It is not all hunky dory as India and the US sit down for the twice-postponed 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi on Thursday with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman representing the India side and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis the US side.
The main bone of contention will predictably be Indian import of oil from Iran in the light of the US imposing fresh sanctions on Iran over the country’s nuclear programme. Crude oil imports are a dominant element in the Indo-Iran bilateral relationship and India will seek to sensitise the US on how energy import-reliant country India is.
The development of Chabahar port in Iran with active Indian participation has heightened India’s interest in dealing with that country because New Delhi sees the Iranian port as a counterpoise to the Gwadar port in Pakistan with Chinese help as an outlet for exports.
Since the Chinese thrust in developing strategic ports is aimed at establishing hegemony over key trade routes, India hopes that the Trump administration in the US would appreciate the need to build Chabahar to ensure freedom of the seas for vessels carrying goods to locations in the rest of the world.
Considering that if India snaps oil import deals with Iran, the Chabahar venture would be jeopardised, it would indeed be in US interest too to let India continue with oil trade within certain set limits. What stand the two key representatives of President Trump would take on Iran is, however, steeped in uncertainty.
Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and counter-terrorism efforts will form the fulcrum of the positive side of the dialogue in which there is strong mutuality of interests. Indeed, the Americans aver that Global Strategic Partnership between India and the US has got a fresh impetus under Trump and the dialogue will show how far this is true.
The 2+2 dialogue replaces the earlier strategic and commercial dialogue and is set to become an annual affair which is happy augury. The 2+2 dialogue is followed by the US with Australia and Japan too so India’s inclusion in that process enhances its strategic importance.
While US has labelled leaders of Pakistan-based terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad as specially designated global terrorists, much to India’s satisfaction, New Delhi has likewise labelled al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and the Islam State-Khorasan as terrorist organizations.
On Indo-Pacific cooperation, India would like to know the US perspective and how India can step in more proactively.
India has also started oil and gas imports from the US after many years with an import target of $2.5 billion, and is expected to address the bilateral trade deficit issue which is largely tilted in India’s favour.
Defence has also emerged as an important pillar of bilateral ties, with the US designating India as a major defence partner in 2016. However, India has signed only one of three foundational agreements needed for interoperability with the US—the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016 -- and not the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement. These agreements are likely to come up for assessment and deliberation during the 2+2 dialogue.
According to a report by Bloomberg, there are prospects of a potential deal to build advanced Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-16 fighter jets in India. Sale of US arms, associated parts and logistics support to India have grown from zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2018. The amount could rise by an additional $3 billion by 2019, as per the report.
India’s purchase of four S-400 missile systems from Russia at a cost of more that Rs 40,000 crore is likely to come up in the talks but India is firm that this country’s deals with third countries cannot be questioned at an Indo-US bilateral forum.
Ahead of the dialogue, top homeland security officials of the two countries have worked on a draft plan related to six areas, including anti-terror cooperation in intelligence sharing, terror financing and cyber security.
All in all, the 2+2 dialogue would hopefully be a good beginning which can be built upon.