2+2 talks: US, India look to patch up rocky relationship with defense deals

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo Photo: Reuters
In a rare top-level meeting set for Thursday, senior American and Indian officials will try to push past an array of irritations in the two countries’ relationship to forge new, far-reaching agreements for military and diplomatic cooperation.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are scheduled to meet Indian counterparts Sushma Swaraj, the country’s external affairs minister, and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to discuss ways to ramp up joint military exercises, sell more sophisticated U.S. military hardware to India, coordinate development assistance in Asia and boost economic ties.

Together, the agreements would take relations between the world’s largest democracies to a new level at a time when China is working to exert its economic and military influence throughout Asia.

To forge these deals, the two sides need to make progress on resolving nagging conflicts that they depict largely as collateral damage from American actions aimed elsewhere. The U.S., for example, vows to punish Iran and Russia by sanctioning countries whose companies do business with them. Yet India has long seen both those nations as important economic and strategic partners in the region.

Trade issues are also likely to complicate the talks. Recent U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum products from around the world, including India, have hurt Indian manufacturers, while Indian tariffs on U.S. made motorcycles have drawn the ire of President Trump. The U.S. also would like more access to India’s agricultural market.

“It will be a big picture dialogue where the two most important ministries will see if the changing geopolitical environment across the globe can generate greater convergence in the world views of New Delhi and Washington,” said Harsh V. Pant, head of strategic affairs at Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

Mr. Pompeo and lower-level defense officials will also stop in Pakistan for part of Wednesday to meet with officials there, including the country’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, and the head of the military. U.S. relations with Pakistan have soured in recent years amid accusations by the U.S., and denials by Pakistan, that Pakistan tolerates terrorist groups operating from within the country.

Once prickly counterparts, the U.S. and India have grown closer over the past two decades, starting with a landmark political deal that legitimized India’s nuclear arsenal and opened the door to sales of civilian nuclear technology from the U.S. It also cleared the way for India to purchase more American-made military technology. India’s economic liberalization has helped make it a major destination for U.S. technology and media companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc., Uber Technologies Inc. and Facebook Inc.

Days ahead of the talks, India approved the purchase of 24 Lockheed Martin Corp. Sikorsky MH-60R maritime helicopters for the Indian navy at an estimated cost of around $1.8 billion, in a mark of growing bonhomie between the two countries, said one Indian official involved in preparations for the meeting.

A key focus of the talks is sealing an agreement, under discussion for a decade, that would allow for the sharing of encrypted military communications, paving the way for India to purchase some of the most advanced U.S. military systems and even build jet fighters in India.

American aerospace companies such as Lockheed and Boeing Co. are pursuing a contract valued at about $15 billion with the Indian air force to supply 110 jet fighters, which would largely be made in India as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s quest to boost domestic manufacturing.

“We’ve gone from essentially zero dollars in defense 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,” said Alice Wells, deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, in a recent news conference.

“But how do we take this partnership to a new level so that it’s not just going to be defense 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?”

Complicating progress on those larger goals are clashes with India over U.S. policies that impinge on longstanding relationships India has nurtured, particularly Iran and Russia.

U.S. officials appear to have backed off demands that India end all imports of Iranian oil by Nov. 1, while India has already begun to reduce purchases of Iranian oil and expects to buy even less going forward. Still, Indian officials are pushing to limit reductions as much as possible—India is a huge importer of energy—and spread out the timeline. The U.S. wants deeper cuts faster and it remains to be seen if India receives a waiver from the sanctions.

Questions over India’s purchases of Russian military hardware, particularly a roughly $5.8 billion missile-defense system known as the S-400, also hang over the talks. U.S. officials are eager to convince India to drop Russia as a major arms supplier in favor of U.S. platforms.

India has traditionally been cautious about depending too heavily on one supplier for military and defense equipment. U.S. officials say they can live with India maintaining Russian-made systems purchased in the past, and Congress recently moved to allow the administration to waive Russia sanctions on some countries, including India.

Administration officials won’t say, however, if a waiver would be granted for a major new system such as the S-400.

Source: The Wall Street Journal