The most heartening development in the 2+2 Indo-US dialogue in New Delhi between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman representing India and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattison on the US side has been the strengthening of strategic cooperation. With the signing of the communications compatibility and security agreement (COMCASA) the way has been paved for greater Indian access to cutting-edge US military technology and platforms with encrypted and secure communications and data links. That is happy augury but there are concerns in India over US access to tracking and snooping on Indian aircraft and warships equipped with COMCASA-protected equipment. This is an aspect that needs to be looked into thoroughly.
That this is the highest level of engagement after the summit between Prime Minister Modi and US President Donald Trump is a sign of the sustained earnestness of the two countries to forge closer links. The 2+2 dialogue was postponed twice making people wonder if there was something amiss, but those fears have largely been put to rest. COMCASA will facilitate access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms. What is reassuring for India is also the agreement to work together on the open seas with critical emphasis on the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese attempts at asserting its hegemony over international waters. On a strategic plane, to keep an eye on Chinese submarines and ships, both sides reviewed the growth of bilateral engagements in support of maritime security and maritime domain awareness. Towards that end, 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.” Mattis said India is a “stabilising force,” a key country to make the Indo-Pacific “safe and secure”.
The emphasis on counter-terrorism and the unambiguous warning held out to Pakistan is a positive signal which India cannot but be happy about. Clearly, the joint statement named and called upon Pakistan to ensure that its territory was not used to launch terror attacks on other countries. The implicit ‘reprimand’ was one of the biggest takeaways from the meeting. India made it clear that President Trump’s South Asia policy of asking Pakistan to stop cross-border terrorism has resonance with this country. It is to be hoped that the pressure on Pakistan to close terror training camps and infiltration of terrorists into India will be closely watched by the Americans and steps would be taken to ensure that Pakistan shuns escalation. In that the Pakistan army would need to be brought to heel which the US must take responsibility for. The two sides decided to establish a hotline between the External Affairs Minister and the US Secretary of State, and another between the Defence Minister and Secretary of Defence. On the issue of American H1B visas, there was no commitment by the Americans and no vigorous push from India besides reiteration.
While there was concurrence on a strategic relationship and on security issues, as also on counter-terrorism, the contentious issue of India’s oil imports from Iran and related Indo-Iranian issues were left largely unaddressed. Before the talks, India had indicated to the US that it would be guided by its national interest and not compulsion from any country as the threat of US sanctions loomed large on Delhi’s relationship with Iran to a great extent, and with Russia to some extent. India had made it clear that it would press ahead with the procurement of five regiments of Russian-made S-400 Triumf advanced Air Defence Systems. The US had passed a waiver for India, but the US President has to personally certify the exemption of each such deal. With the US administration under Donald Trump pushing for sanctions against Iran there was no insistence on zero imports from Iran. The chances of US sanctions for the Iranian deal have receded but they have not died down. India is emphatic that it would go ahead with the construction and use of Chabahar port in Iran to counter the China-sponsored Gwadar port in Pakistan.