The postponement, for the second time, of the first '2+2 Dialogue' involving the foreign and defence ministers of India and the United States is being projected by some as a setback in India-US strategic relations. The previous postponement related to the absence of a US Secretary of State following the firing of Rex Tillerson. The latest reason is the unavailability of his successor Mike Pompeo due to North Korea-related travel. While disappointing for India, and indicative of US political priorities at the moment, citing this as evidence of a reversal or setback in India-US security relations is short-sighted.
It is remarkable to consider how much the India-US strategic and security relationship has evolved over the past quarter century. A visit by the Indian Air Force chief to Washington in 1995 and a 1997 trip by the US Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to India were ground-breaking at the time. After India's 1998 nuclear test, the US led the imposition of strong sanctions on India, suspending all defence sales, lines of credit, international financial institution loans, visas for Indian scientists, and non-critical aid. Even after the repair in ties between 1999 and 2005, India had justifiable reservations about US intentions, including its continued relationship with and dependence on Pakistan.
Today, the India-US security partnership encompasses a large variety of activities, from information sharing and joint exercises to defence sales and emerging industrial cooperation. Even after Donald Trump's election, developments in security relations over the past 18 months have surpassed expectations in several areas. The first is in terms of bilateral engagement. In 2017 not only did Trump meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and agree to a joint statement that reflected many Indian concerns, but cabinet-level officials - Secretary of Defence James Mattis, Tillerson, and National Security Adviser HR McMaster (the latter two no longer in office) - all made their way to New Delhi. Less noticed, but no less significant, is the almost constant two-way traffic of working level security officials, both from the armed services and among civilian bureaucrats. Not surprisingly, the US National Security Strategy and still-evolving 'free and open Indo-Pacific' strategy reflect considerable alignment with Indian positions on key issues. And while purely symbolic, the emphasis on the Indian Ocean inherent in the renaming of "US Pacific Command" to "Indo-Pacific Command" is evident.
Second, cooperation and coordination involving third countries has also increased. India-US-Japan conversations have been upgraded to the ministerial level. A working-level quadrilateral dialogue has been resurrected, and has now met twice. A new trilateral infrastructure working group involving India, the US, and Japan has also been established. India, US and Afghan officials converse more today than they did a few years ago. Country-specific coordination in third countries has increased, as in Sri Lanka. Differences on Pakistan have also been moderated, including by a sharp decline in US aid to Pakistan.
Third, a host of bilateral security agreements have been advanced in recent years. A logistics supply agreement - which had been under negotiation for a decade - was finally concluded, as was an agreement to facilitate helicopter operations. While not yet finalised, negotiations towards an agreement to facilitate secure communications are underway.
Fourth, there has been some movement on arms sales and defence industrial cooperation, although important roadblocks remain at both ends. The US recently approved the sale of additional attack helicopters to India, and the possibility of the sale of armed drones has been broached. The manufacturing of defence components in India by US companies is already underway with Hyderabad emerging as a nascent hub as India slowly integrates into global defence supply chains.
Fifth, military exercises have continued apace between the two countries' armies, air forces, and navies, and are increasing in complexity. India recently participated in the United States' multilateral RIMPAC exercise and tri-service amphibious exercises are now on the horizon with the U. armed forces. The only precedent for the latter is a tri-service exercise that India conducted last year with Russia.
Despite this convergence, which has only accelerated in the past few years, India-U. defence relations have been the subject of constant criticism, a combination of unrealistic expectations and doubt. Sceptics in both India and the United States regularly raise the canard about a budding alliance. India has been consistently clear that an alliance is not the objective of improved India-US military cooperation. This is not out of any fidelity to non-alignment, but rather a well-grounded belief that alliances are constraining, politically unrealistic, and somewhat anachronistic in today's world. However, a much deeper defence partnership that facilitates information exchanges, interoperability, and capacity building efforts is certainly feasible, and arguably necessary given India's daunting strategic challenges. Many in Washington - accustomed to formal alliance structures - struggle to comprehend this, although that too is gradually changing. Meanwhile, inflated expectations coexist with criticism in both countries by those who are against the very idea of India-US defence cooperation on political or ideological grounds.
Certainly, India and the United States will continue to have their differences. The US Congress has imposed tough sanctions against countries engaging economically with Russia, despite reluctance by the White House and concerns by the Pentagon and State Department about its impact on ties with India. While the wiggle room afforded the executive branch in pending US legislation remains to be seen, the imposition of sanctions would definitely harm defence relations with India, which has made it clear that it will continue major arms purchases from Russia. Similarly, the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal risks American sanctions on Indian entities engaged in commerce with Iran, a move that will particularly affect India's energy sector. An escalating trade war between the United States and China has already begun to affect India, which has retaliated by giving notification of increased tariffs on select imports from the US In all three cases, from Washington's standpoint, India is a secondary target to Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing. Nonetheless, it is natural that India should adopt a tough negotiating position with Washington in a bid to resolve these differences in its favour. Barring severe escalations in these three areas, which are still possible if they are not carefully negotiated in the coming weeks and months, such differences will not fundamentally alter the broad trajectory of India-US defence relations.
(Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow, Foreign Policy with Brookings India in New Delhi.)
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