The first Indo-US 2+2 dialogue concluded on September 6 at New Delhi with the two sides aiming to strengthen bilateral ties. The Ministry of External Affairs categorised the overall discussion between the two sides into three parts, namely, Strengthening the Defence and Security Partnership, Partners in the Indo-Pacific and Beyond and Promoting Prosperity and People-to-People Ties.
Under the first category, the two countries signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa), which paves the way for the transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India that will facilitate ‘interoperability’ between their forces and potentially with other militaries that use US-origin systems for secured data links.
However, on the question of India getting a waiver for importing Iranian oil, once the second set of sanctions against Iran gets kicked in the first week of November, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it absolutely clear that the US expects India to bring down its Iranian oil import to zero.
For the last few months, India has been in a catch-22 situation since the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and is expecting its partners and allies to cut down trade relations with Iran in order to maximise the extent of sanctions put in by the US. Though on paper it looks that the dialogue was successful with both sides deepening their mutual political and diplomatic engagement, in reality, India has not gained anything concrete from the 2+2 dialogue. The expectation from the Indian side doesn’t seem to have been fulfiled because the US wants India to orient its foreign policy in such a way that suits the interests of the United States rather than India
This inaugural 2+2 dialogue, which happened after being cancelled twice in the past, is the second highest mechanism of conducting diplomacy between the two countries apart from other existing bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral formats.
A few takeaways from this dialogue are the establishment of hotline between foreign and defence ministers of both the countries; strengthening defence ties through coordination and cooperation; US supporting India on the issue of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan; US recognising India’s larger role as its ally in the Indo-Pacific region and emphasising on sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development.
The inclusion of India by the US among the top tier countries entitled to licence-free exports, re-exports and transfers under License Exception Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1) was welcomed by India and the two sides have decided to explore other means to support expansion in two-way trade in defence items and defence manufacturing supply chain linkages.
Apart from that, the Indo-US military to military ties are expected to get a big boost after the two sides committed to setting up of a new, tri-services exercise and to further increase personnel exchanges between the two militaries and defence organisations. The recent growth of bilateral engagements in support of maritime security and maritime domain awareness, and commitment to expand cooperation were also discussed.
On the issue of countering terrorism, both the countries agreed to increase information-sharing efforts on known or suspected terrorists and to implement the UN Security Council Resolution 2396 on returning foreign terrorist fighters. Technical details aside, this dialogue represents an interaction between a middle power state and a superpower. There is a lot of outstanding issues between the two countries that are yet to be resolved but neither of the two sides seems to be making an issue out of the issues.
This can prove much more detrimental to India’s interests as compared with that of the US. The Indian side needs to understand that India and the US are not equal partners deliberating together issues bilaterally, neither on paper nor in reality. While the core interest of the US is to maintain its superpower status at any cost, India’s interests are still largely situated regionally. At best, India is a regional powerhouse surrounded by two nuclear power neighbours, one of which is on the cusp of becoming the next superpower.
Therefore, India should not take the assurances of the US regarding them securing India’s interests seriously. This is primarily because a state, which wants to maintain its superpower status at any cost might prove to be an adversary if its interests do not get aligned with any other state. This is the crux of the matter. Can India trust the US as its ally who would help it at the time of need? Well, history tells a different story as the US has historically been quite an ‘opportunist power’ which has left many other states that trusted it blind-sided.
So firstly, India should not get carried away by the current posturing of the US as its ally because the relations between the two countries are going to be severely tested once Iranian sanctions are in place. With the rising fuel prices in India and fall in the value of rupee, India cannot afford to cut down on Iranian oil. If the US then puts sanctions on India, all this bonhomie between the two sides would be reduced to nothing.
India needs to build and strengthen its ties with the US and develop a bonding but not at the cost of its core self-interests because self-interest is paramount in international relations. To conclude, the success and failure of the 2+2 dialogue can only be assessed more clearly in the next few months.
(The author is a Research Fellow at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)