On December 18, 2019, US Secretaries of State and Defense convened with their Indian counterparts at their second annual meeting, commonly referred to as ‘2+2 dialogue.’ The first 2+2 meeting between the countries took place on September 6, 2018, in Delhi.
And it should be noted that the presence of such a political platform in bilateral relations, with rare exceptions, is an important sign of trust between nations. In any case, this is true for India and the US, whose relations have been developing non-stop over the past twenty years (unlike in the previous three decades of the Cold War) in all spheres of interstate cooperation.
For reasons that are directly related to the current phase of the international ‘Big Game’, this cooperation wasn’t heavily impacted by the change of the leading parties in the US and India. That isn’t to say that the US-Indian relations haven’t been influenced by the countries’ internal affairs. This is quite evident in the recent escalation of tensions in the domestic political climate in both nations, however, due to completely different reasons.
In the US, the escalation began almost immediately after Donald Trump took office, simply because he initiated a long-overdue adjustment of the country’s foreign policy, trying to ‘correct’ it in line with the radical changes taking place before our eyes on the international arena.
In the fall of 2018, Mr. Trump declared from a UN podium that his administration would stop spreading its influence and intervening in other nations affairs. But political forces at home disagreed. They believe that the US simply ‘shining as a beacon’ is insufficient and it is necessary to extend its ‘rays’ everywhere, by any means, including with the help of carrier strike groups.
These political forces are mainly part of the Democratic Party, which is now in full opposition of the current President (all but initiating sabotage) because of his intention to continue developing relations with India, namely by forming a new platform for a 2+2 dialogue.
In the summer of 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with former Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to work hard to convince Congress (whose lower Chamber is dominated by Democrats) to sacrifice their principles in order to reach a critical goal – Washington’s long-standing efforts to turn India into a ‘strategic counterweight’ to China.
These ‘principles’ boiled down to the implementation of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against Delhi in August 2017 in response to India’s purchase of weaponry from Russia. If these ‘principles’ had stood strong, the prospect of a U.S.-India 2+2 dialogue would have been null and void.
Although the Democratic Party, as such, was bent on its Anti-Russian sentiments (concerned about Russian ‘hackers’ and ‘poisoners’ in particular), this turned out to be circumventable. They closed their eyes on CAATSA, and Mike Pompeo along with James Mattis were given the opportunity to host the first US-India 2+2 meeting.
A year later, on the eve of its second meeting, the same Democrats focused directly on the Indian government, led by Narendra Modi. This time they were concerned by the legislation adopted in India in the second half of 2019, which provoked street protests in several states of the country, followed by their harsh suppression by law enforcement. That has already resulted in several victims and hundreds of arrests.
The main actors of the ongoing protests were representatives of the Muslim community, as well as political opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Government of Narendra Modi. The latter is accused of being ‘purposefully anti-Muslim’ in his domestic political course and ‘departing from the secular-republican principles’ of India’s state system.
Such accusations are hardly justified, in this author’s opinion. After all, the government of Narendra Modi has become hostage to serious consequences of the many external events that may have taken place even before the creation of the BJP itself. For example, the main reason for the ethno-religious problems in the North Eastern state of Assam (the center of unrest in recent weeks) is the mass exodus of people of different faiths, including Muslims, from the neighboring Bangladesh in the early 1970s. The state itself emerged as a result of the bloody conflicts of that time, in which Pakistan and India were also involved.
Granted, the BJP did contribute to the emergence of some domestic ‘issues.’ For example, by the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
But currently, there is no reason to mistrust the words of Narendra Modi about Muslims having ‘absolutely nothing to fear’ from the new legislation, and that Modi himself considers them an integral part of the Indian nation, of its culture.
Apparently, some ‘progressive’ representatives of the US Democratic Party didn’t bother to study the intricacies of the recent domestic problems in India. It was during the Indian representatives’ stay in Washington for the 2+2 dialogue that the members of the lower Chamber of Congress, these so-called Democratic ‘progressives’ made a number of harsh remarks against Narendra Modi’s government (mainly about the state of things in Kashmir).
This resulted in Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s refusal to meet with those ‘who are biased and determined to be misled’ in Congress. In this regard, the reputable newspaper Indian Express declared that a ‘rift’ has formed between Narendra Modi’s administration and the U.S. Democratic Party.
It’s worth noting that the latter, currently preoccupied with the issue of Trump’s impeachment, considers the negotiations of representatives of such an important country as India with the incumbent President’s administration as a show of veiled support at a crucial moment in the escalation of the domestic political struggle.
However, the ripples from political squabbles within the United States did not hinder the US-Indian 2+2 dialogue. Their progression and results were seen as successful by all four participants. In particular, the similarity of the parties’ positions on the military and political situation in the Indian and Pacific region was acknowledged, as well as their willingness to cooperate both in the region and in Africa. The results of Modi’s recent visit to the US and his negotiations with Trump were highly appreciated by the Americans as well.
An important milestone of the second 2+2 meeting was the signing of an agreement on cooperation within the military–industrial complex, which will give India access to modern American defense technologies.
Commenting on this agreement, Reuters notes, first and foremost, that it is quite imperative for India to increase its capabilities for a strategic confrontation with China. Secondly, it is crucial for the nation to acquire a source of replacement for some outdated pieces of Russian weaponry. Over the past decade, India has reportedly purchased over $15 billion worth of military equipment from the United States.
However, this is typical Western commentary, based on the long-standing expectations of joining India to the general course to deter both China and Russia’s growth of influence. It is clear that such expectations fail to reflect the real objectives of India’s foreign policy. It is aimed at preserving full autonomy and striking the optimal balance in relations with all the important participants in the contemporary international ‘Big Game.’
Convincing proof of this statement manifested in Jaishankar’s visit to Iran, which took place right after the second US-India 2+2 dialogue. It is possible that he was acting as a sort of mediator, perhaps asked to do so in Washington.
Without doubt, Iran has been close to India throughout the centuries, and a complete break in relations with it is not part of Delhi’s plans (despite this being required by Washington from both its direct and indirect allies). Although India was forced to join the US’ ‘oil blockade’ of Iran, this in no way meant the end cooperation with it in other areas.
In particular, during his time in Tehran Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reaffirmed his country’s intention to ‘accelerate’ the modernization of the Chabahar Port on the shores of the Gulf of Oman, which is of vital importance for both countries,. What is more, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed support for this long-running project back in early 2018 during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Delhi.
In conclusion, two points need to be emphasized. First, while maintaining an independent standing on the international arena, India is interested in developing comprehensive relations with Washington. Secondly, the ever-growing rifts observed today in world politics run not only along the borders separating individual countries, but also through their own territories.
Both of these tendencies were reflected in the course and the outcome of the second US-India 2+2 dialogue.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”