The 2+2 dialogue between the Union ministers for defence and external affairs and their counterparts from the United States was held last week after delays, which led many to worry about the low priority that Indo-US ties were apparently assigned by the administration of President Donald Trump. In the event the talks were revealing of the strategic vision that unites the two countries — as well as of issues, new and old, that might cause division. The highlight of the talks was certainly the agreement to sign an agreement on security co-ordination, which is a variant of one of the “foundational agreements” that the US has with its close strategic partners.
Called the Communications Compatibility and Security Arrangement, or COMCASA, the agreement allows mutual access to encrypted security platforms — which, for example, ensures that the Indian Navy will be able to unlock the full range of capabilities for area awareness embedded in the P-81 surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that it has bought from the US. These currently operate only with commercially available equipment, no substitute for the controlled suite of communications equipment that will now be available. Warships in the two navies will now also be able to communicate with each other more securely and effectively. The signing of this agreement has been a long-pending requirement to take Indo-US defence co-operation to a new level, and it is to be welcomed that the government has left behind old ways of thinking that feared the implications of opening up encrypted communication to one of India’s strategic partners.
However, there are also divisive issues that were deliberated upon at the 2+2 dialogue. In spite of the fact that strategic and military ties have of late been much warmer and less rocky than economic relations, some problems have also cropped up. Two of these are to do with the implementation of US-led sanctions regimes — against Russia and against Iran. The latter has been a problem before. India, which relies on oil imports, is not pleased at having to cut Iranian oil out of its import mix. A few months ago, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reiterated that India recognised only sanctions led by the United Nations, which does not include the Iran sanctions, which are being caused by Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from the 2015 nuclear deal with Teheran. It is possible, however, that the US will be satisfied with a major cut in India’s imports from Iran.
The question of defence purchases from Russia is more thorny, as it cuts close to sensitive red lines in New Delhi about strategic autonomy and its long-standing defence partnership with Moscow. The military wants to buy five Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for about $6 billion — which would, if the letter of recent US law is followed, require sanctions to be imposed upon the Indian military in turn. Given the bipartisan support in Washington for sanctions on the Russian military and intelligence, the path forward is uncertain. Yet it is clear that an India-specific carveout will have to be managed or the promising Indo-US strategic relationship will be severely affected. This will have to be managed by Indian diplomacy, through its relationship not just with the US administration but also with Capitol Hill, where the Russian sanctions originated.