Indian’s engagement with the United States continues to deepen. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale is in Washington as part of New Delhi’s preparation for holding the now well-known 2+2 (two plus two) dialogue between the departmental heads of foreign policy and defence establishments of India and the United States.
Come September, the 2+2 Indo-US dialogue will take place in New Delhi where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj as also US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and the Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will hold direct talks with a view to further elevate the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of bilateral strategic partnerships between the two countries.
Whenever there is a change of guard in Washington or New Delhi, cosmetic changes in the method and structure of strategic dialogues do take place. But substance has always remained the same. The national security issues have become so complicated and interrelated that it makes lots of sense for simultaneous conduct of diplomatic and defence dialogues between India and the United States.
The 2+2 dialogues, however, are unlikely to be easy and smooth for the simple reason that while the broad convergence of strategic interests of India and the US is undeniable, differences in details and in certain sectors are critical. Only constructive and comprehensive dialogues can minimize the differences, maximize the commonalities and help prevent the differences from rupturing the relationship.
Lack of adequate diplomatic engagements earlier had led to standoffs between India and the United States. Those had almost threatened to erect roadblocks in otherwise mushrooming areas of cooperation in defence and security arenas between the two countries. The 2+2 dialogue can work as an antidote to potential repeat of such incidents.
In fact, the bilateral differences between India and the United States in a few key areas are serious and that can be addressed only through such a dialogue mechanism. The first such critical issue is the Trump Administration’s Iran policy. It has not only walked away from the Iran nuclear deal but also has slapped new sanctions on Iran. India’s third largest source of energy imports is Iran. India’s ambition to contribute towards the establishment of a North-South Corridor that would enable India to have access to the markets of Afghanistan and Central Asia could be affected severely by the US sanctions, as India’s investment in developing Chabahar Port in Iran could get delayed.
The second issue is the Trump Administration’s policy towards Russia. The US is certainly trying to expand its defence market in India, which is not an unwelcome development. India has purchased about $ 15 trillion worth of American defence equipment in the last decade. But, Washington’s attempt to prevent Russia from entering the lucrative defence market through sanctions and other measures seems unhelpful. While India has been given a waiver, such extra-legal and unilateral measures by the US can only enhance mistrust and erect barriers in smooth implementation of the strategic partnership.
The third area of potential differences is over the detailed mechanism over safeguarding the peace, preventing conflict and promoting growth in the Indo-Pacific region. While the Indian Government has accepted the concept of the Indo-Pacific, it does not regard it as a strategy. India supports the idea of an open, free and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. India is more comfortable with the idea of an Asian-African growth corridor and is working with Japan to realize it. India is less comfortable with any mechanism that would look like a relic of the cold war strategy of containment and exclusion.
While China’s flexing of military muscles in the South China Sea, and in certain sectors of Sino-Indian boundaries and its predatory economic practices in implementing the One Belt One Road (OBOR) proposal, India cannot afford a confrontational approach as preached and now practiced by the Trump Administration.
Script: Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra, Pro Vice Chancellor JNU