The 2+2 meeting between India and the US held in Washington DC this month has decided to deepen the partnership between the two countries. This was the second such meeting; the first was in India in September last year, since such a high-level mechanism was initiated. The meeting between the two Defence Ministers and two External Affairs Ministers dealt with a host of issues that covered the bilateral, regional and global political area. The deliberations were tempered with plenty of bonhomie, mutual warmth and praise, and overall diplomatic niceties. But, whether, from India’s points of view, there was any concrete outcome is the moot point, we wish to evaluate here.
Arguably the 2+2 mechanism is focused on the strategic alliance between India and the US, although both countries claim it to be a global partnership. To be precise, it is meant to check the growing footprint of China in the region.
The joint statement issued after the meeting said the US and India are committed to making the Indo-pacific region “free, open, inclusive and peaceful”. Both are two big democracies in the world and promote several freedoms. China’s predatory and economic activities in the Indo-Pacific present a potent risk to those treasured freedoms.
Quite apparently, America supported by India, Japan and Australia constituting Quad will counter China’s expansion in the region. But how does it help India become a greater power and eventually a military strength? New Delhi is way far from realising that objective. Given the nature of deliberations and agreements signed, it is evident that New Delhi is still not on that road.
What are the agreements in addition to usual diplomatic rhetoric on promoting the international rule-based order, protection of liberty and human rights, and so on? They paid handsome tributes and fulsome praise to themselves for trilateralism between India-US and Japan, and Quadrilateralism by adding Australia to the group. This Group enhances practical co-operation between the members in infrastructure, cyber security, counter-terrorism and regional connectivity etc.
Keeping in mind the critical importance of reducing the risk of disasters, India welcomed the US into the recently-created Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. The increasing cooperation with the National Disaster Response Force was underlined.
Both the countries put their money on an enhanced defence partnership. Small wonder, India’s defence purchase from the US is over $18 billion. The discussion and reiteration included the newly established amphibious exercise called the Tiger Triumph that testifies to the growing scope of defence cooperation. Also, the Ministers committed to the enhanced cooperation between navy fleets of both countries under Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, and African Command. Similar cooperation has been planned for other two services — the Air Force and the Military. Such cooperation includes information-sharing, capacity building, officers-exchange for mutual observations etc.
The singing of the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) is an important milestone in defence collaboration. ISA is meant to facilitate classified military information between the defence Industries of India and the US. Likewise, three agreements were signed under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) which should help the process of co-development and co-production of defence projects. Standard Operating procedures were finalised for the implementation of projects under DTTI.
There was passing mention of NATO+Five, where India could be included. That will, indeed be a big gain for India. But it is not in sight yet. This should have been the point of negotiation from the Indian side and some commitment to that end could have been extracted from the US Ministers.
As usual, terrorism figured prominently in the deliberations. Both countries reiterated their commitment to fight terrorism in all its forms. They called upon Pakistan to abjure terrorism as a method to advance one’s interests. The Ministers urged Pakistan to take “immediate, sustained and irreversible action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for terrorism against other countries.”
Wary of China’s 5G network which threatens cyber security, the 2+2 reaffirmed the need for cyber security cooperation. They talked about supporting open and transparent platforms and technologies that safeguard data sovereignty and privacy. Both countries planned to discuss cyber defence cooperation next year.
Cooperation in science and technology was deepened. The new Science and Technology Agreement should increase collaboration in innovation and research. Space cooperation is a new area that is being explored. Earth science and lunar exploration is a unique facet of cooperation in science and technology. It is planned to launch a synthetic Aperture (NISAR) satellite jointly developed by NASA and ISRO.
Another area as a part of track-II diplomatic contact is people-to-people ties. Both countries recognise the presence and contribution of 4 million strong Indians in the US. The ‘Howdy Modi’ in NRG Park, Houston was an act of that recognition. It was acknowledged that exchange of scholars, legislators, and professionals is mutually beneficial. For the sake of building a robust India-US partnership such exchanges are to be regularised, especially, the India-US parliamentary exchange to facilitate regular reciprocal visits.
The other notable outcomes are: India getting the US to agree to India’s building of Chabahar port which will help Afghanistan. Both countries discussed the ‘outlaw regime’ of Iran, but India has the leeway in using Iranian soil to build connectivity to Afghanistan. This understanding ties in with the US plan to drawdown its military in Afghanistan and India gradually stepping in. However, the mechanism of India’s entry into Afghan conflict is still to be worked out. New Delhi has the good will of Afghans but it should have a say in the resolution of the conflict and the future stability of Afghanistan, and what is more the confidence of America in the region.
However, the grey area is the economy, where no substantive decision was taken that could bring cheer to Indians. It was noted that the US export of LNG and crude oil has touched $6.7 billion. And there was usual esoteric statements on job creation, investment etc in mutual interest. But there was no agreement to build up the Indian economy to help it emerge as a counter-weight to China and no decision on reducing US economic engagement with China, consequent trade diversion to India or trade creation for India.
It is hard to envisage India becoming a countervailing force to China without building up its economy. China’s economy is 14 trillion whereas India’s is 3 trillion or so. Prime Minister Modi’s resolve to make it 5 trillion by 2024 did not reflect in the negotiations with the biggest economy of the world. One is puzzled by New Delhi’s dilution of focus on the economy.
South Block (MEA) is putting all its energy and attention on defence and security by making endless defence purchase, while the North Block (MOHA) is busy redefining and head counting its citizens. Both these priorities are misplaced. It is the economy that will carry us forward at the end of the day, certainly internationally.
One wonders why Modi regime is faltering badly on the economy. From political economy point of view, the 2+2 summit could not be credited with any major achievement as both countries could not come to a creative and viable strategy to address the common threat emerging from China. That also begs the question if both India and the US share this Chinese threat perception. One wonders if that is a point of convergence or quiet unstated divergence?
The writer is Prof. International Politics, JMI