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India doesn’t seem to have come away with much from the 2+2 dialogue

With the inaugural session of the 2+2 US-Indian dialogue of foreign and defence ministers held in New Delhi last Thursday, the Modi government’s foreign policy has taken a full circle. Things are back to where they were in a priori history in September 2014 when a new foreign policy trajectory was dramatically launched with the road show at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, New York.

Spectators clapped in breathless excitement at the launch and pre-judged that something of a divine act must be unfolding. However, after three years when the trajectory got stuck in Doklam, the pendulum swung in the direction of Wuhan and Sochi. Now it appears that things are probably back to where it all began at Manhattan.

Without doubt, India’s ‘unipolar predicament’ has reappeared after a pause as the leitmotif of the Modi government’s foreign policy. What could be the compulsions under which this retrogression is happening we do not know. All sorts of hidden forces are at work in an era of crony capitalism. From a geopolitical perspective, certainly, India is positioning itself as a participant in the US-led alliance system in the Indo-Pacific.

On the other hand, the stunning thing is the heavy emphasis on strategy and the manifest disinterest in India’s priority concerns of development and economic transformation. Isn’t it rather curious that the only takeaway in the arena out of 2+2 is that a new branch of corporate industry is taking birth in India in defence production with US participation? Who the lucky Indian elites are we don’t know yet. But, most certainly, a jazzy gravy train is about to run. Trust the US to carefully pick its Indian partners.

On big-ticket items such as the S-400 missile deal with Russia or the import of Iranian oil and the looming trade disputes or our concerns over H-1B visas, it was left to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to speak authoritatively  and he did it from the American embassy compound. Thus, apropos the S-400 deal and Iranian oil, Washington will insist on an outcome that serves US interests.

As for trade, the wriggle room is nil ‘very straightforward: free, fair and reciprocal’. Trade imbalance shall be rectified and India should remove trade barriers and provide full market access. Despite the government’s plea that the Trump administration could take a ‘balanced, sensitive’ view on the changes that Washington proposes to make on the visa regime, no assurances were held out.

Meanwhile, the icing on the 2+2 cake must be the signing of an agreement on ‘communications compatibility and security arrangement’ (Comcasa), which provides for communications interoperability between the two armed forces by making available American equipment to India to access the US’ super-secret communications and navigation kits.

Quintessentially, the Comcasa enables the US-made weapon systems procured by India to use secure American communication channels as well as gain greater ‘domain awareness’ during operations. But there’s a catch, too. One, the US taps into our military communications and modus operandi, apart from gaining access to our sensitive bases to install and service relevant US-made equipment. Two, the US may well deactivate the communications lines if India undertakes any military operations that it disapproves for whatever reasons. The official explanation is that neither side can terminate Comcasa unilaterally without giving six-month notice.

But then, the US is a superpower and never hesitates to act with impunity in self-interest. The drama unfolding right in front of our eyes between the US and Turkey (which is a key NATO ally, too) testifies to the unilateralism in Washington’s conduct to safeguard American interests.

There is some irony that just as two of the US’ oldest allies are looking for the exit door out of their strategic embrace of Pentagon, India is brazenly walking in from the other direction nonchalantly.

In fact, this is the whole problem with India’s pivotal defining partnership with the US. The government is taking the country into a tight strategic embrace with a superpower, which is notorious for its abhorrence of equal partnerships with even its closest allies such as Britain or Canada. Yet, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman summed up the outcome of 2+2 this way: ‘Today’s meeting marks a defining moment…

Defence cooperation has emerged as the most significant dimension of our strategic partnership and as a key driver of… bilateral relationship. The momentum… has imbued a tremendous positive energy that has elevated India-US relations to unprecedented heights… Our leaders recognise that it is no longer viable to address foreign and defence issues in a compartmentalised manner… Our discussions have paved the way for a new era in India-US defence and strategic engagement. Given our shared interests, we are confident that we can work together to promote peace, economic prosperity and security in our region and beyond.”

What prompted Sitharaman to make such an epochal statement that will come to haunt India we do not know. The government has summarily abandoned the course correction in foreign policy since the Wuhan summit in April, apart from allowing Washington to prescribe the directions of India’s relations with Russia and Iran.

Curiously, the joint statement singled out just two regional conflicts to highlight the US-Indian strategic convergence  in Afghanistan and North Korea. It doesn’t need much ingenuity to comprehend Pakistan and China in the crosshairs.

The Modi government seems blithely unaware that India lives in its region with the two great ‘revisionist powers’ that the US regards as posing existential threats, China and Russia; and two neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, whom Washington plans to encircle. Prudence demands that India keeps out of the spider’s web.

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