US, India not on same page despite dialogue

By Wang Se Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/4 18:58:40

Foreign and defense chiefs of the US and India will meet on Thursday to hold their first ever 2+2 dialogue. The mechanism was agreed upon by US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the phone in August last year, but will only materialize after being cancelled twice for various reasons in April and July.

Since the US brought the Indo-Pacific strategy into the spotlight, it has been wooing India, hoping New Delhi can become an important pillar to deal with challenges from China.

In its latest National Security Strategy report and National Defense Strategy report, the White House listed India as its important strategic and defense partner in the Indo-Pacific region.

India is very alarmed by China's projection of power in its perceived "sphere" of influence via the Belt and Road initiative. New Delhi has been accusing Beijing of strengthening its rein on Sri Lanka and the Maldives through its "debt trap" diplomacy. Therefore, India and the US have converging interests in counterbalancing China's regional influence.

Nonetheless, India does not want to provoke China on some sensitive issues, especially those which do not touch on India's core interests. In 2017, India rejected Australia's request to join the Malabar naval exercises. It also ruled out participating in joint patrols in the South China Sea proposed by the US.

But the two may contain China's influence by cooperating economically in a third country. Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia of the US State Department, said the US is willing to work with New Delhi on projects outside India and both had partnered in third countries.

It is expected that at the upcoming 2+2 dialogue the two will discuss how to strengthen cooperation in third countries, especially South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They may work on benchmarking projects that fit "international standards" to cope with China's economic influence.

In defense cooperation, New Delhi and Washington will focus on signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, the two of which are seen as "foundational" agreements by the US.

The signing of the agreements essentially provides a legal framework for the transfer of certain weapon systems from the US, while India's past reservation toward the two agreements has impeded their military trade ties.

To break the deadlock, the two sides have been talking for long. The 2+2 dialogue is likely to see breakthroughs on this issue.

They will also focus on India's purchase of S-400 missile system from Russia. The Countering America's Adversaries through Sanction Act (CAATSA), which was signed into law by Trump in August 2017 and went into effect in January this year, requires the US president to impose sanctions on individuals or entities that knowingly engage in "significant transactions" with persons that are a part of, or operating for or on behalf of Russia's defense or intelligence sectors. India's purchase of Russia's missile system obviously falls into the sanction threshold of the act.

But at the request of US Defense Secretary James Mattis, US lawmakers are working to get a waiver for India from the CAATSA. New Delhi hopes to obtain a waiver from the Trump administration via the 2+2 dialogue. But given the swaying policies of Trump's team, it is not certain whether anything concrete will be achieved.

Iran is another sensitive issue in the dialogue. India will try to get another waiver of punitive sanctions from the US for its trade with Iran. India is Iran's third largest oil importer. If India follows US sanctions on Iran and stops importing oil from Tehran, it will immensely increase India's oil supply costs and add inflation pressure, something the Modi government would not like to see ahead of next year's general elections.

Moreover, India's project of developing Iran's Chabahar Port may also be affected. But given the US' firm stance to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, India will have limited room for negotiations.

On anti-terrorism issues, India will continue to ask the US to create pressure on Pakistan. Actually, the US has responded to India's request by cancelling some security-related aid to Pakistan and adding three Pakistanis with Lashkar-e-Taiba ties to its terror watch list. But India believes these measures are not enough to ease the chaotic situation in India-controlled Kashmir. But the US has not extricated itself from its dependence on Pakistan in the Afghan issue, so how far it can cater to India's request is worth pondering.

All in all, the significance of the upcoming dialogue does not lie in how many issues India and the US can agree upon, but that it provides an exceptional platform for the two to discuss bilateral ties and regional hotspot issues.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceania Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.


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