Time to move from 2+2 to 3+3

Integrate economic policy with defence & foreign

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October 29, 2020

/ By and / New Delhi

Time to move from 2+2 to 3+3

At the end of 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi, the US delegation calls on Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with their Indian counterparts (Photo: PIB)

Latest round of 2+2 talks concluded in New Delhi integrates India firmly into group of allies of United States and holds promise of sale of some high tech defence equipment to India. However, it is time for India to uphold its economic interests vis a vis the US which has been taking unilateral actions like the H1B visa ban, hurting Indian economy.

US secretary of state Michael Pompeo along with secretary of defence Mark T Esper visited India for the third India-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue. The visit comes a week before the American presidential election 2020 to be held on November 3.

The India-US 2+2 talks focused on four themes – regional security cooperation, defence information sharing, military-to-military interactions, and defence trade.

As the two sides held a top-level security dialogue aimed at countering China’s growing power in the region, the key highlight of the summit was the signing of Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), which allows India and the United States to share sensitive satellite data. In the 2+2 dialogue, the two sides deliberated on a host of critical issues including ways to further expand the already close relationship between the militaries of the two countries as well as broader issues of mutual interest in the Indo-Pacific region.

The inking of the BECA completes finalisation of four key pacts between the two countries which had been identified as crucial to significantly expand the strategic ties.

BECA clears the path for India to acquire armed drones in the first instance and at a later date, the most modern fighter aircraft that the US does not sell to other nations, except a handful of its closest allies. With BECA in place, India now wants to buy medium-altitude long-endurance armed Predator-B drones from the US, instead of the unarmed drones that it was getting earlier.

After the meeting in New Delhi, an Indian official said New Delhi had been earlier offered F-16 and F-18 fighters but India was looking at Boeing’s F-15EX fighters that the aircraft manufacturer hasn’t yet been licensed to sell abroad. “There is a possibility that the F-15EX could be sold on a government-to-government basis,” a top government official familiar with the discussions told an Indian media.

To an extent the defence ties are a win-win for both. On its part, India is now able to get access to the world’s best technology and latest weapons systems that its armed forces badly need as modernisation of all three wings has not kept pace with the rapid advancements seen in defence industries around the world.

The United States gets a long-awaited firm foothold in India, which has become even more crucial in the past two years as its ties with China have deteriorated dramatically and the two nations have upped the ante.

In view of India’s own mounting tensions with China, the defence relations may seem to give fair gains to both the nations. But somewhere, perhaps the US needs India more than vice versa. Though it has allies, mainly Japan, South Korea and Australia in the East, it is seriously lacking a foothold towards the Andaman Sea and the eastern Arabian Sea where China is in a position to dominate not just the high seas but it can also pressure countries in the region. Here India can play a pivotal role for the US to counter China and curb its current dominance.

Need to add economy to the bilateral talks

The 2+2 format seems to have worked pretty well for both the nations in terms of foreign affairs as well as defence matters as it has helped bring them closer together and enhance their mutual trust. The logic for the 2+2 format was that foreign and defence policies are increasingly integrated and hence the bilateral meetings of the two departments must be integrated.

However, in today’s world, international relations and multilateral discussions are primarily influenced by economic priorities. Indeed, most of the global conflicts and differences have their roots in economy. Thus, it may be time for India and the United States to add economic ties, bilateral and multilateral, the next time they have the 2+2 meeting and expand the format to 3+3.

The need for this evolution is much more for India than the United States as the economic relationship between the two countries has gone totally awry, especially since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House four years ago. Even while Trump was pursuing his strategy of rope India in as a close ally in his fight with Beijing, he did not hesitate in slashing H1B visas for highly skilled professionals, a visa that is mainly used by Indian tech firms to send their personnel to the US. The latest such move came barely a week before the latest round of 2+2, proving to the extent that Trump thinks and nows he can get away with it.

Last year, India cut the import tariff on Harley Davidson motorcycles from 100 pc to 50 pc, soon after Trump raised the issue with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trump raised the topic again earlier this year on a bilateral visit to India. Yet, while India was cutting the tariffs on these glitzy motorbikes, Trump was busy cutting the H1B visa quotas for India.

This is just one small example of how unequal and distorted India’s trade ties with the US are. Washington has also been pressuring India to open its key markets in pharmaceuticals, agriculture and technology.

Not just bilaterally, even multilaterally in economic fora like the World Trade Organisation, India and the US find themselves in the opposing corners of the ring. The US has been the principal opponent of various multilateral agreements and commitments that the developed nations had made at multilateral fora vis a vis the developing nations, notably about opening up their markets for imports from developing world and removing all barriers, tariff and non-tariff, to help the developing countries improve their economies.

These promises, being made ever since 1995, remain almost entirely unfulfilled as the developed world refused to honour its commitments. Not has this stance continued since then, but rich nations have now tried to link their commitments to the developing countries, notably big nations like India to open their markets in a reciprocal manner.

It’s time that India now puts its own economic priorities at the top of the agenda with the US and one of the best way of getting a fair deal from Washington is by expanding the format of the annual meetings to 3+3. The only relationship that is likely to prove sustainable and reliable is a balanced one.

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