As India and the United States head into the first ever 2+2 dialogue over the next two days, it's likely that the laundry list of the US might be long and a bit of an irritant for India. From holding off trade ties with Iran, to not buy Russian military equipment, and the overall trade deficit that pinches their shoe, the Americans believe the strategic partnership has more deliverables on the Indian side. How then does the Indian delegation plan to negotiate the American duo of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary General James Mattis?
If top sources are to be believed, the instruction from Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is a one-line brief: “find a way out.” While India would do all to address American concerns in the larger interest of the partnership, it would be this far and no further if it affects India's sovereign decisions. Sources say that behind the stance is a firm belief in the PMO that India's long-term strategic autonomy is sacrosanct, and cannot be pawned for any perceived short-term benefits. So while American partnership is to be valued, India's older alliances – be it with Iran or Russia – are not to be jettisoned anytime soon. In fact, sources say India has made its concerns over unilateral sanctions regimes known at various multilateral forums like the BRICS and G20 (in the latter within earshot of American leadership.) “It was the clearest message from India that Russia was still an ally worth standing up for,” says a top mandarin in the South Block.
So after making India the only major defence partner, and renaming the PACOM as the Indo-Pacific command as part of their new national security strategy, what can Americans expect in return? The Indian delegation is likely to indicate that over the years, India has increased American military hardware in its arsenal from M777 guns to Apache and Chinook attack helicopters to some Navy missiles. Buying more American oil and other goods would be on the table too. And more could be in the offing on the military side with likely understanding being reached over COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) during the parleys.
All this is happening in the backdrop of the fact that India has almost finalized the purchase of Russian S400 missile defence system, a deal for which might be signed next month during India-Russia summit slated for next month. What makes India believe that the Americans might acquiesce in for a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) under recently signed John McCain National Defense Act, is the fact that when it comes to missile defence, there is not much available on the American side which is compatible with larger Indian military architecture, which even now is over 65% of Russian vintage. Between Pompeo and Mattis, the latter has shown some appreciation of Indian concerns. It is hoped that the American delegation would keep long-term interests in mind. For Swaraj and Sitharaman this means some tough posturing would be in order during the dialogue, the format for which originated on the American side last year. With clarity emerging from the PMO, the task is cut out for the Indian delegation.