With big problems roiling at home, both India and the US spoke largely about increasing defence cooperation
The linkage between foreign affairs and defence has been recognised over the centuries.
Kautilya and Machiavelli were both diplomatic geniuses as well as military strategists. The chess game that the kings and queens have played over centuries was a test of wills and skills in diplomacy and warfare.
War, after all, has always been diplomacy by other means. The evolution of the post of National Security Advisor in many countries, including in India also was in recognition of this linkage.
In the case of the United States, foreign affairs and defence have been inseparable for years. It may be recalled that a ten year defence agreement with India eventually led to the India-US nuclear deal.
Under President Trump, defence cooperation has become conditional to good diplomatic relations in the sense that importers of arms are treated as allies even when there is no ideological proximity with them. It is against this backdrop that we should examine the establishment of a new forum, named 2+2 dialogue, between the Defence Ministers and Foreign Ministers of the US and India together on an annual basis. It was the second dialogue in the series that took place in Washington in early December 2019.
The US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark T Esper represented the US and Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr S Jaishankar represented India. The holding of this dialogue at a time when both the governments were preoccupied with serious issues at home shows the importance that both the countries attach to this particular exercise.
As expected, “the four Ministers positively appraised the growing partnership between India and the United States, grounded in mutual trust and friendship, democratic values, people-to-people ties, and a common commitment to the prosperity of their citizens. The Ministers noted that the deepening strategic partnership between India and the United States is rooted in shared values of freedom, justice, human rights and commitment to the rule of law.”
What followed in the Joint Statement was a comprehensive update of the vision of the two countries on the global situation. Quite naturally, the Indo-Pacific region received considerable attention. Appreciating the convergence in their respective Indo-Pacific visions, they reiterated their support for ASEAN centrality, rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, and sustainable and transparent infrastructure investment.
They reaffirmed that closer India-US cooperation is instrumental to promoting security and prosperity in the broader Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Significantly, in this context, the United States reaffirmed its strong support for “India’s permanent role in a reformed UN Security Council and for India’s early entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.” The reference to India’s “permanent role” rather than permanent membership is a dilution of the existing stand of the US. Obviously, neither side believes that a reform of the Security Council is possible.
On the other hand, shedding their reluctance to provoke China, the India-US-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral Ministerial meeting in September 2019, was described as a means to promote practical cooperation in infrastructure development, cyber security, counterterrorism, and regional connectivity.
The reference to Afghanistan was unrealistic and different from the US intention to withdraw from Afghanistan soonest possible. The twists and turns in the US negotiations with Taliban do not seem to lead to “a peaceful, secure, stable, united, democratic, inclusive and sovereign Afghanistan.” The applause for India’s efforts is rather formal and hides the wish for India to get more involved in the war effort.
On Korea, the view expressed was from the point of view of the US, focussed on North Korea’s dismantlement of all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. The larger issue of denuclearisation of the Peninsula was missing.
The desire to build a comprehensive, enduring, and mutually-beneficial defence partnership and to expand all aspects of their security and defence cooperation received great emphasis. The Ministers sought to expand military-to-military cooperation and improve the defence and security partnership in the coming year.
In this context, emphasis was laid on maritime security and naval cooperation. The assignment of an Indian officer to liaison with US Naval Forces Central Command was noted, marking a new move to explore further military liaison relationships.
The reference to terrorism, particularly the actions of Pakistan were specific and without any reservation. Moreover, “the Ministers called on Pakistan to take immediate, sustained and irreversible action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for terrorism against other countries in any manner, and to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of cross-border terrorist attacks, including 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot.” Cyber security also was discussed in detail.
On the economic side, the Ministers expressed the hope that the current discussions on trade would be concluded successfully, ending speculation about a trade war. As for the implementation of the Indo-US nuclear deal, the two sides merely noted continuing discussion between NPCL and Westinghouse on the construction of six nuclear reactors. No mention was made of the Liability Law or sale of nuclear material. But space cooperation was considered a growing area in which India’s capabilities were recognised.
A number of measures were outlined for people to people cooperation, even though the restrictive nature of the present visa regime has affected the flow of Indian tourists and technical personnel. A significant decision was to promote the forthcoming India-US Consular Dialogue to further increase cooperation and discuss issues of mutual concern, including visas and familial issues related to marriage, adoption and child custody.
Though the dialogue covered a broad spectrum of activities in every field, it was more about defence rather than diplomacy. No major initiative appeared to be on the cards in the political or economic fronts in the US election year.
India also is preoccupied with a number of domestic issues and much of the time of the Ministers may have been taken up by discussions on Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act, which are causing concern in certain sections of public opinion in the US.
The cancellation of a meeting of the External Affairs Minister with the Congressional leaders was attributed to the emergence of some irritants in bilateral relations.
The slowdown in India’s economic growth must have also been a matter of concern in Washington. But the prospect of enhanced defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the stress on the Quad are matters of considerable significance.