The India-U.S. 2+2 dialogue scheduled for July 6, 2018 has been put on hold by the United States for the second time due to “unavoidable reasons.” The United States and India first agreed to the format of the dialogue – a meeting between the Indian External Affairs and Defence Ministers and U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense – in June 2017 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington D.C. It was, however, deferred once before in March 2018, when the U.S. administration was awaiting a new Secretary of State post-Rex Tillerson’s exit.
Whether the most recent postponement of the dialogue is a cause for grave concern for the U.S.-India strategic partnership has been debated. At present, it is clear that while existing roadblocks are surmountable, they can only be overcome if the United States becomes more attuned to India’s security needs. Doing so will not only bolster India’s defense capabilities but will also help the United States meet its own security objectives in the Indo-Pacific region.
Surmountable Roadblocks in the India-U.S. Partnership
Recently, the India-U.S. partnership has been overshadowed by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) passed by the U.S. Congress in August 2017. CAATSA, which imposes sanctions on domestic and foreign entities conducting business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors, is in part a response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The act allows for the imposition of a wide range of sanctions, including the prohibition of government loans or grants over $10 million dollars, the prevention of loans from international financial institutions, the blockage of assets, and the revoking of visas.
Although directed primarily at Russia, CAATSA also indirectly threatens India’s defense establishment, which has shared strong ties with Russia since the Cold War. India imported 62 percent of its arms from Russia from 2012 to 2016; this percentage represents a slight decrease from 79 percent from 2008 to 2012, but it is still sizable. India’s reliance on Russian helicopters, planes, and other military equipment led the two countries to push for a joint business agreement, signed in April 2018. This agreement entails Russian and Indian companies co-producing defense equipment components, most likely in India. This continuing dependence suggests that even if sanctions were imposed against India, it is unlikely that India would sever its defense cooperation with Russia.
One could argue that it is not only in India’s interest to continue its defense-related trade with Russia, but also in the United States’ interest as well. Given India’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific strategy and the U.S. desire to counter China’s influence in Asia, the United States is risking its own security objectives by alienating India on the CAATSA issue. India, which shares a 4,000-km-long border with China, recently decided to purchase S-400 Triumf air defense missile systems from Russia as a way of tightening its air defense network. Although India disregarded CAATSA, this $4.5 billion purchase can be seen as a precautionary measure to secure India’s tense borders with its two nuclear-armed neighbors: China and Pakistan. Thus, America’s potential sanctions against India for relying on Russian military equipment could be damaging to bilateral relations and might limit India’s ability to not only defend itself but to also promote security in the region.
The U.S. implementation of sanctions through CAATSA is likely to adversely impact the foundational defense agreements between the United States and India. Hence, some clauses may need to be tweaked to meet India’s needs. Making changes to bilateral agreements that better suit India’s security interests is not out of the question given that it has happened in the past with the Logistics Support Agreement added to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016. This gave each country conditional access to the other’s military facilities for fuel and logistics support.
One issue that the rescheduled 2+2 dialogue needs to address is the existing differences between India and the United States over the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). The agreement is intended to enhance interoperability between Indian and U.S. forces by facilitating the transfer of encrypted communications systems from the United States to India. Though India has shown some discomfort at the prospect of signing COMCASA, the agreement would allow the Indian military access to the modern, highly secure, and net-enabled weapons systems that are necessary for fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial systems, like the 22 Sea Guardian surveillance drones India is set on procuring from the United States.
India’s concern is that in its current form, COMCASA could provide the United States full access to full coverage all of India’s existing secure and encrypted information systems. India’s former Defense Minister, A.K. Antony saw having the same communication systems as a red flag. Yet, both sides seem to agree that signing COMCASA would strengthen India’s access to cutting-edge military technologies while strengthening the Indo-U.S. partnership, which Trump administration officials have emphasized is in the United States’ long-term strategic interests.
Given this mutual interest, the United States should make it a point to alleviate India’s security concerns, recognizing the fact that India’s has well-known reservations about entering into anything resembling a military alliance with the United States. After years of the signing of the agreement being on hold, a lack of willingness to compromise on COMCASA at the next 2+2 dialogue – especially after rumors of India and the United States having reopened talks on the subject – could impact the trajectory of future cooperation between the United States and India.
Undeniable Convergence of Interests
The Trump administration is struggling to strike a balance between its own domestic security concerns and its leadership role in the international community. On the one hand, the United States faces threats from Russia and China to its cybersecurity and electoral system, as was demonstrated during 2016 American presidential elections. Simultaneously, it is trying to keep in check China’s potentially belligerent acts in the Indo-Pacific. In an attempt to address these security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, the United States has renamed the U.S. Pacific Command the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and strengthened its security ties across Asia. However, the United States still has to prove that it is a reliable partner for countries in Asia – including India – by following its policies up with consistent action.The United States still has to prove that it is a reliable partner for countries in Asia – including India – by following its policies up with consistent action.
The United States can further prove its credibility as a partner through the rescheduled 2+2 dialogue, where New Delhi is hoping that Washington will tailor its agreements under CAATSA and COMCASA to India’s security needs and strategic considerations. The U.S. government’s reasoning in passing CAATSA is understandable given the fears that a country’s purchase of an air defense missile system from its adversaries could threaten U.S. national security. However, this logic becomes groundless in India’s case because of the democratic values the United States and India share and their increasing convergence on security interests. Hence, the benefits accrued by the India-U.S. strategic partnership should outweigh any reasons for hesitation from the United States.
Finding Middle GroundA militarily powerful India will help in furthering security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, thereby furthering U.S. objectives in the region.
Instead of sanctioning India, the United States needs to help India in strengthening and diversifying its military assets to act as force multiplier within the Indo-Pacific strategy. Sanctions are likely to act as a wedge in overall bilateral relations and impact trust between the two countries. As some scholars and government officials have suggested, the U.S. Congress can still provide a waiver exempting India from CAATSA sanctions, allowing India to continue its defense trade with Russia. In this way, the United States can signal that it is strongly taking into consideration India’s immediate defense needs. Additionally, agreements catered to India’s needs will achieve the objectives of both countries: building robust bilateral defense relations and addressing strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
A militarily powerful India will help in furthering security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, thereby furthering U.S. objectives in the region as cited in its strategic documents. During the upcoming 2+2 dialogue, whenever it takes place, it would be beneficial if both sides found a middle ground on these contentious issues.
Image 1: MEAphotogallery via Flickr (cropped)
Image 2: Peter Kovalev via Getty