External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a joint press conference after the India-US 2 + 2 Dialogue, in New Delhi, India. (Source: PTI)

After The 2+2 Dialogue, The Ball Is In Washington’s Court 

BloombergQuintOpinion

This week, after several false starts, the United States and India finally held their 2+2 Dialogue.

The talks breathed some much-needed life into a relationship that has sputtered in recent months and yielded some major achievements for a fast-growing defence partnership – thanks, in great part, to some considerable concessions from New Delhi.

In order to build on this momentum and further rejuvenate U.S.-India ties, Washington, in the days ahead, should reciprocate with some concessions of its own.

Warm Words

In public comments about the 2+2, both oral and written, each side offered effusive praise for the other. “We fully support India’s rise,” proclaimed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman declared that U.S.-India defence cooperation has “imbued” the overall partnership with “a tremendous positive energy.”

Particularly striking was the last paragraph in the joint statement, which emphasised each side’s commitment to strengthening trade and economic cooperation.

While defence represents the relationship’s sweet spot, economic ties are its Achilles’ heel.
Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, at the U.S.-India Business Council meeting, in Mumbai, on September 6, 2018. (Photograph: <a href="https://twitter.com/USIBC">@<b>USIBC</b></a>/Twitter)
Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, at the U.S.-India Business Council meeting, in Mumbai, on September 6, 2018. (Photograph: @USIBC/Twitter)

Highlighting the importance of economic cooperation—which has lagged—in discussions that were largely about security speaks to each side’s desire for broader partnership.

On some levels, this shouldn’t be surprising, given that the U.S.-India relationship—buoyed by shared values and interests—has made major strides over the last few decades. And yet, when Pompeo and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis sat down with their Indian counterparts Sushma Swaraj and Sitharaman on September 6, the bilateral relationship had arguably sunk to its lowest point in several years, perhaps since the infamous Devyani Khobragade affair of 2013.

This unsettling state of affairs could be attributed to a series of problematic Trump administration policies, from steel tariffs to sanctions, and to the actions of President Trump himself, from his false claim that India signs on to international climate accords to receive development aid to his initial refusal to speak out against several deadly attacks on Indians in the United States.

The soaring rhetoric at the 2+2 served as a resounding reminder that each side still values the relationship, warts and all, in a big way.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis before India-U.S. 2 + 2 Dialogue, in New Delhi, on  Sept. 6, 2018. (Photographer: Kamal Singh/PTI)
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis before India-U.S. 2 + 2 Dialogue, in New Delhi, on Sept. 6, 2018. (Photographer: Kamal Singh/PTI)

Concrete Achievements

Even more indicative of the continued strength of the relationship was the inking of several new agreements. The headliner was the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, an accord that will facilitate more robust communication between the two militaries.

The COMCASA is a foundational agreement that Washington expects only its closest defence partners to sign; only a few dozen countries have done so.

The COMCASA had long been resisted by India because of concerns that it would be vulnerable to spying by the United States.

There were other notable achievements as well, from a new hotline to a commitment to stage a new joint military exercise—over land, sea, and air—next year. The latter is particularly significant. Washington often complains that New Delhi is reluctant to agree to the types of operational cooperation that the United States expects of its closest defence partners. True, staging a joint training exercise is a far cry from fighting wars alongside the United States, but it’s still quite significant.

In effect, the deals emerging from the 2+2 illustrate how New Delhi is willing to deliver for Washington in order to move the needle on strategic partnership. 
Contingents of the U.S., Indian, and Japanese navies participate in the Malabar 2018 joint exercise, off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea, on June 14, 2018. (Photograph: Indian Navy)
Contingents of the U.S., Indian, and Japanese navies participate in the Malabar 2018 joint exercise, off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea, on June 14, 2018. (Photograph: Indian Navy)

Your Move, Washington

This isn’t to say the relationship’s ever-growing tension points have magically disappeared. If anything, they’ve merely been deferred.

Sanctions are perhaps the biggest source of strain in the bilateral relationship today. Washington’s decision to slap sanctions on Iran and Russia—key Indian energy and defense partners, respectively—is a major concern for New Delhi, and it wasn’t adequately addressed at the 2+2.

  • The good news is that U.S. messaging was conciliatory, with suggestions that Washington wants to work with New Delhi to ensure that India won’t be penalised for doing business with Iran and Russia.
  • The bad news is that Pompeo nonetheless made clear that the United States expects India, as it does all countries, to cease all oil imports from Iran by early November – a near impossibility for New Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran,  Hassan Rouhani, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi, on February 17, 2018. (Photograph: PIB)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi, on February 17, 2018. (Photograph: PIB)

And U.S. officials didn’t give clear assurances that India won’t be penalised for its pending missile defence system deal with Moscow.

Washington would send a powerful message to New Delhi, and deliver a big-time boost to the relationship, by granting waivers to India that allow it to keep doing business with Iran and Russia without penalty.

Such a move would not exactly be a heavy political lift for U.S. policymakers. In Washington, there is a deep, bipartisan consensus in favour of strong U.S.-India partnership. On Capitol Hill, the India caucus is the second-largest country-specific caucus. Pompeo himself has strongly telegraphed a desire to move in this direction. In New Delhi on Thursday, he said the United States does not intend to “penalise great strategic partners like India.”

The question is if his boss will agree.

And speaking of Trump, there’s something he can do that builds on the momentum of the 2+2 and can help put the partnership on a stronger footing: Accept the invitation, extended to him by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July, to serve as chief guest at next year’s Republic Day parade.

Given Trump’s affinity for pomp, pageantry, and prestige, accepting Modi’s invitation should be a no-brainer for him. And it would be a major boon for bilateral relations.

Indeed, the 2+2 dialogue may have provided reassurance that the relationship is alive and well. But a U.S. presidential visit to India—and another Trump-Modi summit—would go a long way toward restoring it to the robust health that it had enjoyed before Trump entered the White House.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director for the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.