Under the leadership of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the Trump Administration is pulling out all the stops to make a success of the September 6 talks between Pompeo and Mattis and their Indian counterparts (2+2). It’s about time.
President Trump and Prime Minister Modi agreed on these talks at their Washington meeting in June 2017. A January 2018 date was contemplated. This got pushed back to April. Then the U.S. cancelled when Trump fired Rex Tillerson and the U.S. had no Secretary of State to send to the talks. 1+2 just wouldn’t do. Rescheduled for July 6, the U.S. cancelled again “for unavoidable reasons.” The “unavoidable reasons” turned out to be Pompeo going to North Korea, perhaps signaling to the Indians that they were not nearly as important as the North Koreans. But they should be.
The Trump Administration rightly prides itself in shifting America’s strategic focus from a Pacific locale to one that includes the Indian Ocean. The U.S. Pacific Command has been renamed the Indo-Pacific Command. Secretary Pompeo says the Indo-Pacific “stretches from the United States west coast to the west coast of India.” As far as it goes, this is a valuable perspective. If China is to be held to international norms and the countries, citizens, waterways, and airways of Asia are to be, as Pompeo advocates, “free and open” from Chinese domination, then India has to be a crucial part of the strategy. No India, no Indo-Pacific strategy.
Without India’s willingness to join with the other democracies of Asia in pressing China to abide by global norms, it is far less likely that China will be willing to cooperate in solving security issues peaceably and in accordance with the rule of law. These issues include reining in North Korea, rights in the South China Sea, the many territorial claims that China has with its neighbors, and the influence it seeks over smaller nations in and bordering the Indian Ocean.
The Trump Administration is now putting on a full court press to make sure that the 2+2 adds up to something substantive. The U.S.-India initiatives undertaken by the Administration in the run up to the 2+2 are significant. Secretary Mattis has spearheaded an amazingly bipartisan, successful effort with the Congress to get provisions in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (named for the late Senator John McCain, but not so acknowledged by the President) that can provide India a waiver from the unintended consequences of Russia sanctions. The U.S. has made concessions to Indian sensibilities about infringements on sovereignty in one of the so-called “foundational” documents for defense cooperation (COMCASA), which can now be signed in conjunction with the 2+2. Commerce Secretary Ross has announced that India will henceforth have “Strategic Trade Authorization-1” status for transfers of some dual use high technology trade. Pompeo has touted $113 million dollars through several funds to help counter the Chinese “One Belt/One Road” initiative, about which the Indians are worried.
Both sides wish to add further substance to the designation “Major Defense Partner” that was enshrined in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. Beyond Indian purchases of U.S. defense equipment and existing military exercises, what does this designation mean? Will anything really come of the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative? Is U.S.-India military interoperability possible? If “partner” doesn’t mean “ally” in the strategic context, what does it mean? Putting ‘meat on the bones” of the Major Defense Partner designation will be a primary goal of the 2+ 2. Further, Indian purchases of U.S. defense hardware will be announced, but making India a true Major Defense Partner will require more.
Unfortunately, the list of Administration efforts to overcome the delays since the Trump-Modi summit of 2017 also indicates significant impediments to strategic progress at the 2+2. A chief concern of the Indians is the reliability of the United States as a strategic partner. This concern has deep roots going back decades. It includes the history of U.S. disagreements with India over nuclear issues and India’s arch rival Pakistan. The concern about reliability is manifest in the mixed strategic/economic issue of sanctions. Will the 2+2 be able to deal with the fundamental issue of sanctions and the other mixed economic /strategic issues facing the U.S.-India partnership?
The relief provided under this year’s National Defense Authorization Act in regard to Russia sanctions is welcome but inconclusive. No assurance is offered by the administration of what happens if India moves forward on the purchase missile defense systems from Russia. Further, Trump’s pullout from the Iran nuclear deal places the sanctions issue front and center. Iran is India’s third leading supplier of petroleum. India has strong commercial investments in the development of Iran oilfields, and India is developing a port in Iran to give it land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia without having to cross Pakistan. Since India disagrees with the U.S. on Iran and no assurance is offered by the U.S. on Russia, what will sanctions mean for U.S.-India defense deals and strategic ties?
The U.S. has imposed new tariffs on Indian steel and aluminum citing national security grounds. Tariffs are different than sanctions, but in terms of harm to Indian interests the effects can be much the same. It is not by chance that the Indian government has postponed the imposition of retaliatory tariffs until just after the 2+2. However, the structure of the 2+2 seems to preclude progress on this vital issue.
Countering Chinese One Belt/One Road in the Indian Ocean region is another mixed strategic/economic issue unlikely to be resolved in the context of the 2+2. Pompeo’s announcement of $113 million as compared to the Chinese $1 trillion seems entirely inadequate to governments in the region. Supposedly, these U.S. government funds will call forth private sector investments that will help re-balance the strategic aspects of Chinese international infrastructure development. But how would this work and doesn’t the mismatch really show that the U.S. government simply does not have the funds or willingness to raise the funds to meet the Chinese challenge? The U.S. and India need to come to further understandings about working together on Indian Ocean maritime infrastructure if the Indo-Pacific strategy is to succeed.
The Trump Administration eliminated the Department of Commerce from the strategic dialogue with India. In fairness, much of the progress in relations with India has been made on the military side. Secretary Mattis, like his predecessor Ash Carter, has been the most consistent cabinet leader on U.S.-India relations. So the addition of Defense to the strategic dialogue is welcome. But the elimination of Commerce leaves the dialogue scrambling for ways to deal with the economic aspects of U.S.-India strategic relations. This is more than an organizational, interdepartmental problem.
There is a basic inconsistency in Trump’s view that sanctions will further U.S. strategic goals while economic measures harming our partners such as India will have no adverse strategic consequences. This will be one of the difficulties overhanging the ability of the U.S.-India 2 + 2 to add up to long-lasting results.
The Trump Administration is to be lauded for its efforts to make up for lost time in regard to the U.S.-India 2+2 strategic dialogue. However, the Administration will need to supplement the 2+2 with a forward-leaning and consistent U.S.-India economic initiative if it is to achieve substantive progress in making the U.S.-India strategic partnership as important as it should be.
Raymond E. Vickery Jr. is a former assistant U.S. secretary of commerce, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a senior advisor for the Albright Stonebridge Group.