India-US 2+2 Meeting: Maturing of an ‘indispensable partnership’

In the 2+2 Talks, India and the US discussed expansion of their cooperation into new defence areas like space and cyberspace, so that their military forces could jointly find solutions to the problems that the world faces in this century

The fourth 2+2 Meeting between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of India and the US took place in Washington DC on 11 April 2022.

The launch of the dialogue in 2018 was seen as a “reflection of the shared commitment” by India and the US to provide “a positive, forward-looking vision for the India-US strategic partnership and to promote synergy in their diplomatic and security efforts”. Over the years, the strategic bilateral relationship with the US, anchored in the dialogues held in the 2+2 format, have produced tangible and far-reaching results for India.

India and the US signed a troika of “foundational pacts” for deep military cooperation, beginning with the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement [LEMOA] in 2016, followed by the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement [COMCASA] after the first 2+2 dialogue in 2018, and then the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement [BECA] in 2020.

The strengthening of the mechanisms of cooperation between the two countries, particularly the militaries, are of significance in the context of an increasingly aggressive China, which threatens a large number of countries in its neighbourhood and beyond, and which has been challenging several established norms and aspects of international relations.

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File image of Chinese President Xi Jinping. AP

Holding the 2+2 dialogue at this juncture assumed even greater significance because of the global circumstances under which it took place. China’s expansionism and aggressiveness has been steadily increasing over the last several years. This witnessed a significant uptick as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of 2020. What, however, took the global community by surprise and off-guard was the all-out invasion by Russia of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Prior to this, Russian President Vladimir Putin had visited Beijing for the Winter Olympics and signed a “without limits” agreement on 4 February with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Since then, notwithstanding the perceived preponderant superiority of the Russian military and forces, the conflict has ground to a stalemate. This is owing to the exceptional leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the unparalleled bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people. The war has however wreaked unimaginable death, destruction and carnage on the Ukrainian people. The unprecedented and devastating sanctions imposed by the US, Europe and other Western countries on Russia have wreaked havoc on the Russian economy but have also resulted in significant damage to the Western economies, as also to the global economy, particularly of the developing countries, in the areas of energy, food and fertilizer security.

The West has sought to portray this conflict as one between democracies of the world against the authoritarian and autocratic regimes represented principally by Russia and China. It is anything but that because significant cracks have become visible in the “democratic” segment of the global community with several countries of Europe continuing to deal with Russia to meet their energy needs for which they are heavily dependent on Russia.

Some countries which are members of the EU and even NATO, like Hungary, have declared their readiness to pay Russia in roubles for their energy purchases, if so demanded by Russia. Also, it cannot be taken for granted that the partnership between Russia and China is ironclad and will continue that way, without cracks and fissures, in the medium and long term. Although the China-Russia bonhomie is likely to continue without significant damage for the foreseeable future, indications of an incipient rethink have appeared in the writings emanating from within the Chinese establishment.

The timing of the 2+2 interaction at this juncture was particularly opportune as the West has continued to express unhappiness and mount pressure on India because it had not explicitly criticised or condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine, had continued to adopt a “neutral” stand in all the Resolutions critical of Russia in the UN system [including the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, UN Human Rights Council, etc] and also because India continued to buy some quantities of oil as well as source its defence purchases, particularly the S-400 ballistic missile defence system, from Russia.

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Even US president Joe Biden had in response to a query termed the Indian position on the Russian invasion as “somewhat shaky” although several senior officials and functionaries in the US State Department and elsewhere had expressed understanding and appreciation of the reasons for India adopting the stand vis-à-vis Russia that it did. India has explained that it has had historical and legacy relations with Russia as far as its defence purchases are concerned. In any case, India has significantly diversified its defence acquisitions over the last several years and today, the US is the 2nd/3rd largest defence supplier to India with an inventory of around $21 billion, while it was nowhere in the reckoning on the defence supply side just about a decade back. Moreover, India’s oil purchases from Russia are just around 1 per cent of its total oil imports which are essential to safeguard its energy security in view of the sky-rocketing prices of energy on the global market, principally as a result of the Russian inflicted war and consequent comprehensive sanctions against it.

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File image of US President Joe Biden . AP

Several international delegations and ministers including the UK Foreign Secretary, the US Deputy National Security Adviser, Foreign Ministers of Mexico, Greece, Federal Minister for European and International Affairs of Austria, and many more visited India in March 2022 to gently nudge it to adopt a more-pronounced and critical stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict was expected to be an important theme of discussions between the two sides at the 2+2 meeting, in addition, of course, to taking the bilateral agenda and cooperation forward. And so it was.

What accorded added importance to these deliberations was the fact that a virtual Summit between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the initiative of the former, was held prior to the 2+2 meet. This set the tone for discussions and decisions at the 2+2 interaction. In his opening remarks, Prime Minister Modi without any trace of self-consciousness or being under any scrutiny or pressure very clearly and convincingly articulated India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. He termed the situation in Ukraine as “very worrisome” and said that he had spoken to the Presidents of both Ukraine and Russia over the phone “several times”. He “not only appealed for peace but also suggested President Putin to have direct talks with the President of Ukraine”. He condemned “the recent killings of innocent civilians in Bucha city” and expressed the “hope that the ongoing dialogue between Russia and Ukraine will pave the way for peace”. He emphasised the “security of the civilians in Ukraine and the uninterrupted supply of humanitarian aid to them”. India had sent medicines and other relief materials to Ukraine and its neighbouring countries and on the “demand of Ukraine, would soon send another consignment of medicines”.

During discussions and interactions, the Indian side in the 2+2 Talks was able to effectively convey to the US interlocutors that India’s purchases of oil were a minuscule portion of the energy that Europe was importing from Russia. Also, India’s imports of defence equipment from Russia were predicated on its legacy relationship in this sector with the Soviet Union/Russia which spanned several decades. Moreover, it was essential for India to maintain cordial relations with Russia so that it could help moderate China’s stance against India and did not evolve into a Russia-China axis against India.

This appeared to have had a salutary impact as Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Press interaction expressed satisfaction with the discussions and said that India will take its own decision. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also remarked that India was not circumventing any sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. The issue of waiver under CAATSA was however still left ambiguous as far as the S-400 purchases from Russia are concerned.

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File image of US secretary of state Antony Blinken. News18

In the 2+2 Talks, India and the US discussed the expansion of their cooperation into new defence areas like space and cyberspace, so that their military forces could jointly find solutions to the problems that the world faces in this century. They signed a bilateral Space Situational Awareness Arrangement to increase information sharing and cooperation in space. This might see new efforts into monitoring space debris, meteorites and satellites.

They have agreed to work together on “air-launched unmanned aerial vehicles through Defence Technology and Trade Initiatives”. They also agreed to launch new supply chain cooperation measures so that the defence requirements of both countries are met on priority. The US has been providing key defence platforms to India to support it as a defence leader in the Indo-Pacific region. However, progress on the DTTI which was launched in 2012 has proved to be unsatisfactory. Both sides appear to have realised the critical significance of this aspect of their defence partnership and seem determined to redress it swiftly.

The leaders reviewed mutual efforts that were used to respond to the terrible humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and assessed its wider implications. Both countries urged for an immediate cessation of hostilities and condemned the deaths of innocent civilians. They emphasised that global order must be restored by respecting international laws and the sovereignty and integrity of all states.

Lloyd Austin said that the US was committed to supporting India if China showed hostility on India’s northern borders. The US recognised that Beijing was eroding the security of the Indo-Pacific region in multiple ways. First, they were constructing dual-use infrastructure along India’s border and also unlawfully claiming territory in the South China Sea. The US also acknowledged that Beijing’s actions were instrumental in India’s neutral stance.

The US reiterated its support for India to secure permanent membership in a reformed UN Security Council, and to help India gain entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh urged American companies to invest in India and support the ‘Make in India’ programme. The event also allowed Singh to meet senior executives of Boeing and Raytheon separately. Singh encouraged both companies to take advantage of India’s new policies which were now transitioning from ‘Make in India’ to ‘Make for the World’.

A day after Shehbaz Sharif replaced Imran Khan as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, US and India asked Pakistan to take ”immediate, sustained, and irreversible” action to ensure that no territory under its control was used for terrorist attacks. US and India both emphasised the importance of upholding international standards on anti-money laundering and combating terrorism financing. This is important since Pakistan is on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force [FATF] since June 2018 for failing to check money laundering and terror financing.

External Affairs Minister [EAM] S Jaishankar responded firmly and confidently, yet gently, to a question from the media on India’s stand towards buying oil from Russia. He suggested that the media focus on Europe, instead of focussing on India, since India’s monthly oil purchase from Russia was less than what Europe bought from Russia in an “afternoon”.

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External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar. ANI

The EAM also did not mince words when responding to a question from the media about the reference by Secretary Blinken to monitoring human rights abuses by some government, police, and prison officials in India in his Press Statement after the 2+2 interaction. In a sharp response Jaishankar said “people” are entitled to have views about India’s policies but at the same time, New Delhi is “equally entitled” to have views about them and “about the interests, and the lobbies and the vote banks which drive that”. He clarified that no discussions on the subject of human rights had taken place in the 2+2 Talks. The EAM also referred to the hate attack on two Sikh men in New York.

The broad message emanating from the recent 2+2 discussions, which transformed into a 3+3 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden providing the tenor of the wide-ranging discussions was that the world’s largest and oldest democracies are keen to focus on the convergences of interests, of which there are many, and to continue to discuss and seek mutually acceptable positions where there are divergences.

Despite the media headlines in recent weeks being focused on the perceived differences on several issues related to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, India and the US underscored through their detailed and extensive joint declaration issued at the conclusion of their discussions, their determination to build on the substantial energy of the bilateral partnership over recent years and to take it to fresh heights.

The writer is executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.

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