This is not to say that Donald Trump’s India policies have been music to India’s ear for the last four years.
By Dr AjeyLele
There is a prevalent view amongst the experts that Joseph Biden-Kamala Harris winning the US elections may not be in the best interest of India. This is not to say that Donald Trump’s India policies have been music to India’s ear for the last four years. In fact, his erratic approach towards handling foreign policy always raises a question mark about his intentions. His approach towards handling H-1B and H-4 (spousal visas) issues is a case in point. However, when it comes to addressing issues related to Indo-US strategic partnership, possibly Trump has an edge in the present context. Probably, that is why just a week before going to the elections in the US, the 2+2 dialogue, between the defence and foreign ministers of India and the US would be held on October 26-27, 2020 in New Delhi. This mechanism began during 2018 and the 2020 dialogue would be the third such dialogue.
The 2+2 dialogue is an important institutional mechanism between India and the US dealing with the foreign policy, defence and strategic issues. Here external affairs and defence ministers of both the countries undertake extensive discussions and make policy formulations. Actually, before the US, it is Japan which has been an important proponent of this idea in the Indian context. For long Japan has been following this dialogue structure with the states like the US, France, Russia and Australia. It has similar arrangements with India for a decade. Realising the strength of such dialogue mechanisms India has established similar dialogues with the US and Australia.
It is important to take into account the prevailing geopolitical context as a background for the end of October, Indo-US 2+2 dialogue. There would be one invisible force, the ‘elephant in the room’ during this dialogue process and that is China. President Trump has taken China head-on while dealing with the trade relationships while India has taken an aggressive posture while dealing with the ongoing border crisis with China.
Also, now India is intelligently playing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) card. This dialogue amongst the four important democracies namely the US, India, Australia and Japan are now pitching for territorial integrity and peaceful resolution of disputes. For all these years the US, India and Japan used to jointly hold a naval exercise called Malabar. However, now Australia would also join the Malabar 2020, which would be held during next month. At the backdrop of all this, the proposed India-US 2+2 dialogue should be viewed as a part of the larger Indo-Pacific construct.
The India-US 2+2 dialogue new format was agreed to between India and the US during the visit of Mr. Narendra Modi to the US in June 2017. It needs to be appreciated that the going has not been very smooth. The last dialogue was delayed owing to various reasons. Also, from India’s side, there has been always a concern in regards to developing a cosy relationship with the US, because it is well understood that such a relationship would come at a cost. India understands that one of the main reasons for the US to engage India favourably is for counterbalancing China. Also, the influence of India diaspora in the US is an important subset in their decision-making process. More importantly, India is the biggest importer for the military equipment has major relevance for the US defence industry.
The US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be travelling to New Delhi for the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. The key highlight for this dialogue is expected to be the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial cooperation with the United States.
From India’s point of view BECA is important because it would allow India to use US geospatial maps to identify the military targets with pinpoint accuracy. Such inputs may help Indian cruise and ballistic missiles to be more accurate. BECA is the last of four foundational agreements between India and the US. These agreements are about improving logistics and military cooperation between the two nations. The first of these arrangements, signed in 2002, is associated with the safeguarding of military information. The other two, signed in 2016 and 2018, were logistics and secure-communication pacts, respectively.
This agreement is expected to ensure that the armed forces of the two countries start talking to each other on enhancing geospatial cooperation. For India, such cooperation could be of great benefit strategically too, because with this India’s adversaries would also realise the increased accuracy of India missile arsenal and this would also help strengthen the deterrence potential of India’s nuclear triad. At the same time, there is a danger that exact locations about India’s military bases and missile silos would be known to the US authorities.
India has an interest in procuring the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) armed Predator-B drone. This system has dual utility, for surveillance and reconnaissance missions and also in an offensive role to destroy the military targets with laser-guided bombs. There are expectations, that after signing this final accord, the US administration could allow the sale of this military system to India. However, this decision is not going to be easy for the US. This is because such sale would be against the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) provisions.
There is a view in the US, that in the present context, the MTCR provisions have become outdated and actually hurting the US defence industry. But, at the same time during this election period, democrats could criticize the Trump administration heavily for weakening the international export controls mechanism.
Lastly, the signing of all four foundational agreements between India and the US does not mean that India would emerge as an ally of the US in the military domain. Presently, the US is extremely uncomfortable with India’s plans to purchase S-400 missile defence system from Russia. Obviously, they are expected to put a significant amount of pressure on the Indian side to stall this purchase and in broader terms push India to reduce its dependence on Russia for arms purchase. Indian side would be required to ‘walk over thin-ice’ to ensure that their interests are secured without making any compromises.
(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)