India and the United States are set for a significant bilateral meeting on September 6, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis will hold the first ‘Two plus Two (2+2)’ dialogue with India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
The 2+2 dialogue is aimed at building a high level of trust between the two countries and will be the first of an annual series of dialogues on security issues to be held alternately in each country.
US President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy of December 2017 called India a “major defence partner of the US”, and in light of last week’s cancellation of the US$300 million in payments to Pakistan for its failure to act against terrorists, the meet has assumed greater significance.
The inaugural 2+2 meeting, already postponed twice this year, also marks the 10th anniversary of the landmark India-US civil nuclear deal.
On the table will be Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) – a legal framework for transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India. Observers say there is likely to be an in-principle agreement on COMCASA between the two sides at the dialogue, but its signing is unlikely.
COMCASA aims to facilitate exchange of secure communications between the two militaries and allow the sale of encrypted communication systems to India, which has been met with concerns on the Indian side. A US military negotiating team was in New Delhi last month to respond to Indian objections. The US has signed similar agreements with other countries called the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA).
The US – India’s second-largest supplier of defence hardware – designated it as a Major Defence Partner (MDP) and is keen on COMCASA for India to gain access to cutting edge technology. The militaries of India and the US exercise more with each other than they do with any other nation. And, this year, they will hold their first joint services amphibious exercise, to be followed by a joint services counter-terrorism exercise next year, media reports said.
COMCASA is part of of three military agreements that the US considers foundational for a functional military relationship. In August 2016, India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which allows the military of each country to replenish warships from the other’s bases. Negotiations on the third agreement, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA), have not yet begun, media reports said.
However, defence experts are wary of the draconian Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which imposes sanctions on New Delhi’s two strategic partners – Russia, India’s largest arms supplier, and Iran, one of its three largest energy suppliers. Indian military officials have said they intend to raise the possible impact of CAATSA on a planned US$5-billion deal to acquire S-400 air defence systems from Russia.
Though President Trump recently signed a law that allows for case-by-case waivers under CAATSA, recent remarks by American officials have created doubts as to whether the US will provide a waiver for the S-400 deal.
Other issues on the table will be the US tightening regulations for granting H-1B work visas, which has affected Indians in a big way. For its part, India has put on hold the imposition of tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminium in view of the dialogue.
Washington sees India as a regional counter to China’s growing influence. India is also a key member of the ‘Quadrilateral’ – an informal grouping of democracies comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India.
India’s moves will be measured and will have to tread lightly in the meetings when it comes to many of its neighbors. India does not want to provoke China, even though it is opposed to Beijing’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It will also want to go easy on Iran, with which it has co-developed the strategic Chabahar port that gives it access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while bypassing Pakistan. India will have to be similarly careful about topics related to Russia, from which it plans to buy the S-400 air defence system.