The conclusion of the first 2+2 strategic dialogue between the US and India has produced a mixed bag of results for India. The tenor of negotiations and the nature of agreements signed showed that India can never completely rely on the US and will need constant balancing and maneuvering to retain her independence. The most notable aspect about the 2+2 dialogue is in the format itself – showing that the India-US relationship is attempting to overcome natural odds to arrive at an upgradation of the relationship. The strategic interests and natural global inclinations of the two countries vary vastly and the 2+2 negotiations showed the US’s unsubtle attempts to forcefully prevail upon India to change its natural alliances – a move which India continues to resist.
Thus, the dialogue, besides the basic agreements signed, has really left the original sticky issues unanswered. More importantly, it has not in any way precluded the chances of a future conflict of interest between the US and India on economic issues. In this sense, it can be contrasted with the relatively smooth 2+2 dialogue that India has been conducting with Japan for the last few years, and which is devoid of such political bargains and focuses on areas where cooperation can be made possible.
The Sticky Issues
The Indo-US 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministries of the two countries resulted in the significant signing of the COMCASA or the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. This is a part of the three foundational agreements between USA and India, which are defined purely by the developing military relationship between the two countries over the past decade. The previous one – LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) – was signed in 2016, enabling an agreement for the two countries to use their military bases and allow for fuel replenishment. The last one – Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is still under negotiations.
COMCASA will likely smoothen the process of transfer of sensitive military technology and weaponry from US to India and enable secure communication channels between the two militaries. COMCASA will support encrypted datalinks for communication between US and India, and will link ground, air, surface and subsurface assets to present a common strategic picture of the operations of a country in the entire region. It will enable India to permanently retain access to Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System or CENTRIXS communications grid. Currently, the CENTRIXS system is installed only temporarily on Indian warships during the Malabar exercises.
It was signed after much resistance from India, since it portends the possibility that India’s secure military bases might become vulnerable to espionage by the US or that the technology transferred through COMCASA might be used for spying on India’s security apparatus.
Despite the signing of the agreement, this concern continues to remain valid. It must be noted that the US has only provided an assurance to India that the agreement will prevent the disclosure of data acquired through the COMCASA systems to ‘third parties’ without the prior consent of India. Nowhere does it assure us of ways or means through which such data can be prevented from being acquired altogether. This still has high probabilities of making India’s security data available to the US. This is apart from the altogether different apprehension that US does not have a record of honouring its commitments or agreements. It has abandoned and violated them freely whenever its interests were threatened.
That the US has signed the COMCASA-type agreements with 30 or so countries – all of them its transatlantic allies and countries, like South Korea – will be cold comfort to India. These countries do little to resist intrusive behaviour by the US. COMCASA might or might not involve visits by US inspectors to carry out inspections of COMCASA installed hardware sold to India. A similar US agreement with South Korea, of 2008, stipulated that the equipment will be installed and maintained by authorized US personnel only and there will be inspections periodically (Jacob 2018).
These countries have unquestioningly toed the US line and alliances in global politics and many of them, including South Korea, are US military allies, unlike India. There has hardly been a conflict of interest between them and the US, having accepted US as their natural leader. India can never – and should neither aspire to – fit in with this privileged coterie of wealthy but passive US followers.
India has always followed an independent foreign policy – which is why it has resisted COMCASA for the past so many years – preferring to keep open its options with US adversaries like China, Russia and Iran and effortlessly opting out of QUAD-type US-led alliances whenever the need arose. Even now, after the subtle unease in the wake of the 2+2 summit, the Indian government is valiantly proclaiming that it will not allow its agreements with the US to dictate its relationship with third countries. This would not have been possible with the US of five years ago. It may be possible only under conditions of a decline of the US and the latter’s inability to influence India’s foreign policy outcomes, as it has done with its other ‘core’ NATO allies with whom such agreements have been signed or who have been designated as STA-1 (Strategic Trade Authorization) partners of the US, as India was done a few weeks prior to the 2+2 summit.
Even though both the countries have signed the COMCASA and have sought to deepen their relationship through the 2+2 summit, their purposes are at variance. India’s only objectives are to import state of art military hardware and technology and develop a generally better relationship with the US, which could help her in international institutions and enabled her to become a part of all major export control regimes – Wassenaar Agreement, Missile Technology and Control Regime and Australia Group – except the NSG.
Despite the joint rebukes to Pakistan by India and the US, India is not formulating any kind of systematic strategy for the containment of Pakistan – the only objective is to expose Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism. To some extent, this objective was achieved at the 2+2 summit, as the joint statement, for the first time, referred to the ‘territory under the control of Pakistan’ instead of ‘Pakistan’s territory’, while rebuking the latter for launching terror attacks – an important change of position from the past.
These kind of commercial and diplomatic objectives are in direct contrast to what the US wants out of the India-US relationship – fulfilment of political objectives and an unequal economic relationship. Among other things, the US is interested in a systematic strategy of containment of China – something which India has strongly resisted. From the US, as is evident by its historical relationships, nothing comes for free. Its relationship with all its allies are seen to be serving a purpose or else the US does not hesitate to discard them and it certainly has no hesitation in going into its pre-War inclination towards isolationism when needed. By giving India – though various agreements and favourable STA-1 and Major Defence Partner designations – a place among its core allies, a place not even Israel has, the US is inevitably drawing India into its ambit.
The desire to contain China is only a small part of this story. The US’s claims of counter-balancing China are actually belied by the miniscule investment that’s been committed to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ so far. The real reasons are mainly commercial and are intended to contain India herself within the US’s ambit. India’s rise has become inevitable and is already happening. Its relationship with China is also on an upswing as is the increase in cooperative tendencies within Asia. The US, on the other hand, is a power in the mode of decline and plays a small role in Asia. India needs the US only as an arms importer and as a strategic support system in global politics. For India to fall for the US’s commercial interests at this stage – that too on the US’s terms – will be unfortunate.
And the US has not ceased its habit of applying pressure and overriding allies, as was visible during the 2+2 summit also. The questions of India buying crude oil from Iran – which forms a quarter of its oil imports – and of acquiring the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, remained unresolved. Instead of accepting India’s independent prerogative, the US even demanded that India buy its oil and missile defence systems from America, which will also help to narrow the trade imbalance between the two – Trump administration’s eternal obsession with trade was visible here too. These are irrational demands. Not only are India’s old refineries uniquely suited for Iranian oil, the cost of importing from US would send India’s import bill skyrocketing. Iran is also offering concessions like transportation of the oil. India also does not want to imperil its Chabahar port development which would enable trade between India, Iran and Afghanistan. Thus, these issues remained unresolved.
India on Guard
While treading with the US and in order to be able to have the benefit of all the advantages that come with premium access to top sensitive US technology without compromising on its independence, India needs to be constantly on her guard. India’s designation as an STA-1 partner of the US – the only Asian country after Japan and South Korea to be designated as such on par with all other NATO countries – will enable India to import 90% dual use technologies whose access was severely restricted by the US prior to this. This could be made possible only by India’s inclusion as a part of the major export control regimes of the world after 2016, even though India’s has been demanding the status since 2008.
Similarly, other agreements like COMCASA too come with a rider. Despite enhancing India’s capabilities, getting access to better military technology and communications systems which go beyond the commercial ones, India needs to be on guard in keeping its security data safe. This, especially, requires a level of trust which has not been visible in the mostly transactional India-US relationship so far.
India needs to be especially aware that despite progress in military cooperation, the political objectives of India and US in the Asian region are at variance. India does not share US’s need to contain China, settle Russia and Iran and condescend to Afghanistan while playing dangerous games with Taliban. China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan are close partners of India. With China, the level of closeness is increasing. Both countries are finding common cultural and political objectives in the Asian region and the differences are less than the political differences between India and US.
Therefore, even as India ramps up cooperation with the US, political differences will continue. As recently as after the 2+2 dialogue, India turned down US’s proposal to upgrade the QUAD grouping – consisting of India, US, Japan and Australia, to contain China – to a foreign secretary level and insisted that it should remain at a joint secretary level, which is two levels below what the US wanted. To have yielded to US would have alienated China, especially at the time when the US-China trade war is snowballing.
India will continue to resist US’s pressures on its Indo-Pacific and China strategy, as well as unreasonable demands on how she should conduct her relations with old allies like Iran and Russia. Besides these political conflicts of interest, there is unlikely to be a convergence on trade issues anytime soon. It may only get worse. After the 2+2 dialogue, it has become apparent that the US is interested in an unequal exchange. India has refused to yield to the US on aluminum and steel tariffs and will not buy American oil and replace Russian defence imports wholesale for American only to fulfill the commercial interests of the US. This may create a persistent subtle friction in the relationship, but the alternative would prove very costly for India.
India does not fit into the US’s way of conducting foreign policy. The US is used to dealing with its allies as inevitably junior partners in the relationship or with adversaries – India is neither (Sood 2018). As long as the relationship is limited to commercial military exchange, as it has been over the last decade, it will be a smooth sailing, as both US and Israel emerge as India’s major defence suppliers and as defence contracts with the US reach a value of $15 billion in the last one decade, as opposed to $400 million during 1947-2005.
But the moment India becomes entangled in the US’s political interests and dealings with other countries or gives into the US pressure of unequal exchange, there will be problems for India. Already, there are pulls and pushes within the Indian establishment, in the wake of 2+2 summit, on whether India should go for a Free Trade Agreement with the US. FTAs are not at all easy to negotiate and those with blocs such as EU are still wanting despite years of work. Here again US will likely be much more ruthless and it is already pressurizing India to enter into one. Not only will this have a negative impact on domestic industry, but will flood the markets with harmful GM dairy products from the US. Through an FTA, the US is also sniffing an opportunity to unfairly influence India’s policy on intellectual property.
This kind of economic cooperation with US highlights typical instances where India stands to lose much more economically and politically and it would be a heavy cost to pay to get some access to the US markets. India is already bearing the burden of trying to reduce the trade gap with the US by importing more, including American oil whose imports have doubled over the past year, ever since Trump unleashed his global trade offensive. Such trends only reinforce the belief that cooperation with the US comes at a cost and demands alertness at all times. This is especially so in case of India, where issues of conflict are many more than areas of similar thinking.
Thus, the 2+2 summit should be seen as an opportunity to continue with the US-India relationship as it has been during the last decade, with caution about the risks that come with closer military technology exchange while keeping resolutely out of political questions and unreasonable economic demands.
Jacob, Happymon. 2018. The Hindu. September 10. Accessed September 17, 2018. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/too-close-for-comfort/article24910063.
Sood, Rakesh. 2018. The Hindu. September 1. Accessed September 17, 2018. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/india-and-the-us-its-complicated/article24835445.ece.