JULY 7, 2018
The twice-deferred two-plus-two dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US is now expected to take place in early September with the venue perhaps being shifted to New Delhi, with both sides seeking closure on a foundational communications, compatibility and security agreement (COMCASA) at the meeting.
The two delegations were to meet first on April 18 and senior Indian officials were on their way to Washington for preparatory talks when president Donald Trump fired secretary of state Rex Tillerson and gave his job to Mike Pompeo. Set to take place in Washington on July 6, the dialogue was again postponed because Pompeo had to visit North Korea.
Indian and US diplomats told Hindustan Times that in the meetings between Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Pompeo and defense secretary Jim Mattis, the two sides would seek long-term linkages with a focus on the Afghanistan peace process, terrorism, and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. The US policy towards countries that do business with Iran and Russia (India buys oil from Iran and Russia is a key supplier of defence equipment) will also be discussed in detail so that there is broad convergence on the issue, the diplomats added.
Hindustan Times learns that national security advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval may visit Washington next month to put things in motion for the September dialogue and clear the air on COMCASA. This is one of the three agreements that the US has with its closest military allies, and will allow the installation of high-security US communication equipment on defence equipment being sold to India, thereby , the US argument goes, facilitating interoperability. India has concerns on giving the US access to sensitive military communication if it signs the agreement. The two-plus-two dialogue is expected to at least state both countries’ commitment to COMCASA.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also meet the two US principals in case Washington agrees to New Delhi as the venue for the dialogue. The Indian agenda for two-plus-two has been discussed at the highest levels with NSA Doval, Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale and Indian ambassador to the US, Navtej Sarna, held talks on this in New Delhi last week.
Meanwhile, bilateral concerns over trade are now being discussed between the Indian commerce ministry and the US commerce department with New Delhi deciding to send a negotiating team under joint secretary Santosh Sarangi to Washington on July 16. This follows assistant US trade representative Mark Linscott’s India visit in late June to discuss concerns over trade and tariffs. According to South Block officials, under the two-plus-two rubric, the two sides will also discuss the proposed Afghanistan peace process, with India keen that this be driven by Kabul without any outside interference. India wants all ethnic communities living in the strife-torn region to have their say on the peace process rather than focus exclusively on a compromise with the Taliban.
India and the US will also discuss terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan arc. The Modi government is keen that there be no dilution in the American policy towards terrorism in the South Asian region. During the dialogue, the two Indian ministers will share data on continued militant infiltration from the Pakistani side to destabilize Kashmir and the role played by proscribed terrorists groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayebba in escalating violence in the Valley.
Even as India and the US wait for this important milestone in their partnership, the two countries are proceeding with other aspects of their defence cooperation, including US military sales to India through the transparent foreign military sales (FMS) route. In the pipeline are surveillance helicopters for the Indian Navy, Predator armed drones, and more long-range anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft. The Quad process involving India, the US, Japan and Australia is a work in progress with South-East Asian nations such as Indonesia keen to join the informal grouping for protection of shipping lanes passing through Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits and providing a counterbalance to China’s growing influence in the region.