The India-US 2+2 dialogue is a salient part of the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership framework as the relationship develops. The holding of the fifth dialogue on Friday last week, despite the mayhem in the world around us, shows the importance both sides attach to the partnership.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded a West Asia crisis mission in India following his visits to South Korea and Japan, and was joined by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to meet Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Indian Defence Minister Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh.
The visit of US President Joe Biden to the G20 summit in India, while not attending the East Asia Summit in Jakarta, was the impetus for the partnership. There is multidimensional engagement across ministries and growing defense and technology engagement, particularly through startups and innovation.
The dialogue among the foreign and defense ministers of India and the US is useful because India in the past has suffered due to the incongruity of the US system between the approaches of the State and Defence Departments. The 2+2 approach brings both the US State Department and the Pentagon to the same table. It is an institutionalized follow-up to the Modi-Biden Summit meetings in June and September, both within the G20 context and beyond.
The Modi-Biden engagement motivated the relationship to move forward. The 2+2 approach follows up their meetings and helps to prepare for the next one. Both leaders will seek re-election next year and wish to see the consolidation of their initiatives. India has invited Biden to be the chief guest at next year’s Republic Day and hopes to hold the Quad summit around that. This idea holds, although there is no confirmation yet from the US whether Biden will come for Republic Day. Even if that does not happen, the Quad summit in January is a probability. It is also an open question whether Biden is to participate in the follow-up G20 virtual summit later this month, but the US is to be well represented. They are to resume the chair in 2026 and are keen on the role.
The India-US defense relationship lies at the core. It is certainly picking up, and apart from the growing number of exercises and exchanges, there is also the US-India initiative on critical emerging technologies. India seeks the transfer of aircraft engine technology as the US proposes the possibility of jointly building advanced reconnaissance vehicles in India in addition to more defense purchases such as Reaper drones.
This is a good sign, as India needs its defense production capability to be augmented and not remain solely dependent on imports.
There is room for increasing the pace and implementation of these decisions, especially the transfer of technology which, in a similar case, is going much faster towards the production of planes by South Korea. South Korea is a longstanding ally of the US but the affinity that India has developed needs more US nurturing.
Ongoing regional developments show that India and the US stand similarly but not exactly at the same place, as the situation has changed since Biden’s visit for the G20 summit. First is the Indo-Pacific. This is an arena where India and the US have the largest congruence of approach. The Quad has focused on this region, and its functional aspects and envisaged cooperation demand fuller implementation.
It is said that the US would like India to be more militarily active in the Indo-Pacific regionto restrain China. However, India does not want to be seen to be in to open an alignment with US strategy in this domain. This is despite the Indian Navy being well deployed in the Indo-Pacific. While Indian strategy has always looked at keeping important waterways open for navigation and shipping, it is unlikely that India would accept a more robust role, such as by keeping China in check over Taiwan.
Be that as it may, all eyes will be on the Biden-Xi Jinping (習近平) summit around APEC in San Francisco this week. India does not want to be nudged into taking a stronger position on China, only to have the US cut a deal with China as has happened in the past. India wants China to be a law-abiding international partner and with the Quad being willing to challenge its conduct, but without being a US ally in this purpose. Both the US and Australia are nudging their way towards reducing tensions with China. This should not come at the cost of Indian interests.
The resumption of the Middle East crisis last month could make the US more willing to cut a deal with China over the Middle East, where peace and economic progress cannot prevail with the ongoing war. The US seems unable to restrain Israel. This causes problems with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. It has raised Iran’s profile, with whom China and Russia are aligned.
India so far has a policy similar to the US, condemning terrorism, supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, and calling for humanitarian assistance and the prevention of civilian casualties. In the 2+2 joint statement, there is a nuanced silence on India’s support for Palestine via a two-state solution, although India has abided by its consistent policy both on the ground and in separate statements.
For India, terrorism and dealing with it are prime motivations. Supporting Israel when it was attacked by Hamas is consistent with India’s counterterrorism policy. India values that the US is nudging Israel toward reducing casualties and focusing on Hamas, but the impact is indeed devastating. An exit policy would be at an impasse and difficult to conceive of if Israel does not yield to American suggestions.
The 2+2 reference on Ukraine is intriguing. It talks about post-conflict reconstruction as if the conflict had already concluded. Is the US now experiencing fatigue over Ukraine? This may have been hastened by the conflict in the Middle East.
There is no clear mention in the joint statement on South Asia except for the paragraphs on terror and how to deal with it, but there is no mention of Pakistan, unlike in previous statements. The US is keeping its options open on Pakistan as it goes through another period of transition. India’s concerns with Pakistan are always hedged by the primacy of American interests in that country.
Howver, the interest that India has in Bangladesh is not being clearly met. The US is pressuring Bangladesh to abide by higher standards of elections and political activity without considering India’s view that stability in Bangladesh is more important for India than an unsettling election.
India should remain wary of the US taking independent positions in South Asia like it did while withdrawing from Afghanistan, leaving Indian interests in the lurch.
India and the US are expanding collaboration in emerging domains, such as in outer space and artificial intelligence. The US supports India’s emergence as a global defense hub. The strategic partners are increasingly aligning their approaches to areas of common concern, but this is slow bilaterally and not without multilateral concerns.
Gurjit Singh is a former Indian ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, ASEAN, Ethiopia and the African Union.
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