While speculations over the 2+2 Indo-US engagements are running high, we must not forget that we live in a multi-polar world with various power blocs and realpolitik will guide the Bharat’s engagement
On scripted lines, Bharatiya media is bound to raise expectations to the sky the first “2+2 Dialogue” United States (US) and Bharat engagement on September 6, 2018, in New Delhi between the heads of respective defence and Foreign Ministries of both nations.
Experts believe that 2+2 Dialogue may help change current narrative on Bharat-US relations
None can deny that the engagement provides a historic opportunity to lay the foundations for not only balanced and upgraded bilateral defence relations but also economic and people’s centric relations that deliver mutual benefits and preserve a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region reinforcing the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – China-centric security grouping of the four “like-minded” democracies).
2+2: Change and Continuity
It must be remembered that the 2 + 2 engagement is “successor” to the US-Bharat Strategic and Commercial Dialogue (S&CD) that met twice in 2015 and 2016 but failed to forge substantive breakthroughs. Other significant milestones in the past include: renewing and expanding our 10-year Defense Framework Agreement (2015); Signing the “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” (2015); launching a series of programs under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) (2015); including Japan in the annual Malabar naval exercise (2015); completing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (2016); and lifting US export controls on maritime surveillance drones (2017).
Will India-US 2+2 dialogue put more _Meat on the bones_
The most significant agreements under discussion may include: signing two other pending “enabling agreements”; expanding military exercises; concluding agreements related to our aircraft carrier and advanced jet engine working groups; pre-approving the export of additional advanced military technologies, and offer of F-16 D and even F-35 jet fighters to include transfer of technology. Per se, such an agenda only partially address the real security strategic issues of concern affecting interests of both nations in all fields in the ongoing geo power flux.
The most significant agreements under discussion may include: signing two other pending “enabling agreements”; expanding military exercises; concluding agreements related to our aircraft carrier and advanced jet engine working groups, etc.
Ipso facto, the global geostrategic fault lines or battles lines are drawn between the US on one side and Russia and China with converging interests on the other side. All other powers like the European Union nations, Central Asian Republics (CAR), West Asian nations, South Asian nations, Far Eastern Powers like Japan, Taiwan, Australia and the ASEAN, African nations and Latin American nations are fringe players or spectators of the “great game” being played out by the “three” great/superpowers in their own right. The denuclearisation of North Korea and Iran is also a significant issue to resolve.
Changing World Order
Russia, the Cold War Enemy, is undergoing fundamental internal transformations with Putin exercising decisive control despite US sanctions responsible for domestic economic setbacks. Putin is also pursuing aggressive foreign policy objectives not only in Europe (Baltic’s, Caucuses and Crimea) but also in CAR, West Asia (Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq) and South Asia among others to undermine the global influence of the US. Putin has seized the opportunity to consolidate its influence in Syria and courting the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to undermine regional influence in West Asia and South Asia. More importantly, Russia and China have increased bilateral cooperation to reduce US influence in West Asia, the CAR and the Asia-Pacific Theater. Not to be left out is Russian interference in the recent US elections and its continuing fallout in the US
If the 2+2 engagement is to make significant breakthroughs, the US needs to understand that Bharat’s security interests lie both to its West and East
Meanwhile, the China-US trade war has broken out. Its fallout and their impact on others are quite uncertain. China is also aggressively asserting its control over the East and South China Seas besides making aggressive inroads into the CAR (OBOR/BRI) and through it to the EU nations, but also Iran and Afghanistan, Africa and Latin American nations. The collapse of ASEAN unity since 2012 has also significantly eroded ASEAN centrality in regional security architecture. Add to it; China has developed a ‘string’ of military bases and port leasing in the Indian Ocean, which are viewed as a strategic challenge to national interests both by the US and Bharat. Be that as it may, Modi and Xi Jinping are making reconciliatory attempts to blend, bond and build bridges over the Himalayas.
Very briefly summed up, the current 2 + 2 engagement needs to be viewed in such a geo power flux. The collapse of post-World War II security architecture based on the US spearheading the “strategy of containment of communism on its doorsteps” through three key strategic military alliances – NATO, SEATO and CENTO, stands virtually abandoned. Next, let me also recount that during the Cold War decades, the U. S. viewed Bharat as the second most hated nation after the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of suffering “overextension security trap” in Vietnam War (until 1971), West Asian conflicts (1967, 1973, 1993, 2001 Wars), besides actively abetting Mujahedeen uprising in Afghanistan (1979-1990) and nearly 17-year old war in Afghanistan with no end in sight, the US, the sole superpower in post Cold War era, now under Trump administration, is a “reluctant’ superpower to ensure global security and peace.
Add to it, the dramatically altering situation in Afghanistan. Even after nearly 17-years war involving colossal human and financial costs, no end in sight for peace. The Afghan Taliban, as strong as ever, remains undefeated and controls large rural tracts including in the North. Even the ISIS is engaged in successful strikes. Nonetheless, the US is bent upon downsizing its force levels in West Asia and Afghanistan with Russia reasserting its influence and prominence. China – rising superpower – is also making forays to play a key role to protect its interests.
Perhaps, the US has realised economic overstretch beyond sustaining capability is likely to exhaust its resources and leave it vulnerable to challenges from potential rivals. Trump’s grand strategy is, therefore, based on minimising obligations to allies, treating everyone as a competitor, seeking trade advantages through bilateral negotiations and acting unilaterally in a zero-sum framework of international politics. Thus, the shift and abandonment of “Europe First” by “America First” and “Sharing the Burden” approach.
No wonder, the US has defined the US Indo-Pacific strategy as an essential component of Indo-Pacific security architecture in its National Security Strategy document. Both nations recognise that the Indian Ocean is the next front line of world geopolitics and the emerging arena for a new “great game.” The US hidden agenda is to exploit opportunities to seek a significant size of “Bharat arms imports Cake” by forging a strategic partnership with Bharat in furtherance of its national interests.
Agenda for Engagement
Bharat is caught in a strategic bind – strategic equidistance as a follow-through of retaining strategic autonomy or strategic tango or alliance. Ipso facto, Bharat has people-centric, economic and foreign policy interests and objectives to secure and advance. Diplomatic shenanigans of the US cannot fool their Bharatiya counterparts.
The agenda for the “engagement” is quite obvious. The critical issues from Bharat’s point of view include US waivers from sanctions against Russia and Iran in arms and oil purchases; and H1B Visas and trade war economic tariffs.
For Bharat on the people’s front, the US H1B visa restrictions are quite critical. The US must facilitate its immigration policies to favour “STEM’ applicants with MS degrees from US universities. Otherwise, it would also have an impact on Bharat’s domestic politics. Furthermore, Bharat cannot detach its historical Shia Islamic connect with Iran particularly when viewed from Pakistan and Afghanistan and domestic politics.
Also, the US should not expect Bharat to abandon Bharat's grip on Chabahar Port which provides the gateway to CAR nations and lose it to China. On the economic front, Bharat is the top oil importer from Iran after China at low prices. Although Bharat has reduced oil imports by nearly 16% in June 2018, it still has a major stake. Bharat cannot completely stop oil imports from Iran just as China cannot do so. Even the US has imposed tariffs specifically targeting Bharat. And, Bharat has counteracted with US-specific tariffs of its own. Finally, Russia continues to be a major weapons supplier to Bharat and cannot renege its deal to procure a batch of S-400 missile systems from Russia – time-tested alliance partner.
If the 2+2 engagement is to make significant breakthroughs, the US needs to understand that Bharat’s security interests lie both to its West and East. If the US wants Bharat to be a central pillar of its strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific, it must be consulted in the development of a US strategy which reflects the interests of both partners. It requires a nuanced broadening from a predominantly East Asia focus, driven primarily by US alliances and historical legacies or West Asia strategy, to a “whole of the Indo-Pacific approach” which draws on shared interests to achieve shared objectives. There is a need for a holistic look at challenges faced not only by the US but also by Bharat in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Unless the US specifically address Bharat’s interests and resolve its concerns in all fields, one cannot expect significant breakthroughs in its efforts to “engage, enlarge and expound” strategic cooperation to fulfil its vision of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
Thus, the 2+2 Dialogue on September 6 is, therefore, yet another crucial opportunity to put Indo-US strategic relationship on a more positive track. As the more aggressive of the two, the onus is on the US to offer a path by granting specific waivers on the application of sanctions.
And, the ongoing China-US trade war provides opportunities for the US business community to seek Bharat as a preferred destination for repositioning their assets. Significant fields include civilian nuclear energy partnership and “Make in Bharat” opportunities for the modern military combat systems from assault rifles to high-tech fighters, nuclear submarines, missiles and so on. In retrospect, it open’s an ‘Ocean of Opportunities” in all fields for mutual benefit to include “Space and Cyber Warfare” technologies.
(The writer is a defence and strategy expert)