Amidst the growing strategic convergence between India and the United States (U.S.), New Delhi is hopeful that Washington will keep this in mind in granting it a waiver for the purchase of the S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems from Russia.
The latest indication by New Delhi on its plans to go ahead with the Rs 39,000 crore deal for the purchase of five air defence missile systems from Russia, regardless of the threatened sanctions by Washington, comes ahead of the first ‘2+2’ dialogue between India and the U.S. here on Thursday.
This is the highest level of political engagement in an institutionalised format between New Delhi and Washington and will be an annual event, said sources. The format will see External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman holding discussions with their U.S. counterparts Michael Pompeo and James Mattis.
The Indian side will also be keen to hear from Pompeo and Mattis their perspective on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct. Sources said both of them have spoken about it at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum and Shangri La Dialogue, respectively but New Delhi would like to hear from them directly during the ‘2+2’.
On the proposed S-400 deal with Russia, sources made it clear that India will not be bringing it up for discussion. “It’s not normal for India to discuss relations with a third country in a bilateral dialogue,” said sources.
However, the S-400 will be the elephant in the room during the ‘2+2’ meet. For, New Delhi has been under pressure from Washington to call off this mega deal after the U.S imposed sanctions on Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
However, sources said they hoped “the U.S. will keep in mind the strategic relationship it has with other countries in handling this matter.”
They added: “ This is a matter for the U.S. administration to take a call on and to exercise a waiver based on the consideration of its relations with other countries.”
The United States has also been keen that India sign bilateral military pacts — Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) — to give the strategic partnership greater thrust.Sources indicated that as far as COMCASA is concerned, “stock-taking and assessment” will be done and the outcome of the discussions on this at the ministerial meeting is awaited.
While New Delhi has seemingly thrown the ball in Washington’s court on the waiver for the S-400 purchase, there are enough indications here that if the U.S. wants a bigger slice of India’s defence pie, it will need to show some flexibility on the issue of S-400.
“It’s a law enacted by the U.S. Congress; the U.S. administration has to get a waiver in order to get flexibility in its own defence dealings with other countries,” said sources.
The political dialogue — the first being held after two postponements —- is being seen as a leg-up for the growing global strategic partnership between India and the U.S. It’s noteworthy that the U.S. has this dialogue with a limited number of countries, including Australia and Japan.
Sources said that the strategic partnership has been progressing apace over successive U.S. administrations, beginning with President Bill Clinton. However, sources said that strategic ties have got an impetus under the Trump administration.
Under the rubric of strategic convergence, defence has emerged a major area of cooperation between New Delhi and Washington. In 2016, the U.S. designated India as a major defence partner and has already issued a gazette notification on its decision to grant India Strategic Trade Authorisation I status. It means that India will not require licensing for defence and dual-use technology.
IMAGE COURTESY: US DEPT OF DEFENSE
Military-to-military cooperation will also be discussed at the ‘2+2’ as well as maritime domain awareness cooperation, said sources. Defence innovation is also expected to come up for discussions, especially with the Indian government’s emphasis on ‘Make in India’ in the defence sector.
The ministerial dialogue is also expected to see the two sides discuss counter-terrorism. The discussion will be close on the heels of Homeland Security Dialogue between the two countries.
Immigration issues will also be taken up during the dialogue, sources added. With Secretary Pompeo arriving here from Islamabad, New Delhi is also keen to know Washington’s views on the new Imran Khan-led government there.
The dialogue, described as being part of the “global strategic partnership” between India and the U.S. by is also significant for both, said sources. While it protects the pre-eminent position of the U.S. in international affairs, it’s also a recognition of India as an important and independent global player.
The US sanctions on Iran too are expected to figure in the meeting, with India under pressure to reduce oil imports from there to zero by November. For now, New Delhi is clear in its mind that any decision that the government might take on oil imports from Iran this will not made by “any kind of compulsion from either the U.S. or Iran”.
Sources said on Tuesday that “the decision is for us to make” and that it ultimately rests with the Indian government. Conceding that the U.S. sanctions on Iran will have a global impact, sources said India is in discussions with other countries and is “sensitising them” on the matter.