to Iranian crude oil will be enforced, and that we will consider waivers where appropriate, but that it is our expectation that the purchases of Iranian crude oil will go to zero from every country, or sanctions will be imposed. So we’ll work with the Indians”, Pompeo said.
Indian side maintained “it would not be a viable proposition for India to reduce the oil imports from Iran to zero. The US understands our concerns and both sides will continue with the discussions on the issue,”. India is the biggest buyer of oil from Iran after China, and it is seeking a waiver from the US. Iran is a key partner for India and the two countries are engaged in the development of the strategically significant Chabahar port, which would give land-locked Afghanistan access to sea, bypassing Pakistan.
India welcomes the US’ positive response to India’s request to nominate a Point of Contact in the US Department of Defense to help address procedural complexities and facilitate Indian companies to join the manufacturing supply chains of US defence companies. It also identified cooperation in defence innovation as a major area of emphasis for the future. The Memorandum of Intent between the two countrieson defence innovation agencies is a first step in this direction.
Swaraj said both the sides also agreed on working together towards entry of India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In January, the Donald Trump administration had endorsed India’s quest for membership into the exclusive club but New Delhi has faced roadblocks from Beijing, which has insisted that India was not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
On the H-1B visa issue, Swaraj expressed hope that the US would not “act against” the interest of Indians.“This visa impacts Indian IT professionals. We have appealed to the US to keep this a high-priority in our ties,” Swaraj said.
The meeting also focused on regional stability in South Asia, South-East Asia and Indo-Pacific, where the US is seeking to counter-balance China’s growing military assertiveness in the region. In a message to China, Pompeo said, “We should continue 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.”
In their joint statement, the ministers called on Pakistan to ensure that their territory was not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. “We have discussed terror emanating from Pakistan and have agreed that Pakistan needs to do a lot more to curb terror originating from it,” Swaraj said. Welcoming the recent US move to designate three Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorists and terror financiers as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), Swaraj said, “This listing is based on terrorism that is flourishing in Pakistan, which has equally affected India, the US and the world.”
The two sides also expressed support for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. “We welcome President Trump’s policy on Afghanistan. We are working together in the fight against terror,” she said.
In his speech, Jim Mattis reaffirmed the strategic importance of India’s designation as a Major Defence Partner (MDP) of the US and said the Trump administration was committed to expand the scope and take mutually agreed upon steps to strengthen their defence ties further. “We will continue working together, join hands and expand India’s role as a primary major defence partner, to elevate our relationship to a level commensurate with our closest allies and partners,” Mattis said. The United States has emerged as India’s second largest arms supplier, closing $15 billion worth of deals in the past decade.
US and India have drawn closer in recent years, seeking ways to counter-balance China’s spreading influence across Asia, notably in Pakistan, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. “India and US are committed to defend our shared democratic values. We have agreed to work together to ensure peace and prosperity of our nations and people, as well as in our regions,” says Nirmala Sitharaman. All countries in Asia and south-east Asia can benefit from a free and fair Indo-Pacific and that will be our priority,” Pompeo said.
“We discussed Afghanistan and North Korea, and how we, together can work on these strategically important regions,” Pompeo told the media. India and the US stand for freedom and democratic values and we aim to extend this across the Indo-Pacific, we will work at different levels to ensure a free Indo-Pacific,” Mike Pompeo said.
This meeting is a reflection of tremendous focus that we have made in developing our ties over the past few years. It’s a strong recognition of immense potential of our bilateral partnership for benefit of our people, region and beyond, says Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during ‘2+2’ talks. The commencement of first ever ministry of 2+2 between India and US is a concrete manifestation of the work vision of our leaders PM Modi and US President Donald Trump to take India-US relationship to even higher trajectory, says Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
India has to remain firm in protecting its rights to purchase the best defence equipment from any country especially Russia and import oil from Iran as per its requirement without coming under pressure of the US sanctions in future talks.