The aim: "To discuss how do we operationalize India's status as a major defence partner.”
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 23rd Aug 18
Washington’s chief South Asia diplomat, Alice Wells, has for the first time outlined a clear agenda for the inaugural 2 + 2 dialogue in New Delhi on September 6.
Previewing the meeting, for which two US principals – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary for Defense Jim Mattis – will travel to India for joint talks with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Wells stated: “What we're looking for at the upcoming 2+2 ministerial is to discuss how do we operationalize India's status as a major defence partner.”
Since 2016, when India was officially recognised in US law as a “major defence partner”, Washington has purposefully upgraded the defence relationship. Earlier this year, the Hawaii-based, Asia-focused US military command was renamed the “Indo-Pacific Command” to highlight India's centrality to regional security. By clearing an amendment to the National Defence Authorization Act 2018, the US Congress effectively exempted India from being caught up in US sanctions against Russia. And, earlier this month, the Trump administration granted India “Strategic Trade Authorization-1” status to facilitate sensitive high technology trade.
New Delhi sources also indicate that a crucial communications security agreement (COMCASA), which has been in negotiation for over a decade, could be signed shortly before, or after, the 2 + 2 meeting next month.
“As you know, we've gone from essentially zero dollars in defence cooperation in 2008 to as much as $18 billion today. We do more military exercises with India than with any other country in the world, but how do we take this partnership to a new level so that it's not just going to be defence acquisitions but really a way of framing how we see challenges and how we want to be able to respond together to address these challenges,” said Wells, outlining an agenda geared to “demonstrate… the facts of this maturing partnership.”
Wells, who was briefing the media in Washington DC on Monday, ahead of the annual Indian Ocean Conference in Hanoi, Vietnam next week, also talked up India’s role in Afghanistan. Pointing to “India's $3 billion commitment to date up to 2020 in support of Afghanistan's economic development,” Wells said “We welcome the fact that India has stepped up and has evinced this commitment and enjoys a strategic relationship with Afghanistan that does not have to come at the expense of any other country in the region.”
In contrast, Pakistan’s “critical role” was mainly to “take stronger steps to ensure that the Taliban either come to the negotiating table or are expelled back into Afghanistan rather than enjoy safe haven outside of the country.”
Referring to the new Imran Khan-led government in Islamabad, Wells said, “We have expressed our concern over the fact that terrorist proxy groups continue to be able to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan. We are urging the government to do more to bring pressure to bear against these organizations and externally oriented terrorist groups.”
Wells also indicated that Washington would work to ease Islamabad’s roadblocks on trade between India and Afghanistan. “It's easier for India to trade with Brazil than it is with some of its neighbouring countries. That doesn't make sense,” she said.
Underlining America’s claim to being an Indo-Pacific nation, Wells said: “The United States conducts about $1.4 trillion in two-way trade with the rest of the Indo-Pacific, more than any other country in the world, and has provided a cumulative 850 billion in foreign direct investment.”
Wells characterised America’s economic goal in the region as “not about spending dollar-for-dollar, for instance, compared to [China’s] Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).”
Taking a pot shot at the BRI, Wells said American companies would use their investment of over $850 billion in the region “to participate in projects that are at the highest international standard, that are efficient and cost-competitive, and that bring returns to the countries who benefit from their participation.”
Wells was echoing India’s criticism of the BRI. On May 13, 2017, explaining why India had stayed away from the on-going BRI Forum in Beijing, New Delhi stated: “We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality.” India also raised concerns that BRI would create unsustainable debt burdens on participants, violate environmental norms, and violate “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, referring to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that passes through Jammu & Kashmir territory occupied by Pakistan.
Suggesting there were infrastructure opportunities in the Indo-Pacific far beyond BRI, Wells stated: “Some of the estimates are, like, $27 trillion in investment is going to be required over the next several decades.”
While Wells echoed the longstanding US position that the regional security architecture was centred on Asean, she stated that the US is “lending its expertise” to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which the Indian Navy set up more than a decade ago as a framework for collective action on maritime security issues, including disaster relief.”
Alongside security cooperation, Wells pointed to the importance of “economically focused fora” like the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), as platforms for driving conversations on regional connectivity and infrastructure.