Amid lingering tensions in bilateral trade relations and Washington’s unease with India’s decision to go ahead with the purchase of Russia’s S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile system, India and the US on Thursday inked a long-negotiated pact, under which critical and encrypted defence technologies will be provided to the former’s military by the Americans. As the two countries held their first ‘2+2 dialogue’ here, several other key issues including cross-border terrorism, India’s NSG bid and the contentious curbs on H1B visas came into focus.
While US secretary of state Michael R Pompeo termed the Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement (COMCASA) a ‘milestone’, Indian defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman asserted that the pact would enhance the country’s defence capability and preparedness. COMCASA will also allow the installation of high-security US communication equipment on defence platforms being sourced by India.
Also, a hotline is being set up between Swaraj and Sitharaman and their US counterparts.
On his way to India, US defence secretary James Mattis had earlier told reporters: “Freedom means that at times nations don’t agree with each other… That (India’s plans to buy the Russian air-defence system) doesn’t mean we can’t be partners. That doesn’t mean we don’t respect the sovereignty of those nations.”
The commencement of 2+2 talks were cancelled twice in the last 14 months.
Addressing a joint press conference after inking the COMCASA, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj expressed satisfaction over the agenda of the inaugural 2+2 dialogue. This, according to her, reflected the desire of leadership of the two countries to further elevate the bilateral strategic communication on cross-cutting defence and security issues. She said, “The recent decision by the US to put India in the list of countries eligible for Strategic Trade Authorization Tier-I License Exemption reflects India’s robust and responsible export control policies. In our meeting today, we also agreed to work together to secure India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group at the earliest.”
While strategic and defence co-operation between India and the US seems to be growing almost steadily, there are several bumps in their trade engagement. However, despite tussles, both the countries are striving to hammer out a trade package. While India wants an exemption from the additional duty on its steel and aluminium, the US is also seeking to use a special tariff regime — generalised system of preference (GSP )— it offers to India and some others to extract greater market access from New Delhi and reduce a trade imbalance.
The US is insisting India remove price controls on certain medical devices, especially stents. For India, greater access to the American market in food, farm, engineering goods, auto and auto parts segments hold promise in the long term (over five years). The US sees good prospects for its companies in Indian civil aviation, oil and gas, education service and agriculture segments.
The Trump administration has imposed extra tariff on Indian steel and aluminium. New Delhi last month deferred its $235-million retaliation plan against the American levy until September 18, aimed at giving more time to Washington for a meaningful outcome to the ongoing bilateral trade talks.
“I sought Secretary Pompeo’s support to nurture our people-to-people links. Specifically, I conveyed our expectation for a non-discriminatory and predictable approach to the H1B visa regime, given its high impact on innovation, competitiveness and people-to-people partnership, all of which are a vital source of strength for our relationship,” Swaraj said.
(With agency inputs)