For Modi’s India, 2+2=0 as Trump tightens the leash

The US-Indian defining partnership took a leap forward in the field of defence at the first session of the “2+2” dialogue of the two countries’ foreign and defence ministers in New Delhi this week.

It is a “win-win” for Washington. Highly lucrative multibillion-dollar arms deals sail into view, while Washington also shepherds India towards a US-led alliance system in the Indo-Pacific.

The “2+2” focused on deepening the US-Indian military ties. The leitmotif is “interoperability”, which translates as India’s incremental induction into the US’ Indo-Pacific alliance system. Thus, the single biggest outcome of the “2+2” is the signing of an agreement on “communications compatibility and security arrangement” (known as Comcasa), which provides for communications interoperability by making available American equipment to India to access the US’ super secret communications and navigation kits.

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The Comcasa is being projected as a “force multiplier” for India in any conflict with China or Pakistan. Thus, while deploying American-made C-130J Super Hercules Special Forces planes behind enemy lines in Pakistan’s Punjab or China’s Tibet, secure communications with ground teams becomes possible. Again, Indian Navy Boeing P-8I maritime aircraft hunting for Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean can communicate with land bases through secure channels. Besides, Indian forces can tap into the Common Air and Tactical Picture or Maritime Domain available with the US. Isn’t it a heady thought that the US could be India’s “silent partner” in any conflict in Doklam?

Comacosa complements growing US military sales to India. Alongside, other things are also happening – announcement of tri-service US-Indian military exercises for the first time; posting of liaison officers between the Indian Navy and the US Naval Forces Central Command based in Bahrain; new Initiatives in military technology, and so on.

The joint statement after the “2+2” highlighted the steps taken to enhance interoperability – US’ designation of India as “major defence partner”; US military sales to India (valued at US$16 billion); easing of US restrictions on exports of progressively higher levels of technology to India; inclusion of India in the top tier of countries entitled to licence-free exports of US technology, etc.

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The remarks by India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the joint press conference regarding the “most productive, positive and purposeful” 2+2 meeting sounded euphoric: “Today’s meeting marks a defining moment … Defence cooperation has emerged as the most significant dimension of our strategic partnership and as a key driver of … the bilateral relationship. The momentum … has imbued a tremendous positive energy that has elevated India-US relations to unprecedented heights … Our leaders recognise that it is no longer viable to address foreign and defence issues in a compartmentalised manner … Our discussions have paved the way for a new era in India-US defence and strategic engagement. Given our shared interests, we are confident that we can work together to promote peace, economic prosperity and security in our region and beyond.”

Sitharaman probably hoped to hype up the optics for its side-effects as well, but then, never before has an Indian official implied in a written statement so explicitly that India-US relations are joined at the hip with the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Clearly, the Indian establishment sees in the developing regional power dynamic an opportunity to boost Indian military capabilities by exploiting the US’ growing rivalries with China.

Yet, life is real. The joint statement contains nothing of consequence to India’s development agenda. The Indian ministers were apparently disinterested in drab issues.

The Narendra Modi government’s game plan appears to be to placate Trump’s “America First” project by awarding some lucrative multibillion-dollar contracts to American arms vendors. But it is a naive hope that India can get away with cherry-picking. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that Washington will revisit the vexed issues of trade imbalance and market access, and keep piling pressure on India to roll back its defence ties with Russia and oil imports from Iran. He gave no assurances on a special visa regime for Indian migrants, either.

The relentless manner in which Washington is putting in place the underpinnings of interoperability shows clearly where it wants to take the defining partnership. Meanwhile, the “2+2” came like the bull in a China shop, scattering incipient trends of new thinking in Indian foreign policy since April.

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The four ministers who huddled together seemed blissfully unaware that India lives in its region, which includes the two great “revisionist powers” in modern history that the US is determined to counter – Russia and China – and also two extraordinarily tenacious neighbours – Iran and Pakistan – whom Washington tries in vain to encircle.

The contradictions are such that Prime Minister Modi’s office waffled in drafting its press release on his hour-long conversation with the two visiting heavyweights from Washington. Indian diplomacy has seldom hid itself beneath the carpet like this.

The Trump administration has brilliantly outwitted the Modi government by making India’s relations with Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan the abiding concerns of the folks in Washington. The “2+2” showed that the leash is getting tighter by the day.