T he recently concluded “2+2” meeting between the heads of the Foreign and Defence Ministries of the United States and India was the second of its kind and the first to be held on American soil. The first meeting was held in India in 2018. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh were in Washington in the third week of December to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper.
The U.S. holds similar meetings only with its close military allies. The other country with which India holds meetings in this format is Japan, another close military and political ally of the U.S.
The two sides discussed ways to synergise their positions and views on major international issues and emerging global threats and challenges. The two nations already have a common perspective on terrorism.
India has for all practical purposes aligned with the U.S. in the ongoing attempts to thwart China from becoming the major power in Asia. By refusing to join China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and supporting the U.S.’ position on the contentious South China Sea dispute, India has positioned itself as the U.S.’ de facto military ally in the region. During the 2+2 dialogue in Washington, the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to support “a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.
At the “Howdy, Modi” rally in Houston in September, President Donald Trump lauded the “dramatic progress” in the defence relationship with India under his watch. In the last decade and a half, India has signed many landmark military agreements with the U.S. The latest of these, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (Lemoa) and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa), were signed after the Narendra Modi government came to power. These two agreements have further cemented the military alliance.
In the 2+2 meeting, the U.S. and India signed the Industrial Security Annexe (ISA) agreement, which facilitates the smooth transfer of sophisticated U.S. military technology to India. The ISA spells out the steps the Indian military and tech companies have to take to protect sensitive U.S. information and intellectual property.
The two sides also announced the wrapping up of three agreements under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative to co-develop and co-produce critical military technologies. All these deals have been clinched despite the third “foundational agreement”—the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA)—not yet being initialled. The BECA is meant to facilitate the sharing of geospatial intelligence between the militaries of the two countries.
The agreement was expected to be initialled during the 2+2 meet, but negotiations are still going on. The Trump administration is unhappy with India for its decision to buy the S-400 Russian missile systems, and India had indicated its reservations with regard to national security issues before it could agree to the signing of the BECA.
Underlining the growing strategic closeness between the two countries is the hotline that has been established between the offices of the U.S. Defence Secretary and his Indian counterpart along with a permanent link between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii and the Indian Navy’s headquarters in New Delhi. The Indian Navy has had an officer posted at the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain for the past two years. The Indian naval attaché’s job is to help ensure better coordination and logistics support for the warships of the two countries.
The U.S. and India are jointly engaged in tracking Chinese submarines in the Asia Pacific. The U.S. plays a big role in augmenting the Indian Navy’s surveillance capabilities in the Andaman Sea and beyond. The U.S. and India conduct a large number of joint military exercises, the most between the U.S. and a non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) partner. The U.S. now accords India almost the same status that it gives NATO member states.
Cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistan also figured prominently in the talks. Pompeo assured the Indian side that its “rightful concerns” on the issue would be taken seriously in Washington.
The other key issue discussed in the meeting was India’s purchase of big-ticket defence equipment from the U.S. India is on the verge of buying 24 multirole helicopters, six more P-81 multi-mission aircraft and another six Apache helicopters. India also wants to buy armed drones and has sought U.S. help in the construction of its second aircraft carrier currently being built in Kochi, Kerala.
As things stand, India and Saudi Arabia are the biggest buyers of military weaponry today. India is increasingly sourcing most of its purchases from the U.S. Randall G. Schriver, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Affairs, recently stated that defence trade was “a positive area” in the relationship, with the two countries having spent $18 billion in security cooperation. The money has flown mostly in one direction. Between 2013 and 2017, U.S. arms sales to India increased by 557 per cent compared with that in the previous five years.
The political leadership in both countries claims that as the “biggest democracies” and because of “shared values” the two nations have now become “natural partners”. Some cynics note that the current leaders of these two democracies are distrustful of the minorities within their nation’s borders. Weeding out “illegal immigrants” has been a major preoccupation of both the Trump and Modi administrations.
All the same, the External Affairs Minister had to expend a lot of time trying to explain to concerned U.S. lawmakers his government’s continuing crackdown in Kashmir and the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The two issues have generated an adverse reaction among influential sections of civil society the world over. The United Nations Secretary General and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have expressed their deep concerns about the two issues.
After the 2+2 meeting, Pompeo, replying to a question from the media on the controversial measures taken by the Indian government, said that the U.S. “cares deeply and always about protecting minorities and religious rights everywhere”. He told the media that the U.S. “would be consistent in the way we respond to the issue, not only in India, but all over the world”.
At the same time, he was careful to give the Modi government the benefit of the doubt, noting that India was a democracy where there was “a robust debate” on the issues concerned. The Indian side admitted that the Kashmir issue and the citizenship Act were discussed on the sidelines of the talks.
Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, has taken a tough stance on human rights issues in countries that are inimical to U.S. unilateralism and hegemonism. The Trump administration, however, applies different yardsticks to close military and political allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. China has come in for particular criticism from the U.S. for its handling of the protests in Hong Kong and the policies it has implemented in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Foreign Relations Committee (HFAC) did raise the citizenship Act in their meeting with Jaishankar. After the passage of the Act, the bipartisan HFAC tweeted: “Religious pluralism is central to the foundation of both India and the United States and is one of our core values. Any religious test of citizenship undermines our core values.” In October, an HFAC subcommittee strongly criticised the Indian government’s policies on Kashmir.
In the second week of December, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the U.S. government “should consider sanctions” against India’s Home Minister and other leaders for spearheading the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. But the State Department’s special ambassador on international religious freedoms, Sam Brownback, has been noticeably silent on India. Like his boss Pompeo, he has instead chosen to highlight the alleged repression in China, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran and a few other countries.
The External Affairs Minister’s trip to the U.S. was not a diplomatic cakewalk. His abrupt cancellation of a scheduled meeting with a bipartisan congressional delegation on foreign affairs came in for criticism from policymakers in Washington. Jaishankar objected to the presence of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal in the delegation, saying that he had “no interest” in meeting her. The outspoken Democrat got into the Indian government’s bad books for introducing a resolution urging the lifting of restrictions imposed in Jammu and Kashmir after Article 370 was revoked in the State.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic contender for the presidency in 2020, said that the Indian External Affairs Minister’s decision “to silence Pramila Jayapal is deeply troubling”. She observed that the important partnership between the two countries “can only succeed if it is rooted in honest dialogue and shared respect for religious pluralism, democracy and human rights”. After Jaishankar’s snub, Pramila Jayapal’s resolution, which was introduced in the first week of December, has found even more bipartisan support. The resolution urged “the Republic of India to end restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as soon as possible and preserve religious freedoms for all residents”. Pramila Jayapal remarked that the Indian Minister’s cancellation of the meeting was “deeply disturbing and it furthers the idea that the Indian government isn’t willing to listen to any dissent”.