A day after the 2+2 dialogue between the defence and foreign policy establishment of the US and India ended in Delhi, there is still little clarity on what India really got out of it! The two test cases for India managing a decent trade-off for the signing of the foundational agreement, COMCASA – meant to improve communication interoperability between the armies of the two countries- were: Will the U.S. President grant a waiver to New Delhi to buy Russian S-400 anti-missile system and oil from Iran?
The term “two-plus-two” is used for an installation of a dialogue mechanism between two countries’ defence and external affairs minister. The idea behind this meet is to have a fruitful diplomatic conversation between both the countries’ respective heads of defence and external affairs. The intention to have such parleys was announced after the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, met with the U.S. President, Donald Trump, in June 2017. However, the dialogue has been postponed twice since last year and several scholars in India described it as worrisome and viewed it as an irritant between the two countries.
On both counts, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, showed sympathy for India, but made no commitment by saying “no decision has been made”. In his press conference, he said, “Our effort, here too, is not to penalize great strategic partners like India, a major defence partner. The sanctions are not meant to adversely impact countries like India.”
For some, Pompeo’s sympathetic statement may hold a promise for India getting a waiver from the pain that is embedded in the provisions of CAATSA for those doing business with Russia or buying oil from Iran – under sanctions of US, but there is no guarantee. What is bewildering is why India did not leverage the signing of this agreement as well as a tri-services exercise for a simultaneous announcement of waivers.
What is also bewildering is that there has been no real debate taking place on the signing of this communication agreement which provides inordinate access to the U.S. defence forces of Indian systems. Though, there have been assurances coming from Washington that the data generated in this exercise would not be shared with another country and used in any way – but is there a way to ascertain that? Intelligence agencies, Hardnews learns, are deeply uncomfortable with this new dimension that has been added to their complex eco-system and would take some effort to firewall what they do not want to be known to our “defence ally”.
This 2+2 meeting comes at a time when there were certain issues that were hanging fire. Besides the commitment towards S-400 and Iranian oil, India is trying to adjust to the requirements of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) agreement that was creating possibilities for greater proximity with Russia and China. Post-Doklam stand-off, India is trying to create an environment where it does not have a confrontation with its northern neighbour. China, in turn, is trying to weigh in on Pakistan to kick-start peace process with India and exploring how to make China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) seductive for New Delhi. India has trenchantly opposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), claiming that it undermines the sovereignty of debt-trapped nations.
India was exploring common ground between the two countries, but by signing the COMCASA, it has created a new aggressive option to deal with China. Clearly, it has succumbed to those experts who claim that China only respects tough language and display of strength. Such strategic experts claim that if India had signed this agreement earlier, China would not have dared to get into Doklam. In the future, too, it would be reluctant to engage in any adventurism. Needless to say, Beijing would be a bit crestfallen after this agreement and a few more that will follow.
Russia, too, that has been desperately trying to rebuild its old ties with India, would be uncertain about the implications of the 2+2 discussion. After Russian President Vladimir Putin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Sochi, Russia, there were expectations that the two countries would not just go ahead with S-400 anti-missile system, but also look at other areas of cooperation. After this agreement and the threat that the U.S. had meted out to all those who are going to do business with Russia, India would also haste slowly despite Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, insisting that India would go ahead with S-400 deal.
The bigger challenge for India, though, will come from Iran. And here it is not just the oil offtake from Iran, which increased after U.N. sanctions were lifted after it signed the P5+1 deal, but how to deal with Chabahar. The transport minister Akhoundi, who is in India, said that Iran was ready to hand over Chabahar port to India after it decided to give its management control in the early part of the year. U.S. Secretary of State, Pompeo, has not promised any waiver on Iranian oil or Chabahar. This will be worrying for Iran as well as India. Iran has been complaining of tardy pace at which India has been fulfilling its commitment to building its share of work at Shahid Beheshti. For India, Chabahar port side stepping Pakistan and accessing Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the wake of fresh U.S. sanctions, Iran is not keen to antagonise Pakistan and least of all, China. Both the countries would be needed to beat the sanctions. There are other changes that have taken place in the region that would restrain Tehran to woo India so desperately.
To sum up, the 2+2 meet has introduced new imponderables and it would be a challenge for India and other regional powers to deal with this situation.