Dialogue aimed at enhancing strategic coordination and maintaining peace in the Indo-Pacific region.
The new India-US 2+2 dialogue slated to be held on 6 September 2018 will replace the earlier India-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue established in 2010 and 2015, respectively. The new ministerial dialogue involving the Foreign and Defence Secretaries/Ministers of both the countries is aimed at enhancing strategic coordination and maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, a construct that has been increasingly used by the governments and strategic communities alike, but has evoked strong reaction from China.
The much-awaited dialogue was unilaterally postponed twice last year in April and July by the United States, owing to “unavoidable reasons”. Chinese scholarship on India at that time speculated that the real reason behind the US decision was India’s oil and arms imports from Iran and Russia, respectively. They also cited Donald Trump’s displeasure with India, and India imposing up to 100% tariff on imports from the United States in retaliation to US tariffs.
Long Xingchun, director of the Indian Research Center at Xihua Normal University and a senior research fellow at the Chahar Institute, had opined in Cankao Xiaoxi, a widely-circulated newspaper that there was a long-standing deep rooted mistrust between India and the US. On the one hand the US is wielding the stick of “protectionism” against India, and on the other by unfolding its “Indo-Pacific” strategy, the US wants India to make a choice between China and the US. Given the choice, China is more “reliable”, argues the Chinese academia. Narendra Modi’s pronouncements on the Indo-Pacific during the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Wuhan unofficial summit have been interpreted in this context. Nevertheless, in India many believed that the real reason was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s North Korea visit, as denuclearisation of North was at the top of Trump’s agenda. Nikki Haley, US envoy to the United Nations had then clarified that the postponement was not due to tensions in bilateral relations.
China must be watching the proceedings of the new dialogue with keen interest as the US officials prior to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s and Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ India visit, have underscored the “China focus” of these talks. Randall G. Schriver, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, while speaking at an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that “China and how to respond to it will be front and centre” of the dialogue. He did raise India’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia and ruled out any waiver, albeit he did talk about the US providing India the alternate platforms. He also talked about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the militarisation of the South China Sea, and said that we need to have an alternative and the US is talking with India. It is interesting to note that Zhang Jun, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister said on 27 August that India was a natural partner in the ancient Silk Road and remains in the Belt and Road Initiative. He also tried to address India’s concerns about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) when he said that it was a pure economic initiative and did not alter China’s position on Kashmir. In fact, China’s investment in the disputed territories was one of the reasons why India did not participate in the BRI Forum hosted by President Xi Jinping.
Notwithstanding the India-China reset during the Wuhan Summit, India is moving closer to the US in terms of security cooperation. India has been granted the “major Defense partner” status by the US, and India has been signatory to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), a variant of the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) that the US has with its NATO allies. It is believed that the “partnership” will be further strengthened by signing another foundational agreement, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) during the dialogue, which will allow India to operate on high-end secured communication equipment on platforms such as C-130J, C-17, P-8I aircraft, and Apache and Chinook helicopters procured or to be procured by India from the US. Other deals in the pipeline are $1 billion purchase of 24 multi-role Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin helicopters for the Indian Navy, $1 billion National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II), and $2-3 billion unmanned Guardian drones. The tri-service military exercises and anti-terror exercises are also on anvil. The Indo-Pacific certainly would be an important issue.
In China, many believe that “India is the best choice for the US to balance China”. Professor Zhang Guihong of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University says that China on the one hand needs to strengthen its economic engagement with India, while on the other allay India’s security concerns as regards the Kashmir issue, China’s relations with Pakistan and other smaller states in South Asia. In the same vein, India needs to address China’s security concerns as regards to Tibet, Taiwan, East Turkistan, etc, issues. It appears that both India and China remain sceptical of each other’s moves. The Doklam confrontation that almost triggered another war between the two is a reference point. Therefore, close India-US defence cooperation is certainly going to ruffle many feathers in the power corridors in Zhongnanhai. However, India would be jeopardising its relations with China if it acts as a front state of the US. In the same vein, if the US would like to offset China’s geopolitical pull in the region and globe by way of India confronting China, certainly the US is mistaken. Nonetheless, China also needs to be sensitive towards India’s concerns and try not to push India into the US embrace.